What If Don Draper Had An MBA?

Could Don Draper benefit from an MBA degree?

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

Ah, that silver-tongued devil! In fifteen years, Mad Men’s Don Draper has climbed from Korean War deserter to partner at a swanky ad agency in the freewheeling sixties. He prowls Madison Avenue decked in tailored Brooks Brothers suits, feasting on Chicken Kiev at the five-star restaurants, with the finest scotch and smokes always within reach. He lives the dream: The high rise pad; The ex-trophy wife; the Cadillac Coupe de Ville; money, awards, security andhealth. He epitomizes the best and brightest at the twilight of advertising’s golden age.

Could he benefit from an MBA? How would Don Draper be different if his resume sported the most coveted degree of our time? Is he Harvard Business School material or more a Wharton-type of candidate?

After all, he may seem to have it all—or almost—but Draper’s world will soon be upended. Disaffected youth will lay siege to the social contract. Women and minorities will vie for their fair share. The culture will grow coarsened and cynical. And emerging mediums and demographics will splinter advertising messaging forever. In the office, the boys-will-be-boys culture of drinking, napping, and copping feels will inevitably result in pink slips (if not lawsuits).

Don Draper may be at the top of his profession now, but it can’t last. And that brings up an intriguing question: Would further education, particularly a MBA, help Don Draper get further ahead (even as he enters his forties)? Suspend your disbelief and look at Draper using these criteria:

Salesmanship: Sales is the most critical facet of business – and it’s here where Draper excels. After Korea, Draper honed his sales instincts peddling cars and furs to flesh-and-blood people. Unlike Ivy Leaguer Pete Campbell, who is steeped in theory, Draper never forgets the pitch is about people. He ignores fads, industry jargon, and convention. Instead, he forces clients, such as London Fog, to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. He shares stories, using analogies and metaphors to make their own products feel fresh and urgent to them. He can also pinpoint a single item – such as Lucky Strike cigarettes being “toasted” – to make a product stand out (even when it’s no different than competitors). And it’s this talent – the ability to understand and convey the underlying needs of the end user – that cannot be taught in a classroom.

Networking: Considering Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s finances, Don Draper should be polishing his resume. Certainly, he has a pristine reputation in advertising…but times change. His partners are dinosaurs who are growing increasingly out of touch with the industry and its culture. And their connections are slowly being replaced by a younger crop of executives. Eventually, Draper will need to switch industries. An MBA program would certainly help him build a larger network that might ease his inevitable transition.

Street Smarts: Draper symbolizes the classic question: Are book smarts or street smarts a better predictor of success? Draper makes a compelling case for the latter. He has deliberately branded himself a mystery. It gives him an aura, adding weight to his words and actions. When needed, Draper can easily connect with his clients and employees. Once he seals the deal, he drifts away again. As a result, Draper is a Rorschach, someone who can be what others want for a short time. It’s no different than the brands he builds. In his world, persona counts as much as persuasion. Of course, opportunism is nearly as important. Draper conned his way into Sterling Cooper by claiming a drunken Roger Sterling hired him. That’s probably not a tactic taught at Darden. In the end, it is result, not process, that’s remembered.

Ethics: If you’re looking for a character role model, it ain’t Draper. He cheated on his wife Betty and stole another man’s identity. Still, he seems to play by a loose code of ethics. When Draper inadvertently poaches an applicant’s idea, he hires him to make up for it. If a client wants him to implement a bad idea, such as marketing jai-alai, he doesn’t follow along just to keep the business. He walks away.  Could B-school give Draper a clearer compass?  Sure, but it is probably too late in life for him to change. If he does, it’ll probably stem from adversity rather than urging.

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