Don and the gang are back. I can't pretend I'm much of a fan, though being in the role that I am, it's impossible not to have a view on the show. When someone finds out that I run an ad agency, the next question is often 'what do you think of Mad Men?'
To be honest, it's always struck me as being basically ER, but in a 1960s ad agency (a facetious point of view which particularly annoys my wife). However, while I'm not a regular viewer I am definitely a distant and ardent admirer of how the show has been crafted. Every now and again something comes along that isn't just an improvement on its predecessors, but one which makes those that went before look like lame, ersatz imitations; Jurassic Park, Roger Federer, the iPod and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire spring immediately to mind.
When these appear, it is sudden, unexpected and transformational - and like mist lifting it leaves everybody else nakedly groping around, scrabbling to raise their game. Until a new, higher-level status quo is achieved and the cycle repeats. Mad Men, love it or hate, definitely falls into this category.
What sets Mad Men apart is all in the execution - as was ER, arguably. But Mad Men is TV-programming OCD-style, I forever find myself in awe at the all encompassing, uncompromising obsessiveness with which the show is put together. It feels as though the art department is driving themselves to the brink of insanity ensuring the folds in the pocket squares are Fall/Winter 1967 rather than Spring/Summer 1968. Thinking broadly, shows set in the 60s aren't new, long-running dramas aren't new and shows about ad agencies aren't new either. Mad Men, however, has raised the bar for everybody through its how rather than its what.
I'm a little obsessed with execution. Ideas, by and large, are easy - what is hard, often very hard, is the selection of the right idea and then the translation of that idea from the page into reality. In other words, execution. The difference between game-changing excellence and run-of-the-mill is the metaphorical pocket square folds you might say. The real difference is the last 0.1%, which is also the bit that so often gets lost, or is too hard or isn't fully appreciated.
Brilliant execution requires at least a little bit of obsession. But brilliant uncompromising execution is also a defining characteristic of the products, shows, and perhaps even people that we admire, love and covet. It is too easy to assume that once we, as consumers, experience a product, its perfection is inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Who Wants to be a Millionaire's brilliance wasn't simply the grandeur of the prize on offer, it was in the heart stopping, gladiatorial building of tension; the music; the lighting. It would have been far, far easier to do it 99% as well. And 1% worse, means ordinary.
In mine and Don's million-mile-an-hour world, the development and delivery of ideas from drawing board to fruition was compared by a boss of mine (I have many) to a Formula 1 race. The difference between 1st and 2nd is several hundreds of thousandths of a second - after several hours of racing. The margins are miniscule, but the difference in reward huge. This is why execution matters; the result of 99% right won't be the next Mad Men.
Brilliance of execution is the defining characteristic of the products and experiences we love and remember the most. The folding of Don Draper's pocket square should be an example to us all.
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