Five things charity communicators can learn from Mad Men

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

Those are the words of Don Draper, top creative in the US drama Mad Men, set in a 1960s New York advertising agency.

I came to Mad Men, which first aired in 2007, quite late and I’m busy working my way through four seasons’ worth of box sets to catch up. I don’t feel entirely guilty for giving the show so much of my time. It seems to me that there are so many parallels between what we do as charity communicators and what the ad men and women at Sterling Cooper do in the show.

I’m a firm believer in learning lessons from popular culture and Mad Men is full of them.

Here are five things I think we can learn from the US show:

1. Tell a story.

Mad Men’s top ad man Don Draper knows how to tell a story. When his colleagues flail in meetings, he’ll stand up and make their ideas come to life by telling the story of the campaign they’ve come up with. Good charity writing should do the same, whether it’s a grant application or direct mail. Say you have to sell a campaign to a donor. Starting by telling them about what you want the campaign to achieve and going on to talk about the logistics of it won’t tell your story as well as it would if you began by saying why it is needed. That’s because you need to first show the change you want to achieve and gain your readers’ empathy.

So, instead of:

Our pancreatic cancer research centre will be the biggest in the world with 100 scientists and high tech laboratories that will help develop better treatments for the devastating disease.

You could have:

Sam Jones never touched cigarettes, ate his five a day – every day – and went to the gym before work. “I’ve always been health conscious,” says the 55 year old dad of two. “I never dreamed I’d get cancer – and I’d never heard of pancreatic cancer.”

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago, doctors can’t tell Sam why he developed the disease because they don’t know exactly why people get it. We are launching a pancreatic cancer research centre to help change this – to save the lives of people like Sam.

2. Think outside your office.

Creative staff at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper, especially main character Don Draper, are always scribbling on bits of paper, napkins and notebooks when they think of an idea. In the same way, let ideas for your charity’s communications digest, develop and come to mind when you’re away from your desk and the meeting room. An idea for a great slogan is likely to pop into your head when you allow yourself to stop thinking about it for a bit and, in my experience, the best headlines or introductions are rarely formed when you stare at a blank screen.

3. Beware of stereotypes.

Many episodes of Mad Men show us that when advertising campaigns are based on stereotypes, such as gender or race, they fail. Of course, Mad Men shows developing 1960s North American society and we’ve moved on a long way since then – thankfully. Though many charity causes battle against common stereotypes, often their communications can help perpetuate them. Are you still referring to a “chairman” rather than a “chair” or a “spokesman” rather than a “spokesperson”? Or, if you work for a children’s charity and are writing about a mentoring project, does your reader need to know that the mentee used to be in a “girl gang” rather than a “gang”? Does it matter if you say whether someone is married or single? Only include information like this if it is essential to your point, otherwise it’s a value judgement.

4. Discuss your ideas – and listen to everyone else’s.

There are a lot of meetings in Mad Men – from discussing ideas for campaigns to who’s going to work on them. And while sometimes organisations are guilty of having too many meetings about meetings, it can also be easy not to have them at all. I’m sure we’ve all sent an email to someone who we really should have phoned. It’s a good idea to organise regular meetings with departments you’d like to contribute to your communications to get more buy in from them. So, you could organise a meeting with your fundraising team to find out what support you could offer each other in the next month or with policy to get them to explain issues they want you to communicate to the wider world in plain English.

5. Challenge the status quo.

Mad Men shows how society has become less sexist, racist and elitist. By highlighting the fact that not everything has changed since the 1960s, though, it also shows how far we still have to go before everyone is equal. In every communication your charity produces you should show how far society has come in solving the problem you want to solve, and what else needs to be done. People need to know why you exist (what you do) and what concrete things you want to see happen in the future (why you do it). This might sound like an obvious thing to say but there are far too many charity websites, annual reviews and strategy documents which don’t explain either.

If you need help with a charity copywriting project, big or small, do contact me on or 07974 185 541.

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