Category Archives: Brand Awareness

The myth of Mad Men and graphic arts

There is a current narrative going on within the creative community lamenting the demise of professional graphic artists. One such narrative appears on my favorite design blog, Before&After Magazine.

Inevitably, someone brings up Mad Men as an example of the glory days of advertising.

And I sigh deeply.

Firstly, let’s get one thing perfectly clear. Don Draper is a fictional character, partially based on Draper Daniels, the creative head of the Chicago-based Leo Burnett advertising agency in the ’50s. Matt Weiner can write him to do anything and say anything. He did not exist. He does not exist. Never. Ever, ever, ever.

Don’s story for us starts in medias res as a successful creative director banging out copy in a bar in New York City. As the story unfolds over the next four seasons, we find out he was a poor kid growing up on a farm “somewhere in the Midwest,” joined the Army to get the heck off the farm, sold used cars in California, never went to college, never wrote anything longer than 250 words, moved to New York City and sold furs and did copywriting/advertising on the side for the owner (who probably never would have hired a graphic artist if Don didn’t do the work) and eventually bamboozled his way into Sterling-Cooper.

Don’s path is hardly the one you most read about. Most professional graphic artists have a BFA or certificate from an art school. They trained to eventually become creative/art directors in agencies, living the Don Draper Dream.

But if you look closely, the credentialed people who work at Sterling-Cooper and later Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price are the first ones getting fired when an account is lost. Don prevails and gets stronger despite not having the credentials of a “real” creative director. Sure, he has his moments of panic but who doesn’t? And Don’s panic is more understandable when he admits to himself he has been faking his entire adult life. Again, folks, he is not real so Weiner can write all these traits into the Don Draper character.

The problem with not believing Don Draper isn’t real is I know people like Don Draper. I know people in the graphic arts field who have no business being there because they don’t have the “proper” credentials*. Yet, they are the folks I turn to when I need something done.

How many agencies would hire a Don Draper if he was looking for work? Probably all of them. How many would hire a used-car salesman turned furrier who did advertising for them on the side without an art degree? None of them. The irony in all this is the latter is exactly what Sterling-Cooper did, albeit unknowingly.

Don was successful not so much because of his superior copywriting and creative ability, but in his willingness to learn and his keen observation of human behavior. He learned what made people tick and more importantly, how to make them tick to a rhythm he tapped out. He played Roger into his job and continues to play him. For Don, Roger is the perfect whetstone that sharpens his skills. But this is not a character analysis post. This is just a reminder that creative ability is not about art degrees. Creative people don’t hold any special rights to the keys of knowledge. But people who are willing to use the tools they have and sharpen that craft do.

Like the graphic arts industry, Mad Men could have easily just evaporated after season four. The most ardent fans among us would have had a momentary Don Draper panic moment, but then like Don, realized life goes in only one direction — forward. Instead of slinking home in the rain to a stiff drink and a pair of bedroom slippers, we would have sighed deeply, been grateful for the spectacular opportunity we had been given, looked bravely onto the horizon and enthusiastically asked:

“What’s next?”

Everyone in advertising wants to be Don Draper but few want to go through the pain of becoming Don. Fewer still want the anxiety of staying Don.

*I am, in fact, one of those posers. Read my story. Nowhere in there is any formal training in graphic design. Yet I fooled a lot of people into thinking I could do the job, mostly because I could.

Cluttered Tackboard

Cutting through the clutter

Cluttered Tackboard

This is a tack board that was at the local coffee shop I went to last night. You’ve seen these everywhere, nothing special, no one card stands out from the next, almost all of them are clip-art logos, too many words on the flyer, etc. My favorite is the gray one in the middle for Pig of the Month. At first I thought it was a design firm, but it really is a BBQ place.

Talk about disconnect.

I don’t know how effective these things are — other than to entertain me as my party is finishing up using the restroom and giving me content for a blog post — but it occurs to me this is how most people are using social media channels. They are throwing their badly-crafted message out to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and a thousand other places hoping to catch the eyeballs of someone desperately looking to be entertained.

But it must work because a lot of people do it. Right?

Repairing typewriters

Last week, I received emails from two former clients who needed some help with some legacy work. One needed some tweaks done on a print ad that was at least three years old. The other had moved his web site to a cheaper hosting solution, but the cgi no longer worked. He wanted me to help him fix it as his current hosting provider did not edit scripts.

In each case, the client did not know where else to turn to get the work done. They had — metaphorically speaking — old typewriters they still needed but could no longer find repairmen to fix. All of the cool kids were making drag ‘n’ drop jQuery websites with blackbox OAuth Twitter and Facebook login screens they really didn’t understand.

Neither former client knew anyone who could repair an old typewriter except me. Would I do this really quick fix for them?


I could have done the work in just as much time as it would have taken to say no. But then, how do I charge? Hourly? Fix-rate for three seconds worth of work? How much is that really worth?

I know what it is worth to me, but clients see things in units of work and charging $400,000.00 to apply a set of skills everyone else has either abandoned, forgotten or never bothered to learn would have seemed excessive. Yet, that was what the work was worth to me.

Here’s why.

When I spend my time repairing typewriters. it takes away from me learning and growing the new skills that I need to remain competitive with the kids who are younger, faster and don’t appear to need sleep.

When I spend my time repairing typewriters, my clients will see me as the “typewriter repairman” instead of the forward-leaning visionary I need them to see. When it comes time for a new project in the “new space,” they would never trust their future to an old geezerly typewriter repairman.

Nobody trusts an old dog to do new tricks.

Instead of bad grammar, we’ll be subjected to bad video

It appears that 2012 is going to be the year social media experts write less and post more video. My take? Instead of bad grammar, we’ll all be subjected to bad video.

I urge you, please take some basic video courses. Learn the basics about sound and lighting. Learn how to write a script and read a teleprompter.

All video that looks casual and authentic has been rehearsed to death. Really.

*My most humble apologies to my audience for subjecting you to the version of me that did not get shoved through hair and makeup. I was hoping to scare you enough to make you think that a little bit of illusion is a good thing.

What does your job title say about you?

I am unofficially advising on designing some identity stuff for a New York restaurant that will be opening next month and was doing up a business card mock-up with their new logo.

“What is the title?” I asked.

“Owner/General Manager,” came the reply.

I paused to choose my next words carefully. Here is what I was thinking.

When I hear Owner/General Manager, I think this is the one partner in a group that has put in the least amount of cash, but also the most amount in percentage of his personal wealth. He may even have taken out a second mortgage on his home.

As a guest, I may be more willing to push him into giving me a discount or a free meal or something, knowing that he is driven more by fear of losing his investment than growing his business.

As a vendor, especially in creative services, I want to steer clear of him, knowing that he will try to beat me back on price at every step and try to micro-manage the process too much, driven by desperation and fear. Quality hardly matters as long as the price is cheap.

As a restauranteur, your title should be Owner OR General Manager, but not both. What your contract says is one thing. What you tell guests and vendors you are is a marketing choice.

What does your title say about you? Have you thought about this?