Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode 402 – “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

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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.

This week‘s episode, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” could just have easily been called, “Out With the Old, In With the Old,” and there were three big points related to agency life:

  • Christmas Parties
  • Gut instinct vs Research
  • Old vs New

Christmas Parties

The lean times (sound familiar to anyone else running an agency?) at the new Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce has led management to scale back the Christmas party (don’t even think of calling it a “holiday party,” in 1964) until Roger Sterling receives a call from Lee Garner Jr. who at Lucky Strike is responsible for around 70% of SCDP revenue. Roger immediately invites Lee to the party, after Lee invites himself, and insists that the scale of the party be turned up from “convalescent hospital to Roman orgy.”

These days a client would respect that money is tight and that vendors shouldn’t waste money. Then? Not so much.  The party is scaled up, but everything seems forced, because it is. Maybe letting the client know that things were going to be a little smaller would have been alright. It would these days for sure.  Honesty. It’s amazing how much easier it can make everything.

Gut Instinct vs. Research

Early in the episode the SCDP team receives a briefing from the “Motivational Research Group.”  This is the beginning of consumer research, focus groups etc. The presentation focuses on using tools to determine why consumers make purchase decisions.  Obviously, this can be a helpful tool to figure out to best target ads/campaigns etc.  Don Draper is a believer in his instinct and in not answering questions about his father, which was the first question he saw on the sample questionnaire, so he walked out of the presentation.

There is a place for research in preparing ideas.  One of the wonderful things about social media now is that many people put their feelings and ideas about products, services and decisions out there for everyone to see.  Research is always a good idea, but don’t let it be your only guide.  When you think someone might be leaning a bit too heavily on research, think of Henry Ford who said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Old vs. New

Old vs new definitely applies to the introduction of research above, but also to the difference between Peggy Olson and Freddy Rumsen.  Freddy was a copywriter who left Sterling Cooper when his problem with alcohol interfered with his work. He’s back now, attending AA and with a $2m account from Ponds Cold Cream in his pocket.  Since he’s been gone, Peggy has become one of the best creatives at the agency, and Freddy isn’t ready for her ideas.

When someone leaves an agency for a while and then returns it is often difficult for them to adapt to the way things have changed while they were gone. This might be that the industry itself has changed, or it might be that someone who they work with has changed.  When managing people always be on the lookout for situations where employees might be in conflict about what is old, what is new, and what is right for the client and for the agency.

* Note on the difference in research approach covered in this episode. In previous episodes, focus groups have been used to see how people reach to brands or campaigns, not why they react to certain things.


2 thoughts on “Agency Lessons from Mad Men Episode 402 – “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

  1. I love the Henry Ford quotation about a faster horse. My company currently has a product under development that was concepted using the Steve Jobs “single genius” approach. The first question our marketing consultant asked was, “Who asked for this?”

    Explicitly, no one did. Implicitly, they all kinda did.

    I really enjoy the Mad Med focus to your site, and that you’re obviously a real fan of the show. If you’d be interested, I just posted an article on People-triggers about what someone with Don Draper’s gut instinct would infer about 21st century society. Hope it might be interesting to you.

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