The last Mad Men episode, “Waterloo,” closed out the 60s with McCann Erickson’s acquisition of SC&P, the promise of independence for the agency, and yet another new beginning. Don kept his job, Ted Chaough was back in the game, and the partners got very rich. We were left imagining how Pete and Joan would handle their new found riches and whether fiercely independent Don and flamboyantly flip Roger could cope under the control of a very big global agency.
“Severance” picks up in April of 1970. The haunting voice of Peggy Lee singing, “Is That All There Is?” sets the mood and tone of the episode perfectly. Mad Men’s use of music as poignant accent pieces has been brilliant every season. Pete and Joan may be richer but not happier. Don is still haunted by his past; Roger has morphed into yet another caricature of himself; Ted is a 70s version of a swinging Don, and Peggy is still discontent and alone. In keeping with the times, longer hair and mustaches have become look of the day at SC&P for just about everyone except Don. His slick-backed hair is perfectly cut and he still wears a hat. Out of the office Don and Roger continue their womanizing ways. Don is so much in demand that he needs an answering service to help mange his escapades.
Madison Avenue was moving on from the heady creative atmosphere of the 60s into a more direct and competitive style of advertising in a media landscape now dominated by television. As a result, advertising budgets were getting bigger, the standard 15% commission system was being questioned, and the pace and size of consolidations and acquisitions were accelerating. In my “Waterloo” recap I discussed the fact that despite all the good intentions of promised agency independence, it rarely turns out to be the reality in day to day operations. So it is no surprise to see the long arm of McCann reaching into the halls of SC&P with disruptive consequences.
Ken Cosgrove is the first casualty. Ken worked at McCann in the past and he was instrumental in helping move the Birdseye account away from McCann to Sterling Cooper. McCann management was not very happy about that. Ken’s position at the agency was solid because his father-in-law was the top man at SC&P’s client, Dow Chemical. When Ken’s father-in-law announces his retirement, McCann management decides it is pay back time and Roger gets right in line. Ken meets with Roger and Ferguson Donnelly from McCann and volunteers to step in on Dow to help with the transition to the new client representative. Roger coldly tells Ken that Pete will take over the Dow account because McCann doesn’t want Ken on the business. Ken is surprised and asks if this is because of Birdseye. Ferguson shoots back, “We don’t want you on any business.” Roger assures Ken he will receive a generous severance package if Ken helps Pete secure his accounts. Later, Don offers to speak to Hobart at McCann on Ken’s behalf but Ken tells him not to since he was thinking of quitting anyway.
As Ken sits with Pete to discuss account turnover, Ken laments that since he is not an Irish Catholic he would never fit in at McCann. Pete encourages him to leave but Ken has second thoughts. The next time Ken sees Pete and Roger he defiantly tells them that can stuff their severance package and announces, “My signing bonus from Dow is so big, it feels like a second helping.” Ken is now head of advertising at Dow and their new client! His exiting line is priceless. “I’m very hard to please.” Now that’s payback. I know from firsthand experience that this can be trying and delicate situation for both Ken and SC&P. In the early 80s I joined Brown Forman and became the client of a former agency (DKG) and few years later I was hired away from Charles Of The Ritz to be president of an agency I once fired (Geers Gross). Fortunately, everything worked out well. I’m not so sure things will go as smoothly for Roger and Pete.
When SC&P is faced with a business problem on the Topaz pantyhose account, another downside of the McCann acquisition emerges. Peggy and Joan fall victim to McCann’s notorious “boys club” culture. Joan, Harry, and Peggy meet with two Topaz executives to discuss the threat of the newly introduced L’eggs pantyhose brand. L’eggs is a budget priced brand, packaged in a plastic egg-shaped container and distributed in supermarkets and mass merchants. When the clients suggest creating a packaging gimmick of their own, Peggy responds brilliantly. “I’d never recommend imitation as a strategy,” Peggy says. “You’ll be second, which is very far from first.” Don Draper couldn’t have said it any better. Later, Joan brings Don up to speed on Topaz and he recommends department stores for distribution and suggests asking McCann Erickson for help since they have the Marshall Field account. It seemed like a good idea and a chance for intra-agency cooperation and team building.
At McCann Erickson, Peggy and Joan meet with two male executives to discuss Topaz. The men behave like disrespectful, chauvinistic frat boys towards both of them, making crude remarks and jokes. Admiring Joan’s obvious physical assets, one of them tells Joan that she should be in the brassiere business because she’s “a work of art.” Instead of Peggy and Joan bonding in response to the insults, it causes friction. Joan complains to Peggy about not being taken seriously and Peggy brings up Joan’s dress and demeanor to which Joan cattily replies that she doesn’t dress like Peggy because she doesn’t look like Peggy. Peggy shots back, “You’re filthy rich! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do”. So much for camaraderie and intra-agency cooperation.
This is also a situation that is anchored in reality. L’eggs actually was introduced in 1970 and it had a massive impact on the hosiery business. Dancer Fitzgerald and Sample (DFS) was the agency that worked on the introduction and collaborated with the highly respected Herb Lubalin on packaging design. The plastic egg packaging they created was unique and L’eggs went on to be a roaring success. The other reality is the Irish Catholic, male dominated culture of McCann. The boys’ club culture was deeply engrained at that time and drove the agency for many years to come. My friend and colleague Nina Disesa published a best selling book about it,Seducing The Boys Club. Nina is an exceptionally talented creative director who mastered both the art of advertising and succeeding at McCann.
A recent Wall Street Journal blog post reported on present day McCann Erickson’s reaction to the negative references. They acknowledged it with a very clever real time posts on Twitter.
The article also quoted the former Chairman of McCann, John Dooner. He described the Mad Men days as a “time gone by,” and added that in those days McCann employed men who were “brilliant in their work and characters in their lifestyle.” Well said. Coincidently, John is the McCann CEO who engineered the purchase of Geers Gross and the reason I ended up at McCann. John is a great guy and I enjoyed my time working with him.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the McCann relationship evolves, what’s next for Peggy and Joan, and how difficult and demanding Ken can be.