Disclaimer: Read no further if you want to avoid potential spoilers of Mad Men, Episode 703!
This week’s Mad Men was about whether the head honchos at Sterling Cooper & Partners would accept Don Draper back into the fold after his forced leave of absence. That was the official storyline, anyway. Lurking just below the surface, and in many ways linked to Don’s fate, was a story about SC&P deciding what kind of an ad agency it wanted to be.
From the very beginning, the show has portrayed Don as a creative genius. Presumably, the creative wizardry from Don, and later Peggy and Ginsberg, has been the main selling point to clients over the years. This season, the show has gone out of its way to suggest that the creative spark has left SC&P. Don’s replacement, Lou Avery, is a hack who embraces mediocrity, on top of being arguably the worst manager in a company brimming with awful bosses.
But agencies do not survive solely on creative prowess. In truth, although the creative product is what most people see from an ad agency, it isn’t the only service that agencies provide their clients. Some would say it isn’t even the most important one. Another major agency responsibility is media planning and buying — in other words, figuring out the best place to run the ads the agency creates and negotiating with media outlets like TV networks, magazines, newspapers, etc. to get the best rates for the time and space. While thoroughly unglamorous, the media planning function took center stage in the side plot of Episode 703 wherein a client puts SC&P media department head Harry Crane (who has evolved from an ordinary putz in 1960, to a putz who embraces every laughable late-’60s men’s fashion choice like it’s his mission in life) on the spot to explain how the agency’s computer compares to the one at Grey Advertising that had recently been featured in the New York Times.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Grey Advertising, a real-life agency that’s still around, got name-checked in that scene. For many years, Grey had a reputation, fairly or unfairly, as an agency that produced lackluster creative but built its success on the more mundane aspects of the advertising business. In other words, Grey represents the kind of agency that SC&P might morph into without Don Draper. Of course that would be a rough transition since, despite the grandiose lies he tells the client, Harry eventually reveals that SC&P doesn’t even have its own computer and isn’t close to matching Grey in that area. (Did we mention that Harry is a putz?)
So, the decision about whether to bring Don back becomes a long-range strategic vision choice among the partners over what kind of business they want to run: a place with a reputation for ideas versus a place with a reputation for being efficient. It’s a choice of genius versus stability, man versus computer. Or it least it could have been that type of decision. Ultimately, they bring Don back after they collectively realize that buying him out of his partnership would involve too much of a financial hit. In the end, the short-term bottom line trumps any kind of philosophical considerations. Just another reason why Mad Men is the most realistic workplace drama on television.