As AMC’s “Mad Men” draws to a close, we’ve reflected on the advertising tenets that defined the work Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Stan Rizzo, and the rest of the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce generated over the years. In some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Three long-standing insights from the golden age of advertising, when print was everything:

1. Honor your audience at every step

To paraphrase David Ogilvy from a female creative director’s perspective (go, Peggy!) the customer is not a moron. He is your husband.

In the very first scene of the very first episode, Don starts with his audience. He asks his waiter to talk about why he prefers Rolled Gold to Lucky Strike cigarettes. Don then integrates those insights into his work.


When we design now, we focus on user experience, metrics, multi-device flexibility, geolocation and other complexities. In print design for our higher ed clients, we’re also thinking of papers, die cuts, coatings, inks and heft. As is the case with any strategy-first firm, we begin to focus on those aspects of design only after we’ve fully digested and synthesized all available audience insights.

For example, in a focus group with graduate students, we heard over and over again that they really wanted viewbooks small enough to carry around and peruse on the train or bus. This request pointed us in the direction of a pocket piece, even though an oversized piece would have been stunning and impactful in the mailbox. For the significant investment and long decision cycle of graduate study, keeping the piece accessible — and therefore front-of-mind — is a better strategic decision than focusing on the fleeting mailbox moment. Careful consideration of our audiences’ needs and motivations led us to make a better decision for the final piece.

2. If an idea makes you nervous, that idea probably has legs.

David Ogilvy, by way of Drayton Bird

When we’re debating design approaches (armed with audience insights, of course), some ideas are clearly safer than others.

Stan Rizzo

“Buck up, chief.” -Stan Rizzo

Recently, we presented three concepts to a client, and one of them was brilliant but definitely “out there.” I think our designer was channeling Stan when he came up with the idea. The client loved it. However, it also made large swaths of campus very nervous. Not necessarily a bad thing.

In the world of higher education, we’re usually more comfortable staying with established patterns and conventions rather than treading new ground. The UC system identity rollout and subsequent rollback are shining examples of this tendency. As the digital industry focuses more and more on usability, we find a lot of data that supports a safer route.

It’s worth noting that sometimes simple can be misunderstood as undercooked and, therefore, risky. In the case of Don’s Heinz pitch, the big idea was simple: show “tantalizingly incomplete” photos of food, begging for ketchup. Heinz executives couldn’t get past the idea of a ketchup-less ketchup ad.

pass the heinz

But for the right brand, a bold new direction can be paradigm-shifting. Does anyone remember when MIT was the only site using a full browser-width photo? Or when it would have been anathema to think about handing the keys of your institution’s social media account to a current student? Times, they are (always) a-changin’.

3. If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.

One of Don’s most memorable statements. You can do this in broad strokes … or in incremental steps. Day to day, we tell our clients to consider their associations. In “Mad Men,” Pete Campbell frames this concept for Learjet by saying its celebrity spokespeople are not creating the right associations.

Pete Campbell: “But your company is very glamorous. As far as I can tell, its entire public reputation is based on Hollywood.”
Learjet Exec:
“Well, we thought we’d go with our most exciting customers. Elizabeth Taylor. Danny Kaye. Somebody you want to meet?”
Pete Campbell:
“Not really. In fact, I think that’s the problem, if you have one.”
Learjet Exec:
“I have one, or I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
Pete Campbell:
 “Corporate executives should be your core business. Not celebrities and their dogs.”

Pete tries to steer Learjet into a deliberate transition: Move past its primary association with celebrities and create a new association with wealthy, but not necessarily famous, executives. This recommendation has a lot of potential, and most importantly, opens up a brand new market for the company.

In the case of marketing education, you, as a communications professional, must use all tools at your disposal to create favorable associations between your institution and your students’ goals. For higher ed, putting the focus on positive associations often means finding great outcomes to highlight. Showing a successful alum in a sharp suit surveying a great view is an incredible association for an ambitious business school prospect. Profiling an alumnus who spends summers working in Africa to help stop the spread of Ebola is a similarly effective association for an idealistic future student who wants to change the world.

You can accomplish these associations by using spotlights, celebrities (did you know John Hamm went to Mizzou?) and even photography. Worried about your urban campus’ reputation for safety? Use big, glossy photos of safe and happy students in a large group as they enjoy the sights in a photogenic area of downtown. The subconscious association in that case is that downtown is positive and vibrant, not a dangerous place. It can be as simple as making sure that the biggest, most salient headers in a piece use language directly drawn from major brand pillars. Infusing brand language into student-friendly prose in a natural way can be hard, but worth it.

I'm afraid Duck Phillips has tricked me into a job interview.

“I’m afraid Duck Phillips has tricked me into a job interview.” – Pete Campbell

These three concepts don’t apply only to higher ed print marketing. Honor your audience, embrace new ideas, and change the conversation in all media.

mStoner Staff

AUTHOR - mStoner Staff

mStoner, Inc. helps clients to tell their authentic stories by clarifying their unique brand value proposition, creating a content strategy to communicate the brand effectively, and implementing compelling and dynamic communications across the web, mobile, social media, print, and other channels. We focus on research, data, and results.

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