Don Draper, the legendary ad man, is facing meltdown.
His agency’s clients are deserting. The partners are squabbling. Redundancies will have to be made. Adland has got wind that Sterling Cooper Draper Price is in trouble.
Don has just returned from a clandestine meeting with Heinz that he hoped would give them a lifeline – but the prospect rebuffed him, saying he wanted to wait and see “if you’re still in business in six months”.
Peggy, his trusted copywriter, asks Don what they are going to do.
We’re creative. We’re gonna sit at our desks typing while the walls fall down around us. Because we’re the least important, most important thing there is.
As usual with Don, the pithy statement is rich with meaning.
On a superficial level, the Heinz executive has just treated him as the “least important” part of the agency by advising him to leave business negotiations to his partners. He’s not the first creative to be patronisingly dismissed by a businessman and he won’t be the last.
And yet, living in the golden age of advertising, Don knows that not just Heinz but all mighty corporations depend on ideas men like him to sell their products.
Yes, the ‘account boys’ in his own agency may be better at landing deals than him, but their livelihood is hanging by a thread too – and Don’s imagination is the only thing that can save them all.
The phrase “typing while the walls fall down around us” is a glancing allusion at the saying “fiddling while Rome burns” – used to dismiss artistic types as hopelessly impractical. But Don’s twist on the cliche is defiant, asserting that creativity is more enduring than the walls of Rome or Madison Avenue.
Faced with disaster, Don’s response is an unshakeable confidence in his creative ability.
The Mad Men episode in which this scene takes place is set in 1965, when ad agencies – businesses that depended on creativity – were anomalies. Now, creativity is critical to the survival of more and more types of business. And faced with the storms of recent years, many executives would give a lot to be as confident as Don that they can save their business with a brilliant idea.
But creativity is more than mere survival to Don.
Reading his words again, I sense relief as well as defiance. Sitting and thinking and typing isn’t just a means to a business end, it’s a refuge in the storm, a way of holding onto meaning and certainty in a chaotic world. Like the writer in Auden’s poem ‘Journey to Iceland’, when “Tears fall in all the rivers”, he “runs howling to his art”.
Ultimately, thinking and writing are Don’s very identity: “We’re creative” he says, as if its obvious they have no choice but to create.
Over to You
How important is creativity to you?
Have you ever used your creativity to deal with a crisis?
What are your favourite words of wisdom from Don Draper?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.