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 Episode 10 …

So much of Mad Men, like so much of life appears on the surface for many agencies, seems to be about winning. This episode goes against the grain, though, and brings us crashing down to Earth. Even with Don's legendary charisma and all the talent and self-belief of Sterling Cooper, this episode is about losing.

Roger Sterling nearly loses his life after losing his lure over Joan and going wild to overcompensate. Faced with such loss, Roger appears to reevaluate his approach to life. Don loses his self-defences after losing his heart. Pete is losing his the admiration of Peggy. Nixon is on his way to losing the election to Kennedy.

And Sterling Cooper loses a client.

It happens to us all.

Don says to Pete, who brings him the news that they've lost the Dr Scholl account:

“The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.”

Wise words.

Minutes later, Don is shoving everything off his desk in frustration. The client had expressed no dissatisfaction, there was no chance to fix things — the loss came out of the blue, and it feels unfair.

Don doesn't hide the bad news. He goes straight to break it to Roger Sterling. Roger says to Don exactly what Don said to Pete:

“The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.”

Very wise words.

But Don counters: “Do you really believe that?”

Roger says: “Being with a client is like being in a marriage — you get into it for the wrong reasons and then they hit you in the face … Are we supposed to cry about this? So we lost a client!”

In this episode there are losses to cry over, losses to rage about, and losses to shrug your shoulders at. But everybody loses something, sometime.

Insights for agency leaders

  • The best agencies get a win rate for new business of 30% or so, i.e. losing at least twice as many times as they win. Then clients stay with an agency for 3–5 years on average. Losing is a normal part of agency life.
  • Losing a client never gets easier. It's okay to cry, rage or whatever you need to do to vent the frustration and disappointment.
  • But it's not okay to then just ignore it or say the clients are idiots or other such excuses. It's normal to lose clients, and we shouldn't beat ourselves up about it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't learn and improve from it.
  • We need to know why we lost, and we need to learn from that, so we can reevaluate our approach. In Sterling Cooper they spent almost no time trying to figure out why Dr Scholl had left — they just sought to drown their sorrows. That won't help them win or keep the next client. Always do honest retrospectives. It mustn't be about allocating any blame within the agency or outside, just learning what could have been done differently to keep the client. You may then decide that this wouldn't have been worth doing as it would have sacrificed your values/profit/happiness/something else — and in that case you can be reassured that the client leaving was for the best. Otherwise you can learn and improve.
  • But remember, you do want to lose some clients — otherwise you're probably just the kind of cheap agency who gets in bed with anybody.

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Things to try this week

  • Run a retrospective for the last few clients you lost at pitch stage, or existing clients who left your agency. What themes emerge about why you don't win or keep clients? Are they good or bad? Do you want to change anything to keep these clients?
  • Set in place an approach that means you'll always do a retrospective after any pitch process, win or lose, and any time a client leaves. And ensure that the learning from that will be fed back into improving the way the agency works.

NEXT: Mad Men S1E11 — Indian Summer