The Least Important Most Important Thing There Is

4 min read

In the middle of “Blowing Smoke,” the penultimate episode of Season 4 of Mad Men, Peggy Olson asks Don Draper if they’re going to do anything to try to reverse their agency’s slide into bankruptcy. He informs her that they’re going to stay in their offices and pound at their typewriters, because that’s what they do. “We’re creative,” he says, “the least important most important thing there is.”

Don is frustrated. Earlier in the episode, he’s been rebuffed by a prospect from Heinz–the secret meeting Dr. Faye Miller facilitated for him–who tells him to “let the account boys” handle the new business. His agency is falling apart, and he’s trying to do whatever he can to save it–and nothing the “account boys” bring to the table is panning out. But somehow, he’s not qualified to play the game.

Anyone who’s ever worked in an ad agency creative department feels Don’s pain. It’s true: we’re the least important most important part of this crazy business. We’re the manufacturing arm–we don’t do anything until sales has made the deal with the customer and engineering tells us what to build. We’re “the toy department.” We’re expected to be a little flaky and a lot temperamental. Even though what we’re making is the only reason the company is in business. Advertising, after all, is our product.

Trust Your Creatives

It’s frustrating because, as a group, advertising creative people are truly some of the brightest, most capable people I’ve ever met. (Whoever said “some of the brightest minds in America are wasting away in ad agencies” knew whereof he spoke.) Others may take credit for the “strategy”–which is what my partner is fond of calling “that stuff you sit around and talk about that never gets done”–but, most of the time, the creatives are the people who come up with the ideas that sell the products. They have to be whip-smart and versatile and fast.

You don’t survive as an advertising creative unless you can take the heat. Lots of people don’t. Witness Don’s bohemian ex-girlfriend Midge. Once a bright and talented graphic designer, Midge has become a heroin addict. She’s a sad shell of her former self, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that all the years of rejection she suffered as a commercial artist at least contributed to her downfall. (Note: cocaine is an account executive drug. When artists fall, look for the needle tracks.)

But Don Draper has a weapon the account boys don’t: he can write. He can use his pen to persuade people in ways the account boys never could. The account boys are, by nature, conservative and craven. Don is not. He has nothing to lose, so he fires a shot across the bow of the SS Advertising Industry in the form of an ad in the New York Times. The ad tells the world that tobacco is a horrorshow and SCDP will no longer be accepting cigarette business. Pete and Roger and Lane and Bert Cooper are sure he’s ruined them; in fact, Cooper resigns in disgust.

Of course, Don has not ruined them. He has saved them. SCDP needs to change, and begging for another cigarette account is no way to get into advertising heaven. They needed a whack in the head, and Don gave it to them. In doing so, he also put his competition, by name, in league with the devil. All the account boys can see is crazy risk.

But Peggy knows. She knows Don did the right thing. Even as SCDP lays off half its staff, she knows that boldness, guts, a willingness to make a statement and stand by it, will pay off in the end. Don Draper has told the world what his agency is and what it is not. Any smart account boy or product manager would do well to pay attention. As my friend Chris Wirthwein has written, smart marketing is about getting to “no.” Marketing should weed out the people who don’t want to buy your product–so the “account boys” can close the deal with the people who do.

Account managers: trust your creatives. Creatives: celebrate the brains and courage displayed by Don Draper. Goodness knows, we don’t always win; we don’t always get the chance. But wait for it. Resist the heroin. Remember that the least important most important thing in the world is, by definition, the most important thing there is.