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Lessons From the 'Mad Men' Finale

Beyond the style and the drama, no TV show illustrates the ups and downs of running a business better than Mad Men. After six seasons, here are some of the key lessons.
MAD MEN, (from left): John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Rich Sommer, 'A Tale of Two Cities'
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I thought so before, but now I'm thoroughly convinced. If you're looking for a television show that demonstrates both the right way and the wrong way to run a growing business, you can't do better than Mad Men.

(Warning: Spoilers below. If you haven't watched the Season 6 finale yet and you want to go into it cold, maybe you're better off reading my original column on the subject -- 5 Groovy Entrepreneurship Lessons from Mad Men -- and coming back after you're all caught up!) 

The critically-acclaimed show about the dysfunctional-yet-oddly-successful partners of a 1960s advertising agency has wrapped up its sixth season, and it went out with a bang. We saw one key character squeezed out, another apparently promoted, a new focus on starting over out West, and personal drama galore.

I'm a fan, obviously, but besides being entertaining, I find that the show illustrates best and worst practices for entrepreneurs and aspiring founders. Here are four more takeaways, with one more season to go:

Pick the Right Partners

The partners of Sterling Cooper & Partners teamed up for all the wrong reasons. They came together as the result of a combination of nepotism (Roger Sterling inherited his role from his father), deceit (Don Draper lied his way into the firm, and was later retained by blackmail), and impetuousness (Draper and the head of a rival agency, Ted Chaough, merged their firms in a bar in Detroit without telling anyone else).

The result? Constant drama, which makes for good television but lousy business. In writing our book, Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, my co-author Jon Burgstone and I saw repeatedly that getting cofounders you can trust matters more than just about anything else.

"I always find the team before the idea," investor and entrepreneur In Sik Rhee (co-founder of Opsware, acquired by Hewlett Packard for $1.6 billion, and Kiva, acquired by Netscape for $180 million) told us. "That's something that I always ask entrepreneurs ... Did you come up with the idea first? Or did you find your co-founders? I think that is 'step zero' in the process."

Fire Your Clients

It's always a fun plot point when the partners on Mad Men ditch a client. Sometimes they do so for purely mercurial reasons--such as in an earlier season when they cast off the small airline whose advertising they were responsible for in order to chase American Airlines.

Sometimes it's out of a realization that some clients simply aren't worth the hassle--as when, earlier this season, Draper told Jaguar to take a hike. (Two years ago, Draper did one even better, by quasi-pretending after they'd been canned by Lucky Strike that his agency didn't really want them anyway).

In real-life, of course, this is a gutsy thing to do, but it can be necessary. It's dangerous to rely on one client for too much of your income, and they can often curtail your ability to grow your business elsewhere. I'll take a page from Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, on this one. His advice is to "fire high-maintenance" customers, even if they produce high profits.

Promote From Within

The Mad Men-related Internet was buzzing about the last view of the office on the season finale, in which secretary-turned-copywriter-turned-copy chief Peggy Olsen seems to have ascended to Draper's chair.

Besides being a nice little dramatic turn for the series, in which Draper's long-suffering protege seems finally to have taken her mentor's place, it also illustrates a good business practice. In fact, it's a corollary to the rule about working with people you've worked with before. As your business grows, it can be smart to reward those who've shined and grown with you with greater opportunities.

As a rule, "internal hires" usually do better than "external hires" in the first two years in a position, a University of Pennsylvania study found. "They also have higher exit rates, [and/but] they are paid 'substantially more."

Maintain Balance

The last chapter of my book, The Intelligent Entrepreneurstarts out with the observation that after interviewing 150 highly successful entrepreneurs, I realized that entrepreneurship is about much more than money. Instead, "it's about having a positive impact on the world, making the most of the gifts you've been given, and realizing your full potential as a human being."

(I kid myself that this is the obligatory "money doesn't matter anyway" chapter at the end of a lot of business books.) But lo and behold, after more than a decade (within the series) of bad choices, it seems that several of the main characters on Mad Men are suddenly embracing this quest for balance and fulfillment, at least in their own bass-ackward ways.

Don tries to quit drinking; his new partner Ted decides not to cheat on his wife (well, not to do so again), and Roger, Pete and Don all take baby steps toward repairing their relationships with the women in their lives. Let's just hope learning to be better people doesn't make the show more boring.

(Like this post? Check out Bill's weekly email.)

IMAGE: Jordin Althaus / © AMC / Courtesy: Everett Collection
Last updated: Jun 24, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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