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Timeless Business Lessons from Don Draper

Ignore everything you see on "Mad Men" ... except these two smart solutions.
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Catch an episode of "Mad Men," the award-winning cable drama about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s, and you’ll see dozens of lessons about what not to do in business today. Womanizing, heavy day drinking, indoor smoking, and lying about your identity aren’t things to emulate.

Still, as I watched the most recent season, I was reminded of the business lessons that still ring true. Here are two that stand out.

Lesson No. 1: Solve the Real Problem

I won’t spoil anything for you, but in a recent episode, the firm is presented with a challenge when trying to reel in Chevy as a new client. In the eyes of Chevy, the small firm doesn’t have the resources to land the business. Don Draper’s firm manages to figure out what the real problem is for their clients and offer a solution.

Understand your prospect’s real, underlying objection … and then come up with a creative way to tackle it. True innovation often comes in the way of an insight into what problem you’re trying to solve, which isn’t always the one that’s stated.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t Forget Face Time

Given the setting of the show--1960s New York City--communication options were more limited. Without email, texting or cell phones, it was necessary to sit down with people and engage them on a personal level.

In-person meetings still matter. Now, I’m not recommending that anyone take clients or potential clients out on the town the way they do on "Mad Men." But despite all the new digital communication options, there’s no substitute for actually meeting someone face-to-face.

I remember, in the early days of SurePayroll, traveling around the country to meet with partners. We’d always sit down for a nice dinner and talk about things outside of work. When problems came up, knowing the people we did business with really counted. A personal relationship makes it much easier to handle a crisis.

If you watch the account men on "Mad Men," you’ll see that they’re classic relationship managers. And while we certainly don’t want to go back to a 1960s mindset--there are many deeply objectionable parts of the show--it’s a good reminder of the value in knowing our customers and understanding how we can give them what they want.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Jul 23, 2013

MICHAEL ALTER | Columnist | President of SurePayroll

Michael Alter is president of SurePayroll, America?s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University.

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



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