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Mad Men: Tragedy, Irony, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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This week’s Mad Men episode put SCDP on a tragically sad track that will trigger even more conflict and deeper soul searching at the agency. In an earlier post, I commented that Lane could not survive his forgery and embezzlement actions since they are egregious breaches of the confidence and trust that are essential in an agency partnership. Trust is the critical issue, not the money Lane “borrowed.”  In Don’s emphatic and unilateral demand for Lane’s resignation, he rejects Lane’s plea for a second chance with a simple, “I can’t trust you anymore.” Unfortunately, Don is dead wrong when he assures Lane that owning up to his misdeeds and resigning was the “worst part” and that “The next thing will be better because it always is.” Lane’s suicide is an unexpected bombshell.

By comparison, the other action at SCDP is a tame sideshow. It is exciting to see Don and Roger rekindling their fire to think big and act boldly, great to watch Joan take her seat at the partners’ table and to see Ken finally beginning to assert himself. There is also a lively partner discussion about the traditional 15% commission system versus fee-based compensation being proposed by Jaguar. As discussed in prior posts, the eventual move to fees would radically alter the business and end the financial glory days of the Mad Men era. Bert Cooper’s research into the pros and cons of both methods leads to his discovery of the “smoking gun” forged check that sets off the chain of events that ends Lane’s life.

An Abyss Of Irony And Despair

Lane’s starts his day with a feeling of pride in being selected by the American Association Of Advertising Agencies to serve as chairman of its financial control board. An ironic appointment given Lane’s recent financial  transgressions. From there, Lane descends into an abyss of desperation, utter despair, and suicide that is excruciatingly painful to watch. The 4A’s is a powerful and prestigious organization and Lane knows this appointment will raise his profile in the industry, help the agency, and boost his standing with the partners. Bert’s discovery of the forged check and Don’s confrontation brings Lane’s prideful moment crashing down on him. In Don’s office with the door closed, Lane moves from feeble defiance, to expressing remorse, to making a desperate plea for another chance. Ironically, Lane tells Don that he chose to forge his name since he felt that Don was always nice to him and that he would “understand.” Don is not moved. He stands firm and shuts the door on any possibility of reaching an accommodation. Lane spirals downward and his wife’s surprise gift of a Jaguar seals his fate. Lane’s attempt to use the Jaguar as his instrument of death fails when the car will not start. It is another ironic twist that his attempt at a “quiet” carbon monoxide poisoning is thwarted by a bad starter. Bert’s only comment to Lane after he announced the Jaguar opportunity was a complaint about the faulty electrical system. And now, Bert uncovers the forged check. I wonder if Bert’s words were echoing in Lane’s mind as he attempted to start the car. The Jaguar malfunction drives Lane to his office for a much more gruesome death by hanging accompanied by a “boilerplate” letter of resignation. It’s very sad and tragic end for Lane. He will be missed and Joan will most likely step in and fill his shoes.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Don’s day also started out with a high-note and haircut. In the barbershop, a principal of one of the losing agencies in the Jaguar pitch, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (DFS), congratulates Don on his big win along with a comment about how much the client was impressed with Pete. It is against this backdrop that Bert approaches Don which leads to Don’s confronting Lane. Don’s judgment that Lane had to leave the agency was the right one. However, he exercised terrible judgment in the way he handled it. First, Don made the unilateral decision to demand Lane’s resignation. Notwithstanding the recent rebuff of Don’s recommendation concerning Joan and Jaguar, a decision of this magnitude requires agreement by all the partners. Then, Don chose to cover up Lane’s cover up with a deception of his own. He offered to make good on the money for Lane and promised to keep the entire incident between them. While Don may have thought he was doing the right thing for Lane, he was definitely not doing right by his partners or himself.

The proper way to handle this was a full disclosure meeting with the partners with Don presenting his recommendations followed by Lane pleading his case. The partners would discuss their options and live by a majority vote on a firm course of action. I believe they would have voted with Don. Now, Don is saddled with guilt over Lane’s suicide and the added burden of coming clean with his partners about the details of how all of this unfolded. How Don handles this will speak volumes about his character and whether his commitment to be bold and brave also includes honesty and integrity. 

Is That All There Is?

Don’s search for his rebirth in the ad business is driving him forward. Recent events at SCDP have awakened his desire for power, prestige, and relevance. The Jaguar win, Joan’s partnership saga, Peggy’s departure, Lane’s breach of trust and Pete’s ascendency have pushed him to make his stand. Don bared his feelings to Roger when he questioned “why do we do this” and having a “delusion that we are going somewhere.”  Don wants to push himself and the partners to think big, act boldly and not be satisfied with working with “piddly shit” accounts. “Jaguar is not enough. We should have Chevy!” Don feels SCDP should have moved more forcefully to replace the Lucky Strike loss with the Dow account. He admitted to being intimidated by Dow CEO Ed Baxter’s comment that big clients do not want to work with SCDP because of Don’s New York Times anti-tobacco ad. There was also the issue of Ken’s reluctance to play ball in landing the business since Ed Baxter is his father-in-law. 

Don’s newly found fervor energized Roger. He secured a meeting with Dow immediately, scheduled cocktails at the Hemisphere Club with Ken to get him on board and was ready for the quest. Roger’s pep talk and reassurances emboldened Don. “I liked the guy I saw here today. I’ve missed him.” At the Dow meeting Don immediately addressed the tobacco ad issue head on and moved to a direct and aggressive discussion about their business. Despite the client’s statements that their business is doing very well and protestations that they are very happy with their agency, McManus, Don was not deterred. Instead, he took a very aggressive and challenging stance. He positioned Dow’s 50 percent market share and  “happiness” with their agency as complacency and barriers to realizing the company’s full potential. He even threw out an idea on how to turn their napalm product into a heroic service to America. Like Don himself, Dow has to think bigger and do more. “I won’t settle for 50% of anything. I want it all.” Don’s somewhat combative stance even surprised Roger, but Don certainly got their attention. Roger delivered a classic Sterlingism to close out this moment — “I’ll buy you a drink if you wipe the blood off of your mouth.”

Finally, the deal that Roger and Ken worked out opened the door to a new dynamic between Ken and Pete. Ken rejected Roger’s usually failsafe offer of “cash for cooperation” and proposed something different. Ken’s price for playing ball is for the partners to say that he is being “forced” to work on the account so he saves face with his wife. He also demanded that Pete is not to touch the business giving Ken control of huge account. This will be interesting.

How will this season’s final episode top Lane’s exit? We’ll see. 

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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.