What Don Draper and Gordon Gekko Have to Teach Us

Posted 09.29.2010

Draper-gekko Don Draper and Gordon Gekko are two guys who are making a lot of money.  While that statement may be true in the fictional realm, it’s definitely true in the literal realm. Over the past four years, Mad Men, with its lead character, advertising exec Don Draper, has become more and more popular as evidenced by ratings, buzz and marketing tie-ins. This past weekend, Gordon Gekko was back in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It was number one at the box office.

What is it about these two guys that fascinates us so much? A lot of it can be summed up in a funny bit that actor Jon Hamm did in character for Saturday Night LiveDon Draper’s Guide to Picking Up Women. The secret, as Don says, is to have a great name, look fantastic in a suit, look fantastic in casual wear, be uncannily successful at your job and blow people away anytime you say anything.

All of that seems to work for Gordon Gekko as well – especially the part about blow people away anytime you say anything. My wife and I went to see Wall Street 2 over the weekend and loved it. One of the early scenes in the movie is Gekko giving a speech to promote his new book, Is Greed Good?, to a full house of business school students. Since this is a PG-13 rated blog, I won’t share his opening line but there are a lot of good ones such as, “You’re the NINJA generation – no income, no jobs, no assets.”  

So, what , if anything, can we learn from Draper and Gekko?

Well, first, if you want to make a lasting impression, it helps a lot to have Hollywood’s best costumers and writers supplying your wardrobe and one liners. Second, rising to the top of your field requires a lot of work. It doesn’t happen by accident. Both Draper and Gekko are consumed with their careers. Which brings us to a third lesson – life is complicated and involves difficult choices. Draper and Gekko are both captivating but deeply flawed human beings. In his search to determine what kind of person he really wants to be, Draper works relentlessly, sleeps around and drinks indiscriminately while losing his family in the process. Gekko, after serving an eight year term for insider trading, seems to sincerely want reconciliation with what’s left of his family but can’t resist the siren call of big money (it never sleeps after all).

That, I think, is why these two characters have so much resonance. We get to watch them sorting through their choices and conflicts. Leaders, and all human beings, have to do that all the time. Sometimes we choose more wisely than others. 

In a classic scene from the first season of Mad Men, Draper is pitching a couple of execs from Kodak on what would become the name of the Carousel slide projector. He uses the projector to show photos of the family and life that he knows he’s in the process of losing. He begins by talking about an old copywriter he used to work with named Teddy. Draper says,

Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means "the pain of an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone…

This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine. It goes backwards. Forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called The Wheel. It's called The Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

Like I said, it’s nice to have some of the best writers in Hollywood supplying your lines. That said, Draper’s pitch is a nice reminder that our choices have consequences. May we all choose wisely.