Lessons on Ambition from Real-Life “Mad Men” Adman, Kevin Allen

In a wood-paneled, authentically British office in central London, I had the privilege of meeting Kevin Allen, one of the original advertising “Mad Men.” Kevin led massive global teams during his multi-decade tenure at McCann-Erikson and Interpublic Group, including the one that came up with the famous Mastercard “priceless” campaign.

In his new book, The Hidden Agenda, Kevin talks about the fact that everyone has ambition. Real ambition, he says, is the human desire to create something good where nothing existed before. It is a measure of our individual worth, and that of our organization. It has five key qualities.

Noble Intentions

Real ambition serves an overarching goodness and is of benefit to all constituencies. It is the compass that guides all of our activities, and it appeals to the core in all of us that wants to be a part of creating something special.

Clear Intent

Real ambition is not a destination or a “hoped for” goal. It is a steely confidence in what is to come. It is a statement of unequivocal intention and certainty of purpose that makes it clear that “almost” is not good enough and half-measures are no measures at all. Dreams are thoughts, but real ambition is action.

Difficult to Believe

Real ambition is not about increments or percentage points. It’s about making the great leap to a completely new state of being. It is the path that no one thinks is even possible.

Catalytic Core

The emotional content of real ambition is its fuel. The catalyst for real ambition’s action is belief in an idea that is wholeheartedly embraced. Because it motivates, stirs, inspires, and galvanizes, real ambition results in great change and mobilization.


Real ambition is communicated in a way that reaches the hearts of everyone. It is confident and pure, and it has the ability to launch a movement.

On a warm, breezy day in May of 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the very ambitious goal of landing on the Moon before the end of the decade. Said Kennedy to Congress as well as the planet:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space. We choose to go to the moon, and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because they will serve to measure the best of our energies.”

Kennedy had real ambition, and he framed it in a way the American people could comprehend and get behind.

I used to think of “ambitious” as a relatively stable personality trait. But Kevin Allen has made me think there’s much more to it. You can shape your ambition, you can give it to others, and you can use it not just to get ahead, but to make a difference.