Don Draper exhibits a creative director’s worst qualities

Don leaves his copywriter's boards in the back of the cab and presents his own idea instead

Anyone who’s been watching MadMen Season 5 can’t help but notice the deterioration of Don Draper’s creative skills. He hasn’t had a good idea in a year. The brilliance once demonstrated in the Kodak Carousel pitch have blurred into distant memory. And as he sits in his office noting that the agency’s latest reprints (remember reprints, with varnished borders?) all prominently feature the name of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s newest star, writer Michael Ginsberg, not even a stiff drink can ease his anxiety.

This week Don resorted to the all too common practice of expressing his fear, insecurity and jealousy by trying to compete with his very own staff.  Sadly, most all of us who grew up in the ad business have seen this movie. Creative director can’t stand having the spotlight shine on someone else, even when it’s someone he hired and mentored.  So he becomes not just the boss, but the rival as well.

First Don pathetically tries to beat the idea with one of his own, a practice that might be among the most demoralizing management tactics ever conceived, not to mention absurdly unfair. How can you be the contestant and the judge and ever expect a fair outcome? And who in his right mind would openly criticize the boss’s idea unless it came with a resignation letter?  In this episode, the subordinates agree that the agency will present two ideas and the client will get to pick a winner.  Of course when Don conveniently leaves Ginsberg’s work in the cab and presents only his own, there isn’t much of a choice. You can guess the outcome and the effect on morale.

In a business where the best idea – not the person who had it – is supposed to win, competition is essential. It keeps everyone sharp, pushes teams to put in the extra effort, and eventually weeds out the weaker players.  But that’s when competition remains among peers and the creative director stays objective.

If you want to learn anything from MadMen this season, focus on Mathew Weiner’s story arcs, character development and attention to detail. All three features can make for great advertising. As for Don, the only lesson he’s sharing with us is how not to be a very good creative director.

Related Links:  MadMen through the Boomer Lens


Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I don't watch Madmen. BUT this is a great story line. And one that transcends Advertising. In many industries managers have a hard time supporting vs suppressing rising stars. specially if you feel they are a threat. But a healthy org will have solutions for this. They can take many forms but the sign of a dysfunctional org is when this is allowed to foment into reduced performance or loss of opportunity.


"In a business where the best idea – not the person who had it – is supposed to win, competition is essential."


See: The Pitch

edwardboches moderator

 @HowieSPM Two things. One you should watch the show, if for nothing other than brilliant period re-creation, character development and attention to detail. Sadly, however, you might be surprised that there are an awful lot of organizations that let this kind of behavior continue. I guarantee you that often, when you see a number two or three creative team in a good agency leave, it's for this very reason: the inability of a CCO or even a founder (which is ridiculous since he's got his name on the door) to truly share the spotlight. I could name names from the many stories I've been told, but I won't.