Create or Die: The World of Don Draper

Mad Men captures the beauty of the creative and innovative processes

I was in an elevator and heard a conversation between a young worker in information technology and an old timer involved in heavy industry. They were talking professions. The young man told the old man that he was in digital marketing. You could feel the sense of incredulity in the small space, and (though he didn’t say it) I just knew what the old man was thinking: “Another fake job in the unsustainable Facebook economy.”

So it has always been. The belief that unless you are making stuff you are not really producing has been with us since the ancient world. Even Aristotle found retailing to be disgusting, and money lending even more so. After all, these people are not actually contributing to the physical store of wealth in society, so in what sense are they creating value? We read similar opinions every day.

Such views completely misconstrue the nature of wealth and the job of enterprise. “The characteristic feature of capitalism that distinguishes it from pre-capitalist methods of production,” writes Ludwig von Mises, “was its new principle of marketing.”

The consumers rule. The makers and sellers of products seek their approval. What influences the decision to buy are the ideas people hold. It thereby becomes incumbent on the sellers to explain, persuade, convince, and inspire. They can only do this with good ideas.

To contemplate the value of an idea, the potentially immense worth of a single product of the human mind, dreamed up from non-existence to the stage of realization, communicated in a way that causes people to change their minds even in the absence of any physical change to the world, is to come to terms with a realm in which matter and spirit meet.

Exploring this realm is where the television series Mad Men (2007-2015) truly excels. It is set in the early 1960s, a time when the modern advertising industry began to take on critical economic importance due to innovations in communications technology. This industry sought to move already-produced goods (and services) from warehouse shelves to become part of people’s lives.

The entire goal of the firm is to bring consumers to a position decision to buy. The right messaging, well placed, can make the difference between a multi-million dollar success and a complete flop. It’s all about entering and influencing the headspace of the consumers — the ultimate decision makers in a capitalist economy.

Time and again, an outsider asks what it is that these advertising executives actually make. They try to explain. They fail. It seems too elusive, or perhaps too fake.

Like any good drama, Mad Men avoids didacticism concerning its point of view. There is plenty of good and evil to go around in the firm and the industry.

But over time, the viewer begins to cheer on the success of these ad men (and women), particularly Don Draper, the series’ main protagonist. You can’t help but sympathize with him on as he struggles to stay in a game in which the rules are always changing and the value systems of the mass of consumers are in constant flux.

For many people, Mad Men has been the first behind-the-scenes exposure to the world of advertising and the capitalistic machinery that manages it. The series is revealing in a historical sense, taking us through the systematic social, political, and economic upheaval of the 1960s. The characters are so well drawn that we actually come to believe we can psychologically deconstruct them one by one.

So let me try to deconstruct Don Draper, at least in a professional sense. He has one skill: creativity. And that creative skill has a test: profitability. In this sense, his creativity is different from a regular artist such as a painter or poet or musician. His one single goal is to generate ideas that sell product. There is a metric to reveal success or failure: It is the balance sheet. If the balance sheet responds, he has succeeded. If it does not, he has failed, and there are dozens of others ready to take his place to try their hands at idea creation.

Where do these marketing ideas come from? They are anything but automatic. If the answer to the question of marketing were obvious, his skills wouldn’t be needed. His job is to discover a message that rearranges the preference scales of possible consumers, which requires discerning the way that a mere physical product can most deeply meet human needs.

When he gets a new client, he extracts the most necessary known data: What is the product and what does it do? To whom is it most likely to be useful? Why would anyone want to obtain it through market exchange, giving up their property for someone else's?

Once he has processed all known data, he turns his attention to what is unknown. How does this directly benefit people in their daily lives? And how can this product provide an even deeper benefit by causing life to better than it has been thus far?

The people who hire him do not know the answer. Draper does not know the answer either. He has to generate that answer from within his creative capacity. He will be tested on whether he gets it right, which is why he needs time to reflect. The answer for one product is not the same as another. Each case is unique. As he finds the best possible strategy, he also knows that there is no faking it: He either gets it right or he gets it wrong.

Every day, he faces this struggle to discover, see, codify, and pitch — to sell his idea to sell a product. He goes to bed each night with a profound sense of uncertainty. The answer is elusive. He looks through the glass darkly. Beyond the horizon of the present is the abyss of the future.

To cross it, he has to put himself in the shoes of countless people who know nothing about the product, peer into their hearts and souls, discern the inner workings of their minds, connect the results with a product, map out a memorable message, strategize on the right paths for conveying that message, and explain it all in a way that persuades those who have hired him that he is right and becoming willing to take the risk.

When you consider the whole of the responsibility here, it is awesome. Most people can’t live in this constant state of not knowing today what is essential to know tomorrow. But Draper has learned to have confidence that his knowledge will be greater tomorrow than it is today. He has learned to put his faith and trust in an emergent process that operates within his mind.

Notice that there are two levels of challenge here, both within and without.

Externally, he must put himself in the mindset of a random and unknown consumer, potentially millions of them. He must be outward looking, one might even say public spirited. He has to discern the workings of the human spirit.

Internally, the challenge is just as great. He has this gray matter that has to generate something fresh, wonderful, and effective. He has to believe that the answer is in there somewhere; it just needs the right configuration of outside stimuli and careful reflection to shake it loose.

He must manage his life to maximize the chances that these external and internal forces will come together to reveal the answer he is seeking. He lives an edgy and sometimes horrible life. Why does he seem to disappoint and betray so many people? Why does he so often disappoint us with his antics, his insensitivities, his erratic wanderings? How can he appear to have such intense convictions in one setting and then blow them up again in a different setting later in the same day?

In the course of his life, Draper is cultivating his capacity for thinking and creating in the best way he knows how. The ideas have to emerge: where they come from and how they rise from the recesses of his brain is not completely known to him.

But this much he knows: living a static and ritualized existence does not do it. He must at all times be ready to destroy a previous mode of thought, no matter what the costs that went into making it, and replace it with something completely new. In order to disrupt his own staid patterns of thought and open new ways of thinking, he seeks out change with new stimuli, risk, and even danger.

It’s the way the truly creative mind works — not through repeating what is known but by progressively discovering what has been unknown. In this task, past data is useful and interesting but also potentially distracting and even completely irrelevant in a world of ceaseless change. A plan based on known metrics alone is a recipe for total failure. The real source of value comes from understanding, anticipating, and acting on what is next. Even more value comes from actually creating what is next.

This method is not only Don’s own. It is also the source of progress in our world. Our lives are strictly divided into three experience of time: the unchangeable data of the past, the tactile experiences of the present, and the darkened and mapless path of the future. The forward motion of time, from past to present to future, never stops. The job of the advertiser — or the creative artist or the entrepreneur or the manager of any firm — is to find the light switches that illuminate the best route to leave the unchangeable past, improve the unsatisfactory present, and pave the way to a more wonderful world of tomorrow.

Don Draper is seeking those switches. When he finds one, there is a moment of rejoicing but then the reality dawns. He must find another. Then another. He must create or die. And so it must be for as long as he pursues his career.

Draper is a very flawed figure. So are we all. So will always be the ideas and structures and institutions created by mortal beings. His drive to succeed seems to come at the expense of his own soul. His obsession with knowing the minds of others displaces the need to be honest with himself.

All of this is true, and well portrayed. But consider what is being criticized here. The problem with Draper, we are being told, is that he gives of himself too much. And perhaps he does. It’s a struggle everyone faces, no matter the institutional and professional setting.

Still, even given his flaws, we should not fail to observe the piety at work here. It is because of the daring and courageous will to think something new, to seek out the workings of the public mind, to live day-to-day with radical uncertainty, to dive into the crucible of profit-and-loss that we move ever further from the state of nature toward the promise and possibility of a flourishing society of prosperity and peace.

The advertisers and marketers are seeking to have a role in creating that future. Think of how you spend your time. Think of how you spend your money. There are infinite choices before us, but at any one moment, you can only do one thing at a time.

Very often, as you reflect on your life and what you do, you will find that the goods and services that capture your attention, have behind them a massive apparatus of genius, risk, and creativity, all constructed to convey an idea.

That is called marketing. It is devised by human beings, portrayed so beautifully, flaws and all, on Mad Men.

In a market economy, geniuses are gathered to care about the life and decisions of the common person. They regard us as valuable. This is a wonderful thing. We should be grateful for it. It all happens because of an idea — an idea that begins in one mind that can eventually teach the world to sing.

Is there value in that? Absolutely — even if it can’t be explained in an elevator pitch. 

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here