Each Monday we watch an episode of Mad Men (available on Amazon Prime) and put together notes on what we can learn from it about running agencies. Read an introduction to this blog series explaining more, and then follow our notes below for the very first episode...

The first episode of any drama has a big job to do. It needs to introduce us to the world the story is going to be told in, but most of all it needs to introduce us to the people the story is going to be about.

And it so happens that the insights from this episode are all about people too.

In the very first scene, advertising executive Don Draper is sitting in a bar, scribbling slogan ideas for cigarette brand Lucky Strike onto a paper napkin. He’s approached by the busboy (someone at the bottom of the service chain who carries things around a bar or restaurant), who offers him a light. The busboy is black, and this being the times of racist segregation, a white waiter comes across concerned that the busboy is bothering a customer.

Don waves the waiter away, and wants to talk to the busboy. He wants to learn from him and gain inspiration. “What brand do you smoke? Why? What might make you change brand?” and so on. Although he’s a very privileged highly-paid guy in racist times, he talks to this busboy just as he’d talk to anyone, with politeness and good humour. He listens. He hears something that clicks with him, and he writes it down.

Back at the office the next day, and another of the main characters, Peggy Olson — who is on her first day at work as Don’s secretary — is introduced to Don and account executive Pete Campbell. Pete insults her appearance, and so when they’re alone Don gives him some advice: “Advertising is a very small world. When you do something like malign the reputation of a girl from the steno pool on her first day you make it even smaller. Keep it up, and even if you do get my job, you’ll never run this place. […] Wanna know why? Because no-one will like you.”

Joan takes Peggy to the switchboard room and explains, “This is the nerve-centre of the office. You and your boss rely on the willing and cheerful co-operation of a few skilled employees. Never snap, yell or be sarcastic with them.”

Peggy gives the operators some gifts, as Joan has briefed her to do, to make friends with these people who are at the hub of the organisation. As they chat, it emerges that Don’s previous secretary was let go. One operator says, “Well, she couldn’t get a call through, rude little thing.”

Meanwhile, Don and Pete have been in a meeting with a potential client, a woman who now runs her family’s department store. She criticises Don’s idea, and he reacts badly. He’s rude to her, and she leaves. One of the firm’s partners, Roger Sterling, talks to him about it, without getting angry, and gets Don to commit to fixing it. Don calls her and invites her for a drink that evening to apologise, and promises to make it up to her. In the casual atmosphere of the bar, they’re able to talk personally (and in this case with some flirtation, but that’s not part of our brief here!). She commits to coming in for another meeting.

Insights for Agency Leaders

  • An agency is just a collection of people. Their relationships with each other are the foundation on which you can build everything else, and that foundation needs to be strong.
  • Always talk to everybody and anybody with total respect and interest, wherever you are. Listen to them. It’s a skill, and it’s worth practicing in every situation. Never look down on others, whatever their job or status is relative to yours. Each time you build mutual respect with another human being, it is another paving stone on the pathway through the mud of working life. As well as improving your work, you’ll just be happier. Trust me.
  • The crucial people you need to do your work may not be those with flashier job titles than you, or the power or budget. Build and maintain relationships everywhere in the organisation, and in your client organisations. Think about those who don’t seek out attention, that others tend to ignore, and give them some love and respect.
  • Sometimes you’ll make a mistake and treat people badly. Be big about it, apologise, and make it up to them. Social scenarios are much better places to patch things up than work ones, so at the very least, go for a coffee.

Things to try this week

  • Who doesn’t get enough attention in your agency? Go talk to them, and then actively  listen. Too often we let our attention be dominated by the loudest people. We have to actively seek out the views from the quieter ones.
  • Are there problems in the air between anyone in the agency recently? Persuade them to have a (currently, virtual) coffee, lunch, or a drink after work, and patch it up.
  • Take time with everybody you interact with this week to ask questions and listen. Whether it’s in your business, at a client, a supplier, or a delivery driver who comes to your house. Take time to be interested and respectful.

NEXT: Mad Men S1E02 — Ladies Room

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