Why Asking Nicely Works Or How Coke Got A Bunch Of Free Publicity And Mad Men Got The Ending It Wanted

Final image of Don Draper on Mad Men series finale © AMC.

Final image of Don Draper on Mad Men series finale © AMC.

You'd be surprised how much you can get - a discount, a favor, a deal, anything - simply by asking nicely. Obviously this isn’t applicable to all situations, and I’ll admit a certain degree of optimism (naïveté?) about peoples’ willingness to help. But in life and business I have found this to be true more often than not.

So when I read this story about Matthew Weiner securing Coca-Cola’s “Hilltop” ad to close out Mad Men's series finale, I wasn't surprised. When I learned that the execs at Coca-Cola gave Weiner carte blanche to use the ad however he wanted, I didn’t bat an eye. And when I read that Coca-Cola supplied the ad to Weiner free of charge, I wouldn't budge from my stoic certitude. 

Asking nicely works. 

Yes this old chestnut. In my own law practice, I rarely come on strong with a client or opponent unless it’s absolutely necessary (sometimes not even then) and I think it generally works to my advantage. Again and again I kill ‘em with kindness - not to be confused with meekness - and I have found that most people, even adversaries, treat you with respect if they sense you’re negotiating in good faith. Coming on strong robs you of that advantage. It makes you an opponent instead of a person, and it becomes much easier to justify screwing you over if you're not seen as a person. If I die and people remember me as “the nice lawyer,” I know I’ll have done it right. I’m sure many attorneys out there will disagree with me. To them I would say, “that’s fine. Let’s go grab a beer.” I don't just beat the drum incessantly, I dance to the tune as well.

We know very little about Weiner’s deal with Coca-Cola, but there’s still something we can reasonably surmise: Weiner, who has a reputation for being difficult and demanding, asked nicely. He must have. You don't offer your most famous ad to someone free of charge and with no strings attached if that person comes in like a wrecking ball. How else do rival studios like Marvel and Sony make a cash-free deal over a character as profitable as Spider-Man? Believe me, as beloved as Mad Men is, Weiner had more to lose than Coca-Cola did, and I’m sure he knew it. Coming on strong would have immediately soured the deal.

And make no mistake, “Hilltop" is probably the most famous television commercial in history. It's Coke's calling card. The ad came out nine years before I was born, but even as a small child I knew that song, even when I didn’t understand its broader historical and cultural significance. After seeing the series finale, it’s clear that “Hilltop” was necessary to drive home Weiner’s thematic points about Don Draper’s journey. To not have it would have lessened the finale and robbed it of that final glorious statement… whatever it is. I’m still figuring it out.

No matter. 

There’s a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes strip that I think sums up how a lot of lawyers approach negotiation, even with their own clients:

Calvin & Hobbes © Bill Watterson.

Calvin & Hobbes © Bill Watterson.

Negotiation is often treated like a battle for every scrap, and when you don't get everything you want, you've lost. I don’t approach any negotiation this way. I want us both to win (yes even my opponent) and I make that clear early and often. How can we both benefit from this? It's as much about tone as it is about content, and coming to it from a generous perspective makes all the difference. By approaching Coca-Cola with this mindset, Weiner got to end his magnum opus on his terms and Coca-Cola got some free good press which, in era of declining soda sales because of associated health risks, is not something to be thrown away lightly. And Coca-Cola, for its part, didn’t spoil the moment, tweeting this:

It’s not easy to buy good press like this. But you might be able to get it for free.
 

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA