5 Lessons in Client Management from 'Mad Men'

The new season of Mad Men will transport us back into the late 1960s ­– and if the rumors are correct, the early '70s. But when you step away from the fashion and social turmoil portrayed on the show ­– and the three-martini lunches – it also offers some timeless lessons in client management and the creative process.

1. Don't let the pursuit of a new client destroy your relationship with the good ones you've got. On multiple occasions, the fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper turns cartwheels to get a bigger-name client. They dumped longtime-loyal Mohawk Airlines in an ill-fated attempt to get American Airlines, not to mention the reprehensible steps they took to acquire Jaguar, and the problems caused by Chevy in Season 6. There's unquestionably a thrill of new business, but bigger is not always better ­– particularly if you compromise yourself or drive your creative staff crazy in the process.

2. Diversification is a survival tool. In the first season, Don Draper intoned a line that has remained all-too-true: "The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them." The loss of Lucky Strike, in particular, was illustrative: a high-maintenance but lucrative client that had a lot of leverage over the company due to its disproportionate revenues. So ask yourself, what's the equivalent of Lucky Strike in your business? What would happen if they left? What can you do in advance of that eventuality to make sure it's not a fatal blow?

3. You need to find the magic in the client's product. Some of the more comical brainstorming sessions in Mad Men revolve around products that present, let's say, an advertising challenge. (Most notable among them were Secor Laxatives, the Relax-a-Cizor "weight loss" device, and Topaz Pantyhose.) The lesson? Not every client is as exciting as an airline or car manufacturer, but they still deserve your respect and best effort. Need to get the creative juices flowing? Read (or re-read) Jim Krause's D30: Exercises for Designers.

4. Being creative on the fly can be disastrous. In Season 4's Waldorf Stories, Draper becomes frustrated with his clients from Life cereal when they don't like the campaign the team has come up with. In a flurry, he starts spouting off alternatives, including the groaner, "The cure for the common breakfast," plagiarized from an aspiring ad writer he'd interviewed in the morning. (The client, naturally, loves it.) If a client asks for additional options on the spot, politely decline. You need the time and space to go back, literally, to the drawing board.

5. "Everything’s going to be OK." Draper speaks this phrase in various forms throughout the series. The truth is, not every client is going to be easygoing, or love every one of your ideas ­– and many of them will kibosh the ones that are your favorites. Disasters will happen, sometimes out of nowhere, often because of self-inflicted errors. The key is to build your business and client management strategy in a way that you survive another season. If you do that, you can safely remind yourself that everything will indeed be OK.

Reality, of course, presents more subtle dramas than the fictional world of Madison Avenue. Yet, the overriding themes of loyalty, conflict, camaraderie, jealousy and financial challenges contain lessons in client management that transcend the small screen.

Guest contributor Eileen Burick is the president/CEO of Burick Communication Design. Visit her Briefcase Blog.

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