“The Better Half” is an episode of connections, reconnections and disconnections that deftly intertwines business and personal lives. There is an ever present blaring of sirens that punctuates changes and choices, setting the stage for new and radically altered relationships.
Without the benefit of Dr. Hecht’s vitamin serum, it’s back to reality at the office. The agency is still trying to solidify its identity (and name) and the partners are grappling with carving out their roles and responsibilities. Don and Ted are doing the “who’s in charge here?” mating dance and Peggy is caught in the middle. Pete is coming to grips with his growing irrelevance by exploring options and Bob Benson continues to be the boy scout of the agency ingratiating himself with the partners in any way he can. Family ties pull and tug at just about everyone’s personal relationships in seemingly more hopeful directions. Roger, Pete and Don, confront their dualities and the unsettling realities of their lives and family relationships. Betty rediscovers her beauty and confidence and uses both to her benefit with Don and Henry. Megan comes to grips with the reality of her failing marriage and tries to get through to Don. Joan is enjoying her time with Bob while continuing to shield her son from Roger and even finds the time to give Pete advice on how to deal with his mother. Peggy is perhaps hit the hardest by a mean and gory breakup with Abe, an unexpected rejection by Ted and yet another cold shoulder from Don.
Please, Like My Idea
In the agency’s conference room, Don and Ted argue over whose strategy is best for Fleischmann’s margarine while Pete and Harry look on. Ted argues for a strategy that sells Fleischmann’s “mouthwatering, delicious taste at a better price” while Don thinks it should be solely focused on taste This is an important discussion since the strategy that gets agreed upon will direct all of the agency’s creative work and ultimate success with an important the client. It’s not uncommon to have differences of opinion on core strategies and they usually generate healthy debates that challenge critical thinking.
These are precisely the situations requiring the firm hand of the creative director to make the tough strategic call, and then motivate everyone to deliver great ideas that bring it to life. Unfortunately, Don and Ted have not yet worked out how to share leadership responsibilities and the rest of the staff is put in the middle of awkward debates and differences of opinion. Pete tries to resolve the issue by declaring, “Since I have the ear of the client I recommend we go on taste alone.”
Both Don and Ted ignore Pete’s comments further fueling his insecurities. They call in Peggy for her always to be depended upon candid opinion. Not this time. Peggy is obviously uncomfortable with being in the middle of her old new boss, Don, and her newer boss, Ted. She cops out saying, “They both sound good”, which is not the answer they were looking for. Finally Don and Ted retreat to neutral corners and Ted says, “Let’s go with yours” and Don shoots back, “Go with what you are most comfortable with”. How’s that for creative leadership. When Harry and Pete are alone in the conference room Harry tells Pete to open his eyes to the dysfunctional mess at the agency and lets him know that, on the street, the agency is seen as floundering and lacking leadership. Harry recounts his meeting with a headhunter and suggests that Pete do the same. Harry also quickly adds that he has no immediate plans to leave: “When things settle down, I’m going to be a partner.” Name on the door? Not so sure.
Later, in Peggy’s office, Don confronts Peggy about her lack of decisiveness. He is confident that Peggy knows his idea is better and was relying on her to validate that with Ted. He sarcastically chides Peggy, “I’m not paying you to be a diplomat?”. Peggy blast Don by asking him, “How did I become in charge of building collaboration around here?”. Peggy tells Don, “The difference between you and Ted is that Ted is interested in the best idea, and you are only is interested in your idea.” Don tells Peggy not to kid herself and says, “Oh yes he is!” Don and Ted have not yet found the right collaborative mix and, unfortunately for Peggy, the worst manifestations of that are yet to come.
Pete Covers His Assets
Encouraged by Harry, Pete meets with a headhunter who turns out to be former “Mad Man”, Duck Phillips. Very often agency management moves over to the talent recruiting side of the business. Talent search firms were used more extensively then and often specialized in certain skill sets, like account management, media and creative. They were boutique firms that used their knowledge of the business, personal contacts and ability to tap into agency talent pools to match people with positions. Agency headhunters were paid handsome fees by the agencies, usually based on a percentage of the person’s salary, and built up a loyal clientele among the larger agencies. Judy Wald established one of the best-known firms that specialized in creative talent in 1967. Judy had great connections and knew everyone in the business. Duck Phillips specializes in the marketing management side the business and is a good resource for Pete. When they meet at Pete’s apartment Duck gives Pete a sobering view of his situation. Duck tells Pete that the merged agency has a spotty image and undefined management roles. Duck questions Pete’s role at the new agency saying, “There’s still a lot of chiefs and only a couple of Indians.” He adds that the loss of Pete’s pocket account, Vicks, could also seriously hamper his ability to land a major position at another agency. Duck mentions that he was able to secure Burt Johnson a VP position at McCann because the merger was fresh news. McCann is a blue chip boy’s club agency and Duck comments “Burt is set for life if he just keeps his head down.” When I arrived at McCann in the mid ‘80s the agency was a global powerhouse with many of the Mad Men era traits still lingering. My friend Nina Disesa wrote a great book, “Seducing The Boys Club”, chronicling her rise to the top of that male dominated agency. It’s a great read.
Duck suggests that Pete consider moving over to the client side and encourages him to look at a marketing position in Phoenix. Shifting from agency to client was a sought after move by agency account men. I did just that in in 1979 when I moved from President of Ketchum Advertising in New York and accepted a position as President of Brown Forman’s Joseph Garneau Division in Louisville Kentucky. It was a life and career changing experience for me. If Pete is serious about “painting a new portrait of himself” he should listen to Duck and get his personal life in order and consider broader horizons. Pete seems ready to make a new start…maybe.
Peggy Gets Crushed From All Sides
As copy chief of the agency, Peggy feels the pressure of divided loyalties between Don and Ted. Peggy increasingly finds herself having to choose between Don and Ted causing her to be tense, cautious and not her usual, candid self. This is further complicated by the underlying sexual attraction between Peggy and Ted. In Ted’s office Peggy is surprised when Ted reprimands her for accidentally touching his hand during the Fleischmann’s presentation. It threw him “off his game. Ted admits he has feelings for Peggy, and says, “I don’t want to. That’s the point.” Peggy admits she feels the same way and even asks if Ted would like her to leave and work at another agency. They agree not to take it any further. In the meantime, on the crime-ridden Upper West Side, Peggy’s relationship with Abe is falling apart because she lives in constant fear of the neighborhood thugs and because of her growing feelings for Ted. Unfortunately Peggy and Abe are a little ahead of the gentrification curve. When I moved to the Upper West Side in the ‘70s the neighborhood was turning around. After Abe is stabbed, the police visit their home and Abe agrees that they should sell the apartment. Just as Peggy is beginning to see her way out something totally unexpected happens. Fearing a break-in, Peggy inadvertently stabs Abe with a homemade spear and this leads to a break-up that is powerful and bizarre. On the way to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, Abe casts Peggy aside by telling her, “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment; I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.”
After this harrowing evening, a totally exhausted and disheveled Peggy seeks solace in Ted’s office and tells him that she and Abe are finished. Peggy expects comfort and “open arms” but she gets neither. Ted dispassionately tells Peggy that she’ll find someone else and he will be a “lucky guy”. Pow! Peggy then sees Don who yells across the hallway to ask Ted about Fleischmann’s. Ted cheerfully tells him they sold the campaign and says, “Full speed ahead.” “The Better Half” begins with Peggy being unwilling to choose between Don and Ted and it ends with both of them closing their doors on her. Maybe this will be the catalyst for Peggy to free herself of her mentors and carve out her own path. She will bounce back.
A few lingering thoughts. Now that Don has admitted to Betty that “sex doesn’t mean that much to me”, will there be a reconciliation with Megan, domination with Sylvia, an encore with Betty? Is Bob Benson really the good guy that he seems to be? Be careful Joan.