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Mad Men, Episode 2: Client Lies

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The second episode of Mad Men (Season 3) focused primarily on the private lives of some of the main characters. Betty's dad is not well, leading to tension between her and her brother; Peggy struggles to reconcile her ambition and her feminine identity; and Don juggles domestic responsibility with his earthier (make that grassier?) impulses.

Then there's a storyline about a controversial new client for the agency: the developers who want to demolish the old Penn Station in New York, and replace it with Madison Square Garden. In Mad Men's parallel universe, Sterling Cooper is in the running to be retained by the developers of the Garden to quell public criticism of the project. Viewers, of course, know the outcome. The terminal was indeed razed in 1963 and it is sorely missed.

The initial client meeting doesn't go so well. The liberal copywriter Paul Kinsey gets worked up about the evils of unchecked development, prompting the MSG team to walk out before Pete Campbell can restore order. When Pete threatens to report the incident to his boss, Paul weakly suggests that it was all an act to demonstrate independence so that the client will "trust" him more when he works on the account.

Later, at a make-amends lunch with Don and Roger Sterling, the arena developer is won over by Don's clever pitch (inspired by his Palm Springs sojourn from last season, no less.) But the client makes it clear he doesn't want Paul Kinsey working on the account. "I'll handle your account personally," Don promises. In a meeting back at Sterling Cooper, however, it's clear that Paul is very much going to be working on the account, though Don notes that he'll have to keep a low profile.

All of this got me thinking about clients, and the lies people tell them, and whether they should have any say over who works on their account.

On the one hand, MSG is paying for an outcome--good advertising--as much as anything. The developer may know that Paul Kinsey is a jerk, but he doesn't know whether or not he's the best copywriter available to work on the account. Don presumably does know his staffer's strengths and weaknesses and assigns him to this particular campaign because he's confident Paul will suspend his sense of moral outrage long enough to write some snappy copy.

On the other hand, Sterling Cooper's clients, MSG included, presumably hold out hope for more than snappy copy. It's not too much to expect that your agency understands your objectives, looks out for your interests and, yes, shares your values. In theory, a copywriter who doesn't care for a particular client can still ably serve the account. But in practice, it's hard to imagine that Paul will do his most inspired work for MSG.

Any sensible person understands that, for all the talk of partnerships and relationship management, the doctrine of caveat emptor is as true for business services as it is for used cars or condo timeshares. The work you get rarely lives up to the original sales pitch. But when it comes to establishing a business relationship with another firm, I have to think that concealing disdain for a client is actually more perfidious than being the client with the mercenary business objectives.

Mad Men's Garden developers know what kind of business they want to build, and they don't mince words. For the team at Sterling Cooper, the same cannot be said.

Last updated: Aug 25, 2009




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