What the return of Don Draper can teach us about successful media brands


The eagerly-anticipated fourth series of Mad Men launches in the UK tomorrow on BBC Four.

In the words of the Los Angeles Times it is quite simply “the best show on television”. Awarded an Emmy for best drama series last month for an unprecedented third year in a row, Mad Men has also achieved a similar feat in the Golden Globes.

Beyond the excesses and troubles of the mad men (and women) of Sterling Cooper, what’s interesting is that when series one appeared back in 2007 it was the first original drama from a relatively low-profile US cable channel that primarily aired movies – AMC. Standing for American Movie Classics, a few years ago you would be more likely to find a Marx Brothers marathon than a superbly crafted and critically-acclaimed original commission. Yet Mad Men has helped to transform AMC into “the new HBO”, with a second award-winning drama, Breaking Bad, also bringing new viewers to the channel. AMC’s latest new production, the conspiracy thriller Rubicon, has already been acquired by BBC Four.

There’s a lesson in the AMC story for brands competing in today’s hugely competitive media market. Their single-minded focus on what they describe as “a commitment to the art of storytelling” has enabled them to stretch the brand beyond their heritage as a home of classic movies to original, compelling TV drama. AMC is now both a curator and creator of great stories.

There has been a lot of debate recently amongst media commentators and bloggers about these two terms. Author Seth Godin talks about the world shifting from content makers to content curators. Steve Rosenbaum (magnify.net) talks about the Aggregation Economy and goes as far as to say that “curation is the new role of media professionals”. Yet media entrepreneur Mark Cuban describes institutions that merely gather and curate content as “vampires” who “take but don’t give anything back”.

The AMC case study casts a different light on this debate. It shows that a strong media brand can play both roles, so long as it has a razor-sharp proposition or “organising idea” – in AMC’s case, an uncompromising celebration of great storytelling.

There are parallels with a number of TV brands here in the UK, for example our work with UKTV’s channel Dave. In its previous incarnation as UKTV G2, its identity and positioning were almost invisible. Re-created with the unexpected name Dave as “the home of witty banter”, the brand focused on a clear target audience (defined as 16-44 men) and became a high-profile curator of popular comedies and panel shows loved by this audience. The impact on audience share was dramatic and enduring, increasing by over 70% in pay TV homes in which the only immediate changes were to the channel’s name and brand identity (not the programmes, schedule or availability).

Building on this success, Dave could stretch with confidence to the role of creator, commissioning a number of successful new shows with comedy royalty including John Cleese and reviving much-loved programmes like Red Dwarf with innovative and award-winning multi-platform content.

So, arguably, the creator vs. curator debate misses a key point. A successful brand in today’s entertainment economy can be one, or the other, or both. But it can only compete and cut through if it has a clear proposition, based on deep audience insight and then carried through with commitment and dedication across all audience touch points.

The clue to success lies in the dictionary definition of the word “curator”: “a person charged with the procurement, care and research of a collection”. The key word here is “care”. The word “curator” derives from the Latin “one who cares”.

By bringing us perfectly conceived and executed original dramas alongside lovingly presented classic movies, AMC demonstrates that it cares about storytelling. As its strapline says, “Story Matters Here”. Similarly, Dave consistently proves to its audience that it cares about “witty banter”. To quote Don Draper, the legendary “mad man” (in the brilliant Kodak carousel scene), “there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash - when they have a sentimental bond with the product." A TV brand that shows it cares has a much better chance of creating a sentimental bond with the audience and succeeding in the intense battle for attention that characterises today’s media market.

Andy Bryant, Director, Creative