Creativity With Mad Men: A Motivational Guide

Wednesday 18 September 2019

January Jones, Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm, Jared Harris, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser, and John Slattery in Mad Men (2007)

If your biased taste for movies and TV shows can only be delighted by high numbers and ratings, perhaps Mad Men’s 16 Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes will pique your interest. 

But try and forget about numbers for a while— today, we’re talking about words and their masters: writers. 

By the way, props to the kick-ass writers who brought this masterpiece to life.

This drama from AMC tells the story of enigmatic adman Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) who, in the early 60s, is one of the most influential admen at the renowned Sterling Cooper advertising agency in New York. 

Mad Men isn’t only recommended to starry-eyed advertising students, CEOs, and writers, though. Anyone with a beating heart and enough perseverance to endure the initial shock of advertising jargon will find emotional comfort in this show. 

From hectic workdays to identity issues to family feuds, Mad Men is an all-embracing depiction of life, its delights, and its shenanigans. 

I’m sure you’ll relate to one episode, at the very least, whether you smoke or not, and whether you’re in advertising or not. 

But especially if you’re a creative in the pursuit of truth, or at least your own version of it. 


Still of Elisabeth Moss, Jay R. Ferguson and Danny Strong in Mad Men
Like all creatives, copywriters endure bursts of blocks and frustration that are oftentimes imbibed in whiskey and fumed by hazardous chain-smoking of cigarette brands they likely advertise. 

Screenwriters, poets, and novelists are no different. 

We repeatedly engage in sometimes harmful activities—both physical and mental—for that one spark to rise, which gets the job done but sends us spiralling down an anxiety abyss, thoughts of inadequacy, and a strong urge to quit due to overpowering stress.

Truth is, you don’t need to trade your sanity and health for that million-dollar idea or to thrive in your writing career. 

In fact, Mad Men provides valuable lessons on staying creative and maintaining focus. 

There might have been a few drinks and drags involved in the process, but you don’t have to follow along.

The tips alone will do the job wonderfully.

Think, think, think...then let it go. 

“Peggy, just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.” – Don Draper

Jon Hamm in Mad Men (2007)

There’s a reason this quote is the first in this list. 

At first glance, it seems painfully simple. It’s just thinking, right?

Right. But whoever said it doesn’t hurt to think was lying. 

Thinking hard may cause frustration and one hell of a headache, but it doesn’t have to be long-lasting. 

The mighty Don Draper makes an armour out of his mogul image as the Creative Director at Sterling Cooper, which is easily dismantled once we familiarise ourselves with his secrecies. 

His sales background nudged him into a wealthy advertising career, which is justified by his well-reputed ads for Lucky Strike and other coveted brands in the early 60s. 

The man is whip-smart and opens our eyes to simple, yet fascinating advice some of us haven’t even considered closely to this day. 

No matter the idea you’re working on, take some time to rack your brains. 

Brainstorm it, whatever you may call it. Then go play. Walk the dog, text a friend, go workout—in short, go about your daily life and try to keep that particular piece of work away from your thoughts for a while. 

Then see what happens.

Grow a thicker skin, and put yourself out there

Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men (2007)
If there’s one thing that blew my mind about Mad Men, it was the character arcs. 

The character development is INSANE. You’ll be certain of the characterisation mastery once you watch the show and grow passionate about a certain character, an affair, or simply relate to the unfolding of each episode. 

To this day, the best way to tell a “cardboard” character from a layered, well-written character is their ability to mingle with raw human emotions, i.e. their likelihood of becoming someone’s “fave”. 

When it comes to great character growth, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) wins our hearts. Her beginning as the mouse-eared new secretary with the wispy bangs and over-sentimentalism didn’t prepare us for the smoking hot, promoted-to-copywriter badass walking down the hall like it’s a runway. 

Under the supervision of Draper, she flourishes to the point of surpassing her mentor’s expertise in certain presentations. After countless tears and plenty of “you’re not good enough-s”, that is. 

The truth is: Peggy would’ve never taken her first step to become a junior copywriter if she hadn’t let her potential shine through simply by speaking up. 

During a brainstorming session for a lipstick brand, she innocently referred to a trashcan filled with lipstick-stained tissues as a “basket of kisses”, which was enough wording to grab the executives’ attention. 

She could’ve just stayed quiet, but she didn’t.

If she hadn’t spoken up for what she believed in (despite her former title and the coyness), she wouldn’t have gotten so far. 

That’s when the creative department saw something amazing in her and couldn’t help but hire this new girl. The outcome exceeded their expectations. 

Why did I mention that? 

Some of us still stack up our work in word documents while wondering when we’ll be relevant. 

We complain, yet we don’t market ourselves as writers, we don’t have a blog, we don’t send out our manuscripts. 

We complain, yet we’re hiding from a big bad world full of naysayers and rejection, which ironically, we absolutely need if we want to succeed in the writing biz, regardless of the type of writing we work with.

Please, PLEASE, jot down your amazing ideas!

“The faintest ink is better than the best memory” – Chinese proverb

Copywriter Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) is the human depiction of writer’s insecurity in the Christmas Waltz episode (Season 5, Episode 10). 

He can come up with fantastic ideas, but his defensive inferiority complex and carelessness overshadow his skill. Excessive stress later drive him to join a Hare Krishna group as an attempt to recover his peace of mind. 

When brainstorming a catchphrase for a telegraph ad, Kinsey and Peggy are supposed to come up with valuable ideas, yet none of them seem to find just “it”. 

Hard at work, Kinsey burns the midnight oil and has a weird but meaningful conversation with the night shift janitor, which gives him “probably the best idea he’s ever had.”

He proceeds to celebrate with a few drinks (and who wouldn’t?) and SHOCKER...he falls asleep.

He should’ve considered writing it down. Just a thought. 

There were no mobile phones in the 60s and computers were these humongous, otherworldly machines. 

Now that we have both at our disposal literally anytime, we don’t even have to carry notepads around, and reminders are just a few touches away. 

There’s really no excuse not to jot your thoughts down, except for sheer laziness that may cost you later. 

How many awesome ideas have you lost for believing the good old “nah, that’s easy to remember” lie you tell yourself? 

Avoiding this mistake is easy —it’s you who makes it difficult.

Let the thoughts flow, y’know?

Jon Hamm in Mad Men (2007)

Having to cut down on the drinking, Don decides to start journaling. Writing longhand is a relief to him, because “typing feels like work”.

He admits “never having written more than 250 words, not even in high school”, which isn’t a problem to him since nimble-witted ad men have to be quick on one’s feet (or brains) to create interesting slogans, descriptions, and catchphrases that require far less than that. 

With that, Don unleashes his frustrations and innermost beliefs on paper in a self-centered, heartfelt prose. He does what we all should be doing every once in a while. 

Here’s the thing about creativity: it doesn’t flow out of the blue. 

We have to open the tap. Pull the trigger, start the engine, whatever. 

Journaling doesn’t need to be fancy like the Tumblr-esque pictures you see roving about the internet—it just has to be honest and spark something inside you. 

It’s as easy as grabbing a battered notebook or any piece of paper within reach and...writing. 

What makes it so menacing sometimes are the rules we’re tethered to, but rules have no place here. 

Write at your own pace; if you’re like me, write a bit faster to catch up with darting thoughts. It’s practice. 

Just make sure to write what you feel, what bothers you, what needs to change. Scribble your thoughts away.

Free-writing is extremely beneficial, especially when you work with a more restrictive type of writing (e.g. screenwriting) in which page and word counts make a difference. I believe all writers crave creative freedom, and we deserve a daily dose of “coloring outside the lines”.

Ask the right people for feedback

Michael Gladis and Rich Sommer in Mad Men (2007)

During his days as a Hare Krishna group member, Paul Kinsey (or Paramatma) does more than chanting and shifting his mindset: he writes a spec pilot episode for Star Trek named “The Negron Complex”, which he thinks should be a season opener the following year. He then asks good yet self-seeking friend Harry Crane to read it, and possibly pass it along to NBC executives. 
Harry thought it sucked, and naturally, told Kinsey the complete opposite.

At a loss, he gives Kinsey five hundred dollars to start fresh in Los Angeles as a screenwriter, falsely claiming he couldn’t contact the executives due to legal reasons. 
It’s no secret (or at least it shouldn’t be) that feedback needs to be downright honest.
That said, your mom, your BFF, or Aunt Karen are the critics you want, but not the ones you need.
Impartiality is your best friend, and constructive criticism is the best way from point A to point B, although not the quickest. It’s the only moment when you should keep friends away and rely on editors/readers, preferably fellow writers for extra coverage.
You might want to return the favor by reading their work and being honest. That’s how writers grow, and most importantly, help one another.

Mad Men (2007)

Have you watched Mad Men? Would you say it inspired you to hone your wordsmith skills? Let us know in the comments!

Laila Resende is a 20-year-old freelance copywriter and a Feature Writer and Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. Her insatiable passion for movies and blogging is perfect for her role as Feature Writer & Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. 

Laila shares all of Into The Script's news on her Instagram page (@lailarsnde) and Facebook.

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