Agency Lessons from Mad Med Episode 405 – “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword”

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.

The origin of the “Chrysanthemum and The Sword,” episode title is a 1946 book about Japanese culture by Ruth Benedict, and it is required reading around Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce (SCDP) as the team has the opportunity to pitch the Honda motorcycles account. According to what Pete Campbell has heard, the company which has 50% of its market is unhappy at Grey (a much more established firm).  This gives me the chance to point to Ed Moed’s great blog on a “mole free environment.”

A few points for agency folks from this episode:

  • Do you go after all new business? What if you can’t afford to pitch it?; and
  • It’s OK for younger employees to thrive – just don’t tell Roger Sterling; and
  • Your competition is who the market thinks is your competition, not who you do.

The Honda pitch comes with a few strings:

  • Roger Sterling has very, very strong feelings against the Japanese based on his having served in WWII and lost friends in the war;
  • There is a cap of spending $3,000 on the pitch and the rules of the pitch specifically prohibit presenting finished work such as a full television commercial;
  • SCDP has recently lost two pieces of business to an upstart firm, CGC; and
  • Money is tight at SCDP so even if they wanted to spend a lot of money on the pitch, they can’t.

Don Draper would like to actually shoot a full commercial for the pitch, but since they can’t afford to shoot it on spec, they assume that similar-sized firm CGC can’t either.  The SCDP creates a ruse wherein they trick CGC into thinking they are shooting a commercial for the pitch and then after CGC presents their commercial to the prospective client, Don resigns from the process with his thinking driven by a quote from The Chrysanthemum and The Sword;

“A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected. It requires an audience.”

Without reading into how this quote should impact Don in his real life, we see that he benefited his firm by learning about his potential client and their culture.  As CGC didn’t follow the rules, SCDP didn’t feel they could participate and by viewing the spec commercial Honda had broken their own rules. Lesson learned?  Use all available information. No, don’t go out and try and be sneaky, but know the playing field and use all available tools to help you and your agency.

The next issue for agencies in the episode is the “passing of the torch.”  There is a confrontation where Pete Campbell tells Roger Sterling that he is sabotaging the potential Honda business as he is afraid winning new business will make Roger less valuable to the firm as his primary client, Lucky Strike, accounts for 70% of revenue.  Reminder to Roger, clients don’t stay around forever, it helps to have someone who wants to hustle and bring in new business. Reward them. They’ll remember and be much more likely to keep you around after your big client can’t advertise on TV any longer.

The episode opens with Don Draper getting a call from Walter Hoffman of the NY Times asking if he has a comment on the new business recently won by CGC away from SCDP.  The reporter quotes the principal of CGC, Ted Chaough, as saying, “Every time Don Draper looks in his rear view mirror, he sees me.” Don’s response? “I’ve never heard of him.”  Whether Don views CGC as competition or not, the NY Times does, and more importantly potential clients do.

Don’s tune changes and he takes CGC seriously, given his antics described above to try and take them out. Your competition is who the market compares you to.

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