"During the Depression I saw a man throw a loaf of bread off the back of a truck," says Don Draper at the beginning of this week's episode of Mad Men. "It was more dignified" than a client meeting that Draper just sat in on at Sterling Cooper, his ad agency. The meeting in question involves Horace Cook Jr., an heir to a shipping fortune who intends to spend $3 million on marketing a new jai alai league in America. He is young and full of enthusiasm and has a lavish promotional scheme in mind. Some thoughts:
1. Are you responsible for managing a spendthrift client's behavior? From the beginning, Don is uncomfortable taking Horace Jr.'s money; he scowls when a gleeful Pete Campbell refers to the client as the "fatted calf" and "dressed for the oven." (Having no such qualms, Lane Pryce, the agency's new financial officer, rewards Pete with a "Nicely done my boy.")
Later, however, Draper and Pryce and Bertram Cooper meet with Horace Cook Sr., who admits that he doubts the viability of Junior's vanity project. "My son grew up in a cloud of success," the shipping magnate mutters. "But it was my success." Still, he won't stand in his son's way and gives Sterling Cooper his consent to go after the business. At lunch, Don makes one last stab at convincing Horace Jr. to think twice about jai alai, but the young client remains unmoved. Horace Jr. adds, petulantly, that if the league fails, it will be Sterling Cooper's fault.
The sequence raises interesting questions about entrepreneurial parenting. It also raises questions about clients: Are you responsible for making sure they spend wisely? Don feels instinctively that the big splashy jai alai launch that Horace Jr. wants is ill-advised. Though Sterling Cooper stands to benefit from separating the scion from a healthy chunk of his inheritance, Don seems to think it might be in the agency's best interests to guide Horace Jr. to a more realistic business opportunity.
It's honorable, but is it necessary? Is a business responsible for trimming a client's sails? Some would argue that Don has a responsibility to his staff and to the agency's shareholders to maximize revenue. On the other hand, a campaign that results in financial success for the agency and utter failure for the client could do much to damage Sterling Cooper's reputation. Do you think Don did the right thing?
2. Always have a backup. Another Sterling Cooper client, a diet soft drink named Patio, has hired the agency to create an introductory TV commercial. The ad plays off an Ann-Margret number from Bye Bye Birdie. At the last minute, the director drops out and there's a panic. No backup can be found, so Don taps Sal Romano, the agency's art director, to handle it. But he asks his deputies an important question in passing: What were you going to do if the original director had to be fired? The message: You should always maintain a list of people you can recruit or promote in the event a key member of your team needs to be replaced,
3. Good managers tolerate failure. So the Birdie shoot goes off without a hitch and Sal delivers exactly what the clients said they wanted. And yet they are unhappy. Something's not right, and they deem the commercial unusable. Some bloggers have suggested that the spot was rejected for being too overtly gay. Roger thinks the problem is, simply, "It's not Ann-Margret." (Bonus: Here's a real commercial that Ann-Margret did for Canada Dry in the late '60s. Trippy.)
Dejected, Sal goes to see Don, who surprises him by saying that "the only good thing" to come out of the botched commercial was that Sal proved himself as a commercial director. This thrills Sal, because he has lately been worrying about his future. "No one wants illustrations any more," he tells his wife Kitty. "It's all about photography now." That Don endorses Sal's work despite the client's rejection shows that he is not rattled by failure--although he can't help himself from taking a dig at Sal's failure with the Patio assignment, saying "I hope that never happens to me."
4. When naming a company, avoid a silent consonant. Having won Horace Jr.'s business, the team at Sterling Cooper plays with some jai alai equipment supplied by the nascent "National Jai Alai Association" or NJAA. Horace Jr. has no idea how confusing "that J" will be for the American public, Don notes dryly. Then he breaks a glass ant farm with an errant ball and says, "Bill it to the kid."
Would your employees argue that your organizational hierarchy produces its haves and its have-nots? That's the question posed in the third episode of Mad Men (Season 3). It's a warm, end-of-summer weekend, and Roger Sterling and his fiancée Jane (who is Don's former secretary) are hosting a party at their club. The guest list causes a stir among Sterling Cooper's middle management. The two new heads of accounts, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove, make the cut, as does Harry Crane, the head of the agency's TV division. But the creative staff (with the exception of creative director Don Draper) are not included and they grumble about it—a phenomenon my colleague Leigh Buchanan surveyed in this column. Adding insult to injury, the copywriters are asked to work all weekend on a pitch for the rum company Bacardi.
Among the management lessons that made their way into the teleplay this week:
1. Nobody actually enjoys forced work socializing. Even as the creative staff sulks back at the office in midtown, the lucky few invited to the club are a tense and nervous lot. Betty and Don can't conceal the fact that they would rather be somewhere else, even though they feel perfectly comfortable at Roger's table. Pete and his wife Trudy do a nice job of blending into the WASP-y habitat (though perhaps they are a little too comfortable), but Pete's efforts to butter up Don and Roger are mostly fruitless, and he is dejected. Harry, meanwhile, is paralyzed by the fear that he will somehow embarrass himself; his wife Jennifer is more confident if not especially socially adroit.
Point being, people are not really having fun.
Of course, that may not have been Roger's objective in the first place. But bosses would do well to remember this little tip: inviting members of your management team to a party all but ensures that it will be a really terrible party.
2. If you slight a worker, he will inevitably act out. Rebuffed by Roger, copywriters Peggy, Smitty, and Paul halfheartedly attempt to work on the Bacardi campaign. As morning turns to afternoon, creative block becomes procrastination, which becomes screwing around. Egged on by Smitty, Paul calls Miles, a college singing buddy who is now a pot dealer, and they all smoke up in the office to the dismay of Peggy's new secretary Olive.
3. Collaboration is great, but one worker alone in her office can often be more productive than three in a conference room. The Bacardi project is a mess and the more the group talks it over, the further they seem to get from coming up with a usable idea. Similarly, when a chunk of the staff gathers to cast a woman to appear in a commercial for Patio, a new diet cola, the meeting becomes chaotic.
The only real progress on the Bacardi deadline is made at the very end of the episode when a starry-eyed Peggy dismisses the guys and heads into her office with a Dicta Phone and a germ of an idea.
4. If you're the boss, take note: Everyone is watching you. When Don and Betty arrive at Roger's party, it becomes clear that all of the middle managers and their wives are eager to curry favor. It also becomes clear that Pete and Trudy and Ken and Harry and Jennifer know and think a lot more about Betty than she thinks about them. They're up on her pregnancy and what she and Don do in their spare time.
Similarly, Olive seems to be very watchful over her new boss, Peggy. (Peggy soon realizes that this is because the older woman wants her to succeed, and worries she's putting her advancement at risk.)
This theme of staff scrutiny reminded me of a story that Eric Kriss, a cofounder of Bain Capital, once told me. He was running a company and, at the time, he drove an old, beat-up car. One day, he came to work, and a top programmer pulled him aside.
Just how badly were the company's finances? the programmer asked.
Kriss was surprised by the question—the company was doing fine, he said.
Nobody would drive that car unless their company was on the verge of failure, the programmer replied.
The lesson? Even when you don't think you're sending any signals, your employees are looking for clues that reveal your mood and, by extension, the health of the company and, by extension, how secure their jobs are. Whether you like it or not, performance is part of any leader's job description.
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