Sunday, June 1, 2014

Marketing Lessons from Mad Men


On a recent episode of Mad Men, "The Monolith," a huge IBM computer is being installed in the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners. Don Draper, reduced to hack work as some sort of vindictive punishment, watches from his office.

A character named Lloyd is overseeing the installation. Taking a smoke break, Lloyd asks Don if advertising really works.

Don says, "It helps if you have a good product."

Boom. All advertising wisdom and marketing strategy must ultimately be filtered through this one non-negotiable. You've gotta have a good product, a quality thing to sell.

This is as true for books as it is for Brylcreem. You can pour
all the time and money you want into getting the word out, but that only gets you an introduction. To succeed people have to like your product enough to become a repeat customer.

So how do you know when you have a quality book? Here's one way:

Find five beta readers, one of them a professional editor whom you pay. Do a little research and put in a little effort, and you'll get a quality group together.

Four out of the five beta readers need to tell you they really liked your book. They don't have to love it, though that would be the best result. But they have to more than like it. They have to really like it.

These are your scientific categories:

1. Loved it!

2. Really liked it!

3. Liked it.

4. Only okay.

5. Dreadful.

6. Don't ever ask me to read anything of yours again.

7. I am getting a restraining order against you.

Your book needs to score a 1 or a 2 from 4 out of the 5 beta readers, and the professional editor must be one of the four.

Is that a high standard? You bet it is. Because if you want to be a name brand and not the generic, that's where you need to aim.

The second thing Don says to Lloyd is, "What makes your product unique?" This is only slightly less important than the first lesson. You might be able to build a readership with well-written genre pieces that are, nevertheless, derivative. But to truly break out you need to give your writing something more.

What is that thing? It's you. It's your voice giving your story everything you've got. It's your imagination churning to make your concept just a little fresher. It's you going beyond the first thing that jumps into your mind. In every scene you are not settling for what's obvious.

One exercise for coaxing out your voice is the page-long sentence. Every now and then in your WIP choose a single emotional moment. Then write one run-on sentence until it fills a page. Let your imagination go wild. Most of this you won't use. But you will find, usually toward the middle or end of this exercise, some narrative gold. This is the stuff that sets you apart.

The third marketing lesson from Mad Men is this: don't get drunk. Drunk Don Draper is not charming, artful or clever.

The fourth marketing lesson comes from a Don Draper pearl of wisdom: "The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them." In advertising, the client demands to be dazzled. They need to believe the agency is going to work magic for them.

It's the same with readers. They've given you a chance, they've paid their money and they've got your book. Will they love it? Make them love it. Then make them love the next one, and the next. It's a high bar, as I mentioned, but it's the only one worth stretching for. True, you're not always going to make it, but you'll be a better writer for the effort.

The final marketing lesson is this: It helps if your author photo looks like Don Draper. Lacking that, remember that people do form an opinion of you based on your public persona. Don't just fling yourself wildly into social media madness. Be professional, courteous and positive. Make people glad when they read something from you, be it book, blog, update or tweet. Take the long view. Your career is a marathon and intemperate remarks can become pebbles in your shoes.

Brylcreem had one of the most famous ad lines in history: "A little dab'll do ya." 

Try a little dab of advertising wisdom and see if it doesn't help your writing career.

So do you think about your books as part art, part craft and part product? Don't you think you should? 


  1. Some great advice here. And timely, since I literally just caught up with Mad Men.

    I'm always surprised to see how little emphasis social media marketing guides and sites put on the product itself. I do try to balance my writing with the marketing of it. It is perhaps to a fault, though, because I've held back from releasing anything for fear of it not being good enough. Beta readers help, but ultimately, I struggle to give myself the thumbs up I need to move forward.

  2. Alana, you're not alone in that fear. Recently Stephen King tweeted about the jitters concerning his latest release. He confesses that's the way it is with every book! Yet things seem to have worked out for Mr. King.

    Release, reflect, repeat. Good luck.

  3. Great tips, Jim. Few professional writers are also professional marketers. It's a tough part of the gig and now more than ever, the writer has to carry all the weight. It helps to sometimes look at the process as if you were a manufacturer running a factory. You design a product (your manuscript), hire a sales manager (your agent), work with your assembly team to build your product (your publisher), package it, and put it into the distribution channels. And if you're an indie author, you get to do it all. Marketing is the hardest part of the process because there's no right answer.

    In your list of tips, I thank the most important one is to figure out what makes your product different from your competition. There's a ton of great ideas out there and a lot of great writers, but there's only one you.

    1. Exactly, Joe. Though it sometimes rubs artists the wrong way, if you're going to market something you've got to think, at some point, like a manufacturer. You've got to set up quality controls, and keep the factory humming. In fact, there's an old book in the public domain called The Fiction Factory written by one of the most prolific writers of all time, William Wallace Cook (and his nom de plume John Milton Edwards). He says, "A writer is neither better nor worse than any other man who happens to be in a trade. He is a manufacturer. After gathering his raw product, he puts it through the mill of his imagination, retorts from the mass the personal equation, refines it with sufficient amount of commonsense and ... if the product is good it passes at face value and becomes a medium of exchange."

  4. First, I find it interesting that the 30 seconds of Mad Men I happened to catch this season was that scene. But I annoyed my wife by commented on Don's statements. Today's writer is bombarded with his or her insistent indie friend's demand that we must embrace social networking. Build your platform! Get your name out there! It makes me wonder of Henry Ford spent most of his time around 1910ish hitting all the Dearborn hang-outs, passing out literature on the awesome Model T that was soon to come. I thought of this as I dowloaded your latest how-to shorty about dialogue. Most of us need to spend 99% of our time on craft and 1% typing hashtags.

    1. Good line about craft and hashtags, Ron, and absolutely right on. Not all that long ago agents and editors were telling anxious, unpublished writers to get out there and "build your platform!" You have to have a platform! Start a blog! Get cracking on this new thing called Facebook. On and on.

      I kept saying to these anxiety-laced writers, ignore that flapdoodle. Learn to write. Find the social media presence that works for you without sucking the life out of your writing time.

    2. "Find the social media presence that works for you without sucking the life out of your writing time." I love that! Will pass that common-sense wisdom on to my clients! :-)


    3. Jodie RennerJune 1, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      "Find the social media presence that works for you without sucking the life out of your writing time."
      Amen to that. You don't have to know all the social media. Facebook and Twitter are my limit. I can do SKYPE for book club interviews. But LinkedIn, Goodreads and Google Plus don't work for me.

    4. "Flapdoodle" is now the word of the day. Everyone change your calenders.

  5. Great post, Jim. Great discussion. I liked your grading of quality and the categories of "liked" (loved it). I've recently discovered that I get more enthusiastic, detailed comments from beta readers when I ask, "Did it emotionally 'grab' you? Did it resonate?" And I began using those questions after studying the "golden triangle" and Writing from the Middle.

    Thanks for the teaching moments, week after week. That's part of author platform. We buy books from authors we know, like, respect, find accessible, and we can trust to dependably produce one good book after another. I bought your new book on dialogue this morning. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Thanks so much, Steve. I like your question for the beta readers. That's wheat we're after.

  6. I can't remember who said this, but I always thought it was great advice for novelists:

    Write something unique or write something uniquely.

    Meaning, (to my ears at least) that success comes if you either have a really original idea for a story (I'm thinking of Benchley and Jaws) or you have a voice that is so fresh that you can resurrect any old story line and make people want to hear how YOU tell it. (A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley comes to mind...her take on King Lear).

    And if you can do both? You've got gold!

    1. Write something unique or write something uniquely.

      Love that, Kris! Thanks.

  7. Great post. I too rarely watch Mad Men, but as luck would have it, I saw that scene.
    The one thing we sometimes forget about social media is that it's *social,* not commercial. There are few things more obnoxious than a Facebook "friend," (a curious use of the word, I still think) who posts almost daily about something he's selling. Social media has to be carefully, thoughtfully nurtured. I have heard it suggested that the time to start building your social media presence is about three years before your book comes out. Let people get to know you. Be amusing, be caring (or at least appear to care - sorry, did that sound cynical?) and then, when you are ready to start selling you'll have a group of people who are interested in you, like you and will be more willing to buy your book and get to know you as an author. But even then you want your pitches to be more soft sell, and not more than a quarter of your posts.
    Who was it who said, "The most important thing is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you've got it made."

    1. Right on to everything you say here, John. Well stated.

  8. Talk about synchronicity. Right after I read your post, Jim, I happened upon a Paris Review interview with the creator/writer of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner. A great read about his creative process! Here's the link:

  9. I always look forward to your Sunday nuggets of gold, Jim. Love your marketing lessons and your categories for your 5 beta readers - and making one of them a professional editor. The rest don't need to be fiction writers, just smart, discerning, analytical readers who read and love your genre.

    And excellent advice about not letting social media gobble up your writing time. And some of my Facebook friends could take a lesson from this great comment of yours: "Your career is a marathon and intemperate remarks can become pebbles in your shoes." I have over 4,000 Facebook "friends," all writers or otherwise involved with writing and publishing, and some people's comments are rabid, inappropriate, too political, too negative, or too personal, as in "Eeww - I really didn't need to know that!" Doesn't do their writing career any good. In fact, if they keep it up, I'll probably unfriend them.

  10. What about sandwich boards? And sky-writing? You didn't mention sky-writing.

    1. Sky writing is a must! It's right up there with Google+

  11. Great post, Jim. It's a great reminder of the balance between product marketing and art:)

  12. Thank you for the great information. I particularly like the seven categories. I just hope I can stay above #7. Whew.

  13. Oh, I'm sorry...were you offering writing advice? I can't get past the picture.

    Good advice just the same :)

  14. Love this post. I like your rating system. It's good to remember that quality is key and everything comes after that. Especially when you feel like you're going to tear your hair out because there's so many details to worry about.

    Not that I would have any experience with that. :D

  15. This reminds me I have a few Mad Men episodes on my DVR. Maybe time for a binge watch?

    It all comes down to product, doesn't it? Such a great reminder that all the razzle dazzle marketing can't fool readers for very long.

    Thanks, James

  16. Very appropriate remarks, especially about social media. Not only should you come across as polite and professional, but also it helps your image to support other writers and share interesting links so you are seen as a useful resource and collaborative colleague.

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