Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode #311, “The Gypsy and the Hobo”

Mad Men continues to include real issues faced by advertising (and yes PR firms) in an incredible show. If I wasn’t in this industry, I’m sure I would still be a fan of the show, but for me I get a bonus. I get to watch situations I encounter all the time dealt with by others.  This week’s episode, “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” was no exception.

There was one major professional topic in the office this week, Caldecott Farms. It seems that Caldecott Farms was a Sterling Cooper client for a long time, until a personal relationship between Roger Sterling and Annabelle Mathis, nee’ Caldecott, soured.  At the time both companies were being run by Roger and Annabelle’s fathers.  Now, 30 years later, things have changed.

Caldecott Farms, which makes dog food from horse meat, is reeling from a negative public perception due to the recent film, The Misfits, (not to be confused with The Misfits who were Glenn Danzig‘s first band-yes he did in fact make music before “Mother”), in which Clark Gable plays an aging horse rustler who steals and sells horses that are made into dog food.

Annabelle describes the situation as, ” Caldecott Farms had a public relations crisis followed by disastrous sales.”

The client would like to create a new name for horse meat.  She makes the point that cow meat is called “beef,” chicken is called “poultry,” etc.

The rules are that you can’t change the recipe of the product, or the name of the product.  Don Draper describes this as a “tall order.”

How tall it is is seen when the client and team are watching a focus group of consumers with their dogs who seem to be loving the food they are eating. When the focus group participants are told what the food is, the react angrily and denounce the company and the product.

The client is visibly shaken.  Here’s the issue. There wasn’t a plan in place to deal with that.  When someone is that close to a product, the company was founded by her father, they don’t always see what really happens with consumers.  The Sterling Cooper team should have anticipated this.  She knew that people were revolted and not buying her product, if the decision to include her in the focus group was to jolt her, it was the wrong one.

Understand that clients aren’t just a company. They are people.  Especially if the company is theirs’ personally. Their whole lives are tied in with company and the brand. To the account team, it’s just another pitch. To them, it’s their life.

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4 thoughts on “Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode #311, “The Gypsy and the Hobo”

  1. A few comments. I am not sure you were as on the mark this time as the last time I read one of your posts.

    First, I had the impression that Sterling Cooper lost the account because of friction between Bert Cooper and Annabelle’s father. The Roger/Annabelle backstory seemed separate from the business to me. When they dated Roger was galivanting in Paris when they were dating, not working–at least I presume he wasn’t working at that point.

    Second, in this case the client (Annabelle) seems to be the one in the wrong. She understands she has a PR disaster and her sales have gone off the cliff. Other than changing the name or the recipe, why would consumers ever buy dog food from her again? I don’t want to feed my dog horse meat!

    How would you have handled that situation?

    Not sure you hit the mark this time, but I still enjoyed reading the post–probably because I am a hopeless Mad Men addict.

  2. Thank you Jim for your comment.

    I think that the relationship between Annabelle and Roger was at the core of the breakdown between Caldecott and Bert Cooper. I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it.

    I have no doubt that Annabelle is in the wrong. She didn’t ask for the best solutions. She asked for the best solutions that probably take the right recommendations off the table.

    I would have not had her in the first focus groups, and would have been planning two recommendations. One that fits her criteria, and then another, supported by research that would have been the better one.

    My recommendations might have also leaned more towards PR and been more suited to our current marketing climate than the one at the time. This would have involved creating a dialog with major voices within the dog -owner community, educating consumers about the process, and very likely recommending a change to their core product line.

  3. Well written, though I disagree with the analysis after “…The Sterling Cooper team should have anticipated this.”
    On the contrary, I recall having the distinct impression that half the reason for the focus group was to demonstrate to the client that, as Draper put it, “the name is poisoned.”

    Working in ads and PR myself, I frequently hit situations where the client can’t see the forest for the trees- they cannot objectively see the fatal flaw in their thinking or process; oftentimes it seems that simply telling a client “this is confusing to the public” is substantially less effective than allowing them to see the issue themselves, in-person. More often than not, customer surveys and demographics are a smoke-and-mirrors approach, dragging the normally disconnected client “into the trenches” can have a galvanizing effect on a decision-making process.

    The fictional Caldecott Farms is mirrored by the actual Kal-Kan/ Pedigree name switch, and a brand with that kind of horsepower cannot have been renamed on a lark. Clearly, however, its necessity for the survival of the company overall couldn’t be denied, else it wouldn’t have occurred at all.

  4. The issue here was that the team didn’t anticipate the personal connection to the name. Yes, it’s “poisoned,” but showing that in graphic terms to the client wasn’t helpful, as it’s also HER name.

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