Histrionic Historians – Four things historians can learn from Don Draper
I started watching Mad Men shortly after the first season aired. After making it through most of the first season I realized that I didn’t like a single character on the show. It’s protagonist, the hard-drinking, womanizing, Don Draper is not the most relatable character for a monogamous teetotaler like me. And most of the other characters on the show (at least upon first impression) aren’t much better.
But the cold Korean winters leaves one with few after-work options aside from watching movies and television shows, so Beth and I decided to give Mad Men a second chance.
Now that we’ve finished all five seasons of Mad Men I’m started to think that Don Draper may have some merit. With this in mind, here are four lessons I think historians (and academics in general) could learn Don Draper.
1. Dress for success - Even at his most degenerate Don knows the importance of dressing for success. If this person walked into a professional meeting, by first impression alone, he would be taken seriously.
One of my favourite higher education blogs The Thesis Whisperer has written about the importance of dressing appropriately in different academic situations. From my own conference experience a lot of academics would benefit from asking WWDDD (what would Don Draper do)?
From watching the show I’ve noticed that Don wears a variety of different clothes. At home he often wears t-shirts and jeans. On the weekends he wears jackets and slacks. But at work, Don dresses in a manner that reflects his authority and success.
Being aware of how you present yourself doesn’t mean dressing to the nines at all hours of the day. It simply means that you should consider how the image of yourself that you are presenting may cause other people to think about you.
2. Tell a story - For those who don’t watch Mad Men, Don works in the creative department of a Madison Avenue marketing company. His job is creating advertising campaigns and creating the pitches that help to sell clients on this campaigns.
Take a moment and watch this clip from Mad Men. In this scene Don is trying to pitch a new ad campaign for Kodiak’s new carousel slide projector. The client, Kodiak, has requested that Don work their new wheel slide-projecting technology into the campaign.
In his opening pitch, Don says, “… the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.” Nostalgia, he notes, can create a deeper bond between customer and product than the flash of ‘newness’ or novelty.
From this point, Don uses the slide projector to show the clients happy memories of his family. He uses these images to show the clients a story, to engage them on an emotional level. The product ceases to be a product, it becomes an emotion.
Whether you’re trying to sell a product, or tell a history, storytelling is key to connecting with an audience. Infusing your work with emotion can make it more relatable, and thus, more engaging. Don knows that if you want someone to listen you should tell them a story.
3. Be willing to change - Don is no stranger to change (WARNING: there will be spoilers from this point on). He didn’t start as the wealthy and powerful man you seen at the start of the series. Don Draper started his life in poverty as Dick Whitman. It wasn’t until an act of fate during his time in the Korean War that Don was given a chance to escape his old life and build a new one.
During my MA degree I realized that the area I had been studying for the past six years just wasn’t for me. Since I had committed so much time and energy to learning that discipline part of me thought that I should just stick with it. Change is scary.
But since finishing my MA I’ve devoted my free time to learning how to transition to a new discipline (digital humanities), and I’m the happiest I’ve been academically I years. Change isn’t as frightening as the thought of being stuck doing something you don’t enjoy.
4. Be persistent - This is one thing I really need to work on. As a polite Canadian who loves to avoid confrontation, being persistent isn’t something I’m very good at.
Before landing his first job in marketing, Don worked as a fur coat salesman in New York who wrote advertising copy for the store in his spare time. One day a partner (Roger Sterling) at a major ad agency walked into Don’s store to buy his mistress a fur coat. Seizing the opportunity Don talked to him about his agency and attempted to show Roger some of the copy he had written.
When Roger ignored him, Don slipped a few examples of his work into the box the fur coat was wrapped in. After hearing nothing from Roger, Don waited outside the agency until he ran into him. Don insisted on taking Roger out for drinks and eventually persuaded Roger to give him a job.
The moral of this story is not to give up. Sure stalking a prospective employer and getting his drunk might not be the best way to get ahead in this world, but if you want something you should be persistent in the face of failure.
In an age of job scarcity and reduced funding, persistence is quickly becoming a chief virtue of historians and academics.
So after all this have I changed my opinion of Don Draper? No, he’s still a deeply flawed human being. But even deeply flawed human beings have some admirable qualities. I suppose this is why Don is ultimately a compelling character. For all his faults, he possessions some remarkable qualities. So as I move forward towards my PhD I’ll keep these remarkable qualities in mind, hopefully making me a better historian.