While I love the pop culture nostalgia, and cringe at the routine misogyny and racism of the post war decades, what gets me most about Madmen are the things that haven’t changed.
For those unfamiliar, the series chronicles a Manhattan Ad Agency through the rise of US consumerism in the 50s and 60s.
The scene in the video demonstrates a timeless constant of the advice business: advice doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be helpful. The research pointed to something the client wasn’t prepared to do. So, Don intervened with an option they could accept.
Developing helpful advice is much more difficult than giving advice based on ‘best practice’ or other canards of the industry. The reason is simple: best practice doesn’t need to account for reality—it is the median effective response to other situations.
The actions that should be taken (perfect strategy) seldom resemble the actions that can be taken (those that reflect the client’s situation as bound by corporate culture, budget, etc.) Being able to give good advice often comes from understanding the difference.
I learned this lesson as a client. I was in a corporate communications role and my job was to promote support for the organization and its mandate. My consultant advised that a TV ad campaign was required. In fairness, the situation clearly called for it. My problem was that TV ads simply weren’t on the table—something known by all from the beginning. But, my consultant advised TV ads anyway. Yes, it was the best strategy in a theoretical sense. But, it wasn’t counsel that I could follow—it was bad advice.
This leads me to the idea of ‘best practice’. When the justification for a particular course of action if that it is ‘best practice’, I automatically get suspicious. My experience with ‘best practice’ is that it falls into one of two categories. It is either something everyone does because it is required by law; or, it is something no one does because it is an aspiration never fully applicable in real life. Situations covered by best practice don’t need a consultant, they can be resolved with a text book.
As a consultant, I have learned to evaluate my work by asking: “Is this helpful?” It is an important question because ‘perfect’ advice and ‘best practices’ won’t always be.