Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode 401 – “Public Relations”

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Over the past few years, I’ve been writing about real agency lessons from Mad Men episodes.  Season four 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.

Tonight’s episode, “Public Relations,” kicked off season four starting a full year after Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce (SCDP) opened their “temporary” doors in The Pierre Hotel and now taking up a portion of a floor in the Time-Life Building.  The “Public Relations,” refers to Don’s need to be more of a “face,” for the firm according to his partners and they set him up with a reporter from Ad Age for a profile, which Don seemingly somewhat deliberately tanks.

So what were tonight’s lessons for people working at PR and advertising agencies?

  • Choose the right spokesperson for your agency and make sure everyone knows the story
  • Ad agencies have a problem with how to charge for PR (read this as social media)
  • Listen to your prospective clients

Choose the right spokesperson for your agency

Don Draper is serving as the “face,” of the agency. He’s out doing interviews with trade publications and isn’t happy about it. The best spokesperson isn’t always the first pick.  If someone isn’t up to the task, find a better face.  Roger Sterling has incredible one-liners, but I don’t think he’s the face you want, and Bert Cooper isn’t exactly friendly.  Lane Pryce might be the man here.  No matter what, don’t always go with you the “obvious,” pick for your spokesperson. Ask yourself if they’re up for it and if you trust them to speak for you.

A second piece to this is the story, or lack of a story, that Don tells the reporter.  When the article comes out and is less than flattering there are consequences. One of these is that their jai-alai client is angry they weren’t mentioned. Draper responds with “I didn’t mention anyone. That’s the reporters’ job.” If you don’t talk about the story, you can’t be angry when they don’t include what you were hoping was going to be included.

Ad agencies have trouble with PR

Sugarberry Ham is a small but somewhat important account for SCDP.  They are important in that they make up some small part of the 29% of revenue that does not come from Lucky Strike.  Peggy Olson comes up with an idea to have two women “fight,” over the last Sugarberry Ham in a store, and have an article written about it.

Pete Campbell says, “It’s a PR stunt. We don’t do that?”

When asked why not, he replies,”Because we can’t charge for it.”  Ad agencies then, and largely now, make their money off of ad buys.  They don’t make very much money off of account service or tactics.  This is a problem I’ve run into with several ad agencies when they work in social media.  They don’t make very much money off it.  PR agencies are set up to make money by billing for their employees’ time.  That’s a big part of social media work. Time.  I’m not saying ad agencies can’t do this, but their economic models are set up for those big ad buys.  This might be a foreshadowing to the need for SCDP to need to change their thinking as the times change from “Camelot,” to the world where music is more like “Tobacco Road,” by the Nashville Teens that ends the episode. (side note – Jimmy Page plays guitar on the studio version of that track).

Listen to your prospective clients

The agency team is pitching Jantzen, a “family company,” that makes bathing suits. They are concerned that they are going to lose business in the “two piece (not bikini),” market as their competitors are selling a sexier image than they are comfortable with.  Draper responds with a creative concept that is significantly sexier than they were comfortable with and he blows up when they don’t respond positively.  It’s a good thing to push the envelope, but it’s not a good thing to only have one idea, that prospects might not go for.  Take chances, but be ready to follow up with something else.

There was a lot more in this episode, but the core to me might be the line from Peggy Olson to Don,”We are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you.”  A successful agency requires a team. Until Don starts playing on that team, SCDP is in big trouble.


9 thoughts on “Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode 401 – “Public Relations”

  1. Josh,

    Always love your analyses of Mad Men. I was hooked from day one.

    I found it particularly interesting that while Jon Hamm (aka Don Draper) is the real-life voice over pitchman for Mercedes-Benz in their TV ads, last night’s episode was sponsored exclusively by BMW.

  2. Thanks Jeff.

    Have to love the ambush marketing. I’m not sure, but I believe that Mad Men has had promo deals with Cadillac in the past. I wonder if that impacts their actors being in car ads during the airing of the show.

  3. I was surprised that Peggy thought a PR stunt would be a good thing. Whether or not you can charge for it, a stunt like that seems risky and should it go afoul, bad for the reputation of the client.

    I love the new silver SCDP logo. Glad to have Mad Men back on the air!

  4. Josh,

    I wish I knew about your writings before I published my own top-ten marketing lessons from Mad Men. Your writings on that are much more informed and insightful…I should have just pointed people here!

    I’m reading all of your Mad Men-related posts, and they’re all fascinating. I can’t wait to see your future posts. Thanks for the good writing!

  5. Thank you for the kind words Scott. Everyone else, I recommend you check out Scott’s posts on Mad Men as well.


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