What Don Draper Knew (or - how history always repeats itself)

Posted on 21st January, 2015

Magic Markers, Letraset, razor-sharp scalpels, studios thick with the fug of petrol, tobacco and various dangerous chemicals …


In some respects, to anyone who was around at the time, the 1980s don’t actually seem like that long ago.

We remember The A-Team, black forest gateau, TV-AM and red braces. We remember Boy George, the miners’ strike and the Falklands War.

But the day to day working reality of a 1980s design studio, as set out above, feels like an age ago: even to those who were there.

Many years later, in an agency I was running, we set up a weekly series of masterclasses. It happened every Friday, and was aimed at developing a bit more of a Renaissance mindset in our staff.

One Friday, I asked a chap called Stu Turnbull to lead the session – centred around the theme of change, the inevitability of change, and how we all make choices about how we view, and respond to, change.

Experienced, caring and relentlessly upbeat, Stu aced it.

He was effortlessly elegant and generous in his delivery. He talked about the change he had seen. And he poked fun at himself and his erstwhile colleagues. Stu described the laughter that greeted the grandiose claims of a kooky, little-known Californian called Steve Jobs – that someday, the little beige box and its tiny screen that sat untouched in the corner, would take care of pretty much everything that Stu and his colleagues in production spent their time doing.

“But of course,” whispered some of the agency’s fresher faces, “Surely that was all so obvious?”

Not as obvious as the rich irony that was being played out as Stuie spoke.

Because this generation is in danger of exhibiting the very same, very dangerous, very sanctimonious smugness that did for the Magic Markers and the people who used them.

It’s true: right now, we are kings, we rule. This is our time. But, to quote the great Gary Barlow, “someday this will be someone else’s dream.”

And, before too long — and only if we’re exceptionally lucky — we’ll be the ones taking a bunch of giggling kidults through why we thought the iPhone & changed everything. Again.

Because the future doesn’t care about iPhones and iPads, Androids or, dare I say it, Google Glass, just like it didn’t care about Letraset and manual typesetting.

Generation 2015′s ability to describe the studio of 2045? It’s like Tomorrow’s World all over again. And likely to be about as (in)accurate.

Why? Because when human beings think about the future, they tend to focus on what will be different. Almost invariably, therefore, the conversation naturally centres around what is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the lowest common denominator: tools and technology. Hence the predictions of personal jet packs, the ‘pills instead of meals,’ the three hour journey from London to Sydney; or the hover boards that we’d all be riding in 2015.

Futurology in this respect is no more reliable than economics: a black art, and a truly ephemeral one at that. Working out what might be different in the future doesn’t have a great track record.

So as those of us who work in communications look ahead from 2015, instead of trying to explain how our world might look different, perhaps we should think about how it might look the same?

Because it seems to me, to paraphrase a more eloquent Jefferson, there are is a certain self-evident truth at stake here. And that truth is unchanging, holding as good in 2015 as it did in 1985, as it did in 1955, and as it will in 2045.

Like all truths, it is simple. People will always want to communicate, to be understood. And if we accept that corporations have ‘personality’, then they are no different, and they want to communicate, to be understood too.

So to get wound up about whether a Magic Marker can or should be replaced by Apple’s latest ‘Paint’ app is to miss the point. Because neither has ever been, nor ever will be, the star of the show.

That slot always has been, and always will be, reserved for something much more important.

Agencies obsess about channel. But Stu’s presentation set out the folly and futility of such an approach. Channels move on, develop, change, grow, become obsolete. As an agency, competence in different channels is, of course, required but that is not what clients are buying. Not the clients worth having anyway.

Because clients care, have cared, and will always care, about their message, about being understood. The channel is just the vehicle. So the iPads, the HTML5, the Magic Markers, the Letraset, the Apps and the rest, are just part of that vehicle.


And, whatever they say, clients really only care about the vehicle to the extent that it gets them to the right destination. Very seldom do they want to look under the hood.


Don Draper and his pals on Madison knew that.


And so does Stu Turnbull.

- this piece first kindly published by Campaign Magazine