Why I’m Quitting Tobacco

September 7th, 2011

In the fourth season of Mad Men, Don Draper’s advertising agency loses Lucky Strike Cigarettes, their most important account. Their firm relies almost entirely on this account, and in one dinner meeting, it was gone.

How would you handle losing your largest client? Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce handled it by (1) trying to secure their relationship with current clients and (2) gaining new ones.

That sounds like a logical strategy; you make sure your current business stays with you, and then you go after more business. It didn’t work, however. Their current clients became afraid that SCDP wasn’t long for this world, and some decided to move to a different advertising firm, while potential new clients wanted to wait six months to see if SCDP was still around before doing business with them.

Losing their biggest client made them look weak, and sucking up to their current clients and potential new clients made them appear desperate. Their strategy assumed that losing Lucky Strike was in fact a weakness, and thus only confirmed it for their clients.

The agency was spiraling out of control. Because they lost Lucky Strike’s revenue, they couldn’t meet payroll without a loan from the bank, and they began laying off employees. Competing agencies were circling overhead, waiting to pick off clients. They were near death.

Draper, though, had an idea: turn a weakness into a strength. He took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and published an open letter titled “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco.”

He wrote that their agency helped sell cigarettes for 25 years, a product that kills people, but now that Lucky Strike’s taken their business to a different firm, he has a chance to help sell products that don’t kill people, and that SCDP will no longer take tobacco accounts. He went further than that; he then listed several competing agencies who will take tobacco accounts if people are interested.

They might still fail, but Draper gave them a chance to survive. That letter changed the rules of the game. When they were attempting to reassure current clients and gain new ones, they were playing by the rules that said losing your biggest client is a terrible event that means the death of your agency. No matter what they did under those rules, they would lose.

But after the letter, that was no longer true. Instead, losing Lucky Strike became a strength, an opportunity—a chance for them to make an idealistic stand against tobacco.

If you change perspective, sometimes what looks like the end of the world can actually be an opportunity for an even better tomorrow.