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5 Management Lessons from "Mad Men"
 

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The third season of Mad Men, the critically-acclaimed television series set during the golden age of advertising in the 1960s, debuted on Sunday night. I'm a big fan of the show for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the show's writers scatter interesting observations about business and corporate culture among the stubbed-out cigarettes and empty bottles of scotch. Here are a few takeaways from the premiere episode:

1. Most acquisitions don't pan out as planned. From the start, this season's action seems to revolve around the consequences of the decision of partners Roger Sterling, Bertram Cooper, and Don Draper to sell their agency, Sterling Cooper, to a larger British firm, Putnam, Powell and Lowe. The agency's new chief financial officer, Lane Pryce*, has spent the show's hiatus laying off staff, and morale is low. New staffers from London are butting heads with their New York counterparts, including Joan Holloway, the agency's office manager, who is as perspicacious and mischievous as she is curvaceous. Elsewhere, the head of accounts, a firm veteran, is let go. He takes the news poorly. In a nice touch, the writers have an ebullient Roger stumble in on the termination meeting. While the cashed-out entrepreneur is buying antiques and traveling, some of the key employees who helped him build the agency are getting shown the door. It's clear he doesn't feel particularly badly about his good fortune, or his employee's loss of work. In his mind, why should he? It's not enlightened management, but it's an honest portrayal of something that all entrepreneurs who intend to sell their business some day have to reckon with. When you sell out, employees will have to live with the consequences of that decision, and it isn't always or even often pretty. Don't kid yourself that it will be any other way.

2. Everyone responds differently to the co-management model. After the head of accounts storms out, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove are promoted to replace him, with each being awarded responsibility for half of the agency's accounts. For a day, Pryce lets each man think that the job is his and his alone; once he has disabused them of that notion, the CFO darkly observes that the arrangement could be changed if "one man distinguishes himself." Splitting a team between two managers and encouraging competition between them is a time-honored management gimmick embraced by many investment banks and other dog-eat-dog workplaces. The model has some strengths: It creates ethical and financial checks and balances. If one manager leaves, there is no gap in continuity. And co-managers can bring different skills to a team. On Mad Men, Ken Cosgrove seems to be satisfied with the arrangement, and suggests that he and Pete Campbell avoid one-upping each other. But a sulky Campbell feels that he deserves the top job all on his own. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, two heads are generally better than one, and an employee who doesn't have a peer to push--and to be pushed by--tends to be less motivated than one who does. On the other hand, an agency with a culture of trench warfare tends not to be commercially successful. What do you think? Is the co-management model effective, even in a situation where it's clear that internecine conflict will ensue?

3. Building a brand: To focus or not to focus? That is the question. Creative Director Draper and Art Director Salvatore Romano travel to Baltimore to visit a key client, London Fog, the raincoat company. The business is going through a generational transition, as an aging president hands over the reins to his younger son. The family-run company dominates its niche, but is now contemplating adding new product lines such as hats and umbrellas. Draper counsels caution ("You stand for one thing"), but the London Fog folks worry that they need to expand or else they'll be overtaken by competitors. "Everyone who is going to buy a raincoat from us already has," the owner frets. My vote: Add new products.

4. A capable junior employee may struggle when promoted to a higher level. Poor Peggy! She was a rock star assistant who was able to make unexpected creative contributions and guard Don's schedule with zeal. Now she's been promoted to copywriter, and she has to manage her own assistant, who would rather flirt than help her boss place a phone call. Peggy is learning the hard way that not everyone is as dedicated as she is. Will she allow the secretary to disobey her, or will she whip her into shape?

5. You learn more about what makes your staff tick on the road than you ever could in the office. Poor Sal! He was inadvertently outed in Baltimore when the hotel's fire alarm went off and Draper discovered Sal canoodling with a frisky bellhop. Today, of course, (a.) Sal would be flaming; (b.) he would not be invited on a client visit, in any case; and (c.) nobody would budge from their room when the hotel's fire alarm went off in the middle of the night.

What other themes from this week's episode struck you as relevant to today's entrepreneurs?

* In my original post, I incorrectly referred to the character Lane Pryce as Saint John Powell; Powell is Pryce's boss back in London.

Last updated: Aug 18, 2009




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