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Mad Men: Bad Things Happen In Threes

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Personal trauma and professional troubles intermingled in powerful ways on this week’s episode. Don’s lies about his past collided with current business realities that jeopardize significant new account revenue for SCDP—sorely needed revenue at a time when the agency is about to absorb a major body blow with the loss of Lucky Strike. On top of that, three of the agency’s partners were simultaneously dealing with profound personal issues. Don was having panic attacks about the potential collateral damage that could be caused by the secrets of his past. Joan’s pregnancy was taking an emotional toll on Roger and potentially creating operational disruptions. Lane’s leave of absence to deal with family matters would mean that SCDP would be without its financial master and conscience. All of this was swirling up into a storm of distractions from day-to-day operations at a very inopportune time.

Two Sides Of The Defense Business

The scenario involving the North American Aviation account pointed out some of the realities of working with a defense contractor. About 15 years ago at McCann-Erickson I had the opportunity to work closely with McDonnell Douglas aviation, a positive and enlightening experience for which we also had to go through a clearing process similar to the partners at SCDP. Defense contractor accounts have always been complicated for agencies. They usually were profitable pieces of business with solid revenue and reasonable stability. However, working with a government contractor also required very special handling and nurturing by account management, heightened confidentiality, full personal disclosure, financial and operational scrutiny, and the hiring of specialty creative teams. Additionally, agencies with defense contractors on their roster were sometimes subject to criticism and singling out by activists, an especially complex client dynamic in those wonderful Mad Men days.

Pete Has Don’s Back – Don Backs Up Pete

The situation on the NAA account once again put Don and Pete at a crossroads. When Pete declared that he had spent the last four years nurturing the NAA account “from cocktails to a four million dollar business” he was not exaggerating the work and dedication it took to build the business. Don’s curt response to “get rid of it” showed just how desperate things had become for him. Pete’s agreement to cover for Don and resign the account brought Pete to the realization that without Don, SCDP would not be a viable agency. The partners meeting in which an obviously stressed and usually unflappable Roger berated Pete for screwing up the NAA business brought Don to Pete’s defense. Strange bedfellows made even stranger after Pete showed up at Don’s apartment and found Faye there. As Pete put it, “I come here unannounced and here’s yet another thing I don’t want to know.”

The Agency Partnership

Partner relationships at agencies are complex, intense, personal, and always evolving. These dynamics are made even more volatile by the need to excel creatively, client pressures, and the general “living on the edge” nature of the business. I can recall similarly intense conference room scenes in the early ’70’s at DKG where partner allegiances and support shifted dramatically from situation to situation. Seven partners, seven egos, and sometimes seven divergent points of view. In the end, however, we always converged and coalesced around what would be best for the success of the agency and our clients. That same positive partnership dynamic exists for me today at The Concept Farm. Fortunately, some things don’t change. Let’s hope that the partners at SCDP act accordingly.

The Dreaded “C” Word – Consolidation

Lee Garner drops the bombshell on Roger that Lucky Strike is dropping SCDP from its agency roster and consolidating its business at BBDO. Wow! When clients consolidate business it means that a few agencies lose and one or two of their rivals win big. It can happen at any time to any agency with any account. An agency can be a winner one day with one client and a loser the next day with another. It’s part of the business. And while losing a piece of business in a consolidation doesn’t quite have the negative stigma of being fired for cause or doing lousy work, it doesn’t sting any less. In fact, it usually hurts even more as evidenced by Roger’s reaction to Lee: “Are you trying to kill me?”

The Other “C” Word

When agency folks hear the word consolidation we know that there is almost always another “C” word underpinning it all — cost. Sure, other factors like streamlining agency alignments, making the most of assets, more efficient channels of communication, etc. come into play, but, in the end, the driving motivator is saving money. One agency handling all of the business will charge less (and hopefully deliver more) than a few agencies with individual cost structures handling pieces. The debate over the pros and cons of consolidation could fill an entire episode of Mad Men. Suffice it to say that it is a very big deal with deep ripple effects.The prospects of SCDP without the Lucky Strike account were unfathomable to Roger, an ironic turn of events since Roger leveraged his 25-year relationship with Lucky Strike to bring them along as the founding cornerstone account of SCDP.

Roger’s Instincts Kick In

Watching Roger get fired by Lee and his reactions and subsequent actions was particularly poignant for me. It’s a situation I’ve been in more than once and from three different perspectives: loser at one agency, winner a few times, and driver of an agency consolidation when I worked for Brown Forman. When Lee announced that he would pick up the check and that he wanted to level with Roger, Roger’s first reaction was “Uh-oh.” He knew something bad was coming but in typical Roger style he tried to diffuse it right then and there using all the standard old school Mad Men ploys. He told Lee, “If you’re putting us through hoops just let me know and we’ll jump through them. If we’re in a shoot-out we’ll put Don Draper in the room against BBDO and we’ll win.” He played the loyalty “you owe me” card.

Lee let him know that it was a board decision, not based on cause or dissatisfaction, but on a better deal; and by the way, “I don’t owe you squat.”  Roger knew it was futile and bought himself some time by getting Lee to agree to a 30-day postponement of any announcement to “get our affairs in order.” He and Lee then had that all-important “no hard feelings, it’s just business” handshake. Roger also knew that in the agency business you never burn client bridges. They are much too valuable and irreplaceable. Roger then went back the office, pulled out his Rolodex, and began dialing for support to see if he could leverage his relationships to get things changed. When some of the people Roger called were dead he seemed to realize that it was a new day on Madison Avenue.

In the partners meeting Roger was asked the status of the Lucky Strike account. He flashed a thumbs up, knowing full well the gravity of the situation. The very viability of the agency was being threatened. How and when would Roger let the partners know? What will they do to replace Lucky Strike? Would Lane ever return?  Will Don come clean?

The stage is set for some major upheaval at SCDP. It should be one hell of an episode next week.

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About Hank Wasiak

Hank Wasiak is a communications industry leader and partner at the creative hot shop, The Concept Farm. Hank began his advertising career in 1965 as a real Mad Man at Benton & Bowles. He is a best selling author, teacher, motivational speaker and three time Emmy award winning television host. Hank and Dr. Kathy Cramer created a best selling business - self help book series based on Asset-Based Thinking published by Running Press. Hank also is an Adjunct Professor at USC's Marshall School Of Business.