How To Have A Career In Advertising Without Losing Your Soul

4 min read

First, a question for client types out there: do you get nervous when your ad agency loses a big account? Are you afraid they’re going to have massive layoffs and you’ll lose the people you depend on to do your advertising? Do you think that, because they’ve lost Lucky Strike, they’re not as talented as you’d imagined they were? Do you need reassurance?

Because in “Chinese Wall,” Episode 11 of Season 4 of Mad Men, the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first order of business after losing Lucky Strike is to call all the clients and assure them that everything’s okay. The move seemed a little desperate to me, but what do I know? I do know that, in my younger days, when I heard that a competing agency had lost a big account, the agency seemed vulnerable to me. I wondered about their other accounts and whether any of them were ripe for the stealing.

The ad game has always been cutthroat–no question. There’s all sorts of intrigue in “Chinese Wall”: clients leaving, desperate pleas, battle plans in smoke-filled rooms, admonishments to jump ship. Don Draper is right when he tells the troops, “We’re going to push ourselves, and it will be exhilarating.”

That’s the thing about advertising. It attracts adrenaline junkies and sensualists, people who live to react. Great advertising has always been less about thinking and more about feeling, and the people who do it well are an odd breed of emotional problem-solvers.

Take our pal Don. He’s the best copywriter we know. He’s the hottest creative director in town. But he’s no intellectual: his life is a series of reactions to stimuli. When his new secretary comes on to him, he sleeps with her. When his business is threatened, he thinks nothing of asking Dr. Faye Miller, his current flame, to compromise her professional ethics and set him up with other agencies’ itchy clients; in fact, he can’t understand her hesitancy to do so.”I’d do it for you,” he tells her. “I would never ask,” she says.

Peggy’s learning to become a good ad person, too. She and Abe, the radical guy she rejected a couple of episodes ago, meet on the way home from the beach and spend the night together. In spite of her assertion to the contrary, she is that kind of girl, and she’s giving off that kind of vibe, which the boys in the creative department detect when Abe visits the agency, pretending to be a delivery man. Of course, she’s also charged with making a winning presentation to Playtex, which she handles with aplomb (and lipstick on her teeth). It’s all of a piece: Peggy is Don Draper in skirts. She doesn’t have Don’s experience yet, but she’s on her way.

We could spend the rest of the day ticking through our sorry cast of characters and all the ways they’re seduced by the ad business in this episode. Ken abandons his fancy dinner with his fiancee and her parents when he hears about Lucky Strike. Pete leaves the hospital where Trudy is in labor. Roger seeks comfort with Joan, not his own wife. Ted Chaough tries to woo Pete over to his own agency. When he tells Pete that he, Ted, is not Don Draper, we know he’s talking about his leadership style. But we also know that he’d give his left hemisphere to throw a saddle on Don Draper’s back and ride his shoulders as King of the Creatives. And don’t get us started on the poor advertising widow whose husband’s memorial service is overtaken by men in gray flannel suits telling war stories.

So how do we do it? How do we stay in this business for so many years and not sacrifice our souls?

Not all of us do. That’s important to admit upfront. The ad business is inhabited by all sorts of bright-eyed zombies looking for another score. Losing your soul is an occupational hazard.

Self-awareness helps. Knowing you’re a slave to your emotions helps you not give in to them at every turn. Balance helps. You need a home life that you value. Business associates who are less emotional, more rational. People you care about more than you care about business.

You need great clients; some clients are actually wonderful people who are not interested in eating your soul for dinner. And you need to remember that you have the power to do good in the world. Great advertising can wake up people to problems they didn’t know existed, or didn’t take seriously, or didn’t know required their attention.

And, Chinese wall? Please. As my good friend Dr. Greg Sipes will tell you, you can’t be one sort of person at work and another sort of person at home. The characters on Mad Men can’t do it, and neither can you. If you want to keep your soul, you’d better not leave it at the agency door.