Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mad Men "The Suitcase": Don Draper's advice for breaking through a mental block

Just saw "The Suitcase" (Mad Men Season 4, Episode 7), and it is one of my favorite episodes in the series so far. Peggy has gotten more and more empoweredly awesome this season and gets major screen time — one-on-one with Don. She asserts herself and gets Don to see her as a contemporary. They get drunk and Don doesn't hit on her. Sort of.

The best thing about this episode was finally seeing Don desperately trying to come up with a stellar creative concept.

Matthew Weiner doesn't usually show him trying to come up with ideas, or banging his head against the wall when he can't come up with anything. They usually show him rejecting concepts from his team during creative internals, cut to the client presentation when he suddenly sells a campaign like "The Carousel". Or even better, he comes up with an insight + idea on the spot while presenting — obviously, "It's toasted".

Besides the very first episode, which opened with Don solo brainstorming for Lucky Strike at a diner (the challenge was that it had just become illegal to promote cigarettes by calling out their medicinal properties, go figure, see above re toasted), Don's creative process has been notably absent from the four season-old show. Without seeing Don writing or working on ad concepts has made me wonder if Weiner really understands, or cares to show, the often frustrating process of advertising development.

Peggy’s creative struggle is well-documented, but Weiner seems to attribute this to her being a woman in an ad man’s world. Don, on the other hand, is hardly ever shown at a loss for ideas and thus he has become an iconic advertising superhero who has brilliant flashes of insight as the need arises, even if that moment is midway through a client presentation.

So I was happy that "The Suitcase" finally showed Don trying to tackle a standard advertising challenge - a mental block. For most of the episode he and Peggy attempt to crack a brief for Samsonite, trying to find an idea that shows how much tougher their luggage is. Don is, as usual, running away from something. In this case, a social client call that is going to be sans alcohol (client and copywriter are recovering alcoholics). Gasp. So he demands that Peggy stay behind after work hour so they can figure the brief out. They work all night trying to find an idea that works.

Mental blocks are also a major woe for planners. Was thinking that if I follow Don’s lead in this episode I can isolate a few tactics about what to do the next time I'm struggling with finding an idea or insight:
  1. Ideate intoxicated.
  2. Get a brainstorming buddy, preferably someone you like but definitely someone way more junior than you, so you can feel superior when you start feeling defeated about not having arrived at that brilliant idea.
  3. Insult said brainstorming buddy (when she accuses you of never saying “thank you”, tell her that's what her salary is for).
  4. When really stuck, try brainstorming over dinner.
  5. Start getting personal with brainstorming buddy even if you've hardly done that in the past four seasons; you never know what ideas it might generate.
  6. When all else fails go somehwere darker, i.e. a bar, even if you were already drinking at the office anyway.
  7. No matter how many units of alcohol you’ve consumed, try not to get hammered! You will absolutely fall asleep and not get any work done.
  8. Were you raised in a barn? Even if you've thrown up on yourself and in front of much more junior and, let's face it, inferior, brainstorming buddy, start the work day with a fresh shirt from your fresh shirt drawer. In the absence of a good idea, at least you can look like Don Draper.
  9. Draw inspiration from current events
  10. Be Don Draper! Cause as inferior brainstorming buddy leaves from all-night overtime looking like yesterday's trash you reveal the mockup of your groundbreaking idea.

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