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 12 …

This episode is set against the backdrop of the 1960 Presidential Election in the USA, with a closely-fought battle leading to a surprise result.

The main characters of Sterling Cooper are going head to head, too.

This episode is all about the 'versus' of the title. The fight.

Fights happen in any organisation, but in agencies they seem to flare up more often. Perhaps that's because agencies are often collections of strong personalities used to trying to win — or because they are rapidly-changing organisations by their very nature, so people are always feeling they need to protect or enhance their position.

The question becomes how do the people involved, and the leadership team, handle the conflicts?

Peggy is the rookie in the creative side of the agency, as well as being relatively new to the agency. As a woman, she has a big enough fight on her hands anyway, but she also has a different work ethic than many of Sterling Cooper's other junior staff. She fights with colleagues over their bad behaviour at the election night party, including things being taken from her locker. She challenges her colleagues and asks them to put the things back, but they just laugh at her, so she complains to security. Instead of the perpetrators being investigated and punished, as she hoped, security simply fire the cleaner and lift operator — the only black people working in the building — even though they weren't at work and couldn't have done it.

She says, “I don't understand. I do my job. I follow the rules. People hate me. And innocent people get hurt. And other people, who aren't good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It's not fair.”

Pete Campbell vs Duck Phillips is another fight in this week's episode. Pete feels entitled to get the new job as Head of Accounts, but Don wants to bring in someone new. Pete and Duck's fight isn't carried out face to face, and Duck doesn't even know there is a fight. It happens in Pete's head and in his words. He campaigns against Duck. He campaigns against those who might stand in his way of getting the role for himself.

And that leads us to the second biggest fight: Pete Campbell vs Don Draper. Pete comes out swinging in round 1, aggressively saying Don doesn't appreciate his value to the firm and he could easily get other jobs at bigger firms. At no point in his campaigning for the job is Pete pitching the benefits he would bring to the role, or what he would do — it's all about how he feels he's entitled to it.

In round 2 Pete decides to fight dirty. In the previous episode he found the box of photos from Don's brother that give away the fact he is really Dick Whitman. He shows the box to Don and blackmails him, saying that unless Don gives him the job he wants, he'll tell Bert Cooper that Don is not who he says he is.

Round 3. The next day Don confronts Pete, refusing to give in to his blackmail. Pete says, “Is this like some movie where you don't think I'll shoot you? Because I'll shoot you.”

Don leads him to Bert Cooper's office, tells Bert he's appointing Duck, and then looks at Pete. After a pause, Pete goes for what he thinks is the knockout blow. He tells Bert all about what he has found.

But old Bert Cooper, who has been around the agency leadership block a few times, is a wise referee of fights. He quickly gets to grip with the personal dynamics of the situation and deals Pete's arguments against Don the knockout blow — “Who cares?”

He says, “The Japanese have a saying: a man is whatever room he is in, and right now Donald Draper is in this room.”

Pete, realising his aggressive games-playing has backfired, storms out.

Bert tells Don, “Fire him if you want, but I'd keep a close eye on him because you never know how loyalty is born.”

Bert Cooper confronts Pete Cambell with reality — who cares about your fight?
Bert Cooper confronts Pete Campbell with reality — who cares about your fight?

However, at its heart, this episode is about the biggest fight of all: Don Draper vs Dick Whitman.

This fight has been coming since the very beginning of the series, teasing us from the start that Don might not be everything he appears. Who is this man really? we asked. And now we see that the same question is burning within him still.

He's a man who's been in a long transition. From previous episodes we know the terrible childhood he has had. We knew he'd been given the dream of going to New York by a vagrant. This time, the flashback shows us Dick Whitman going to war.

When the enemy brings the fight to him, he's scared and cowardly. Fate brings him the chance to ditch his old life and run away to a new one. And he's been running ever since.

When Pete brings the fight to Don, his initial reaction is from the Dick Whitman inside him — to run away once more. He rushes to the apartment of his mistress, Rachel Menken, and demands they run away together. She's shocked: “You don't want to run away with me. You just want to run away. You're a coward.”

This stops him in his tracks.

He seems to reflect on this, and overnight he undergoes a transformation. When we see him confront Pete and march him to Bert Cooper's office the next day he's a changed man. He's ready for the fight, and he's cool, calm and professional about it. He has truly left Dick Whitman, and all that pain, behind and fully become Don Draper. It's not just a facade anymore, he is the man.

The winner is Don Draper (and Jack Kennedy squeaked a win too).

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Insights for agency leaders

  • Fights happen all the time when human beings are involved in working on things together. It's normal. What matters is how the individuals engage in, and follow up on, the conflict — and then how leaders respond.
  • A healthy culture should allow people to express their emotions and viewpoints freely and openly. But a healthy culture also should not have situations in which people feel personally attacked, cornered or helpless.
  • Where conflict isn't handled in the open it seeps into manipulative, undermining and damaging behaviour, as exhibited by Pete Campbell in this episode. It would have been healthier for him to be keen in making the case for getting the new job, but his spoilt brat behaviour has paid off for him in the past, so he carries on with it.
  • Where conflict isn't addressed at all it leaves good people feeling like Peggy Olsen — things aren't fair around here. Leaders need to create a culture where conflicts are resolved, ideally by the people they are between, or at least between those in responsible positions the conflict is escalated to.
  • When Peggy took her frustration to Don he was too busy with his own conflicts and didn't coach her to resolving her conflict better herself, or back her up with security and help get the wrongs righted. He left her wallowing in despair. Leaders need to be able to step outside of their own head for a bit to understand the needs of their team members.
  • Bert Cooper is good at reading the situation of one member of his team trying to make trouble for another, and smacking it down. But, it has to be said, he's seen Pete being a spoilt brat before and hasn't done anything to talk to him about it or coach him to being a bit more grown up and more of a team player. So, now it gets to the stage of Bert saying Don can fire him if he wants. Bert is far too hands-off. It shouldn't go from someone not knowing he thinks they are a problem to potentially being fired, with no steps in between.
  • In this episode, Don is like so many of us who lead organisations — conflict-averse; a coward at facing up to the fights and dealing with them. He turns away from Peggy's conflict, and his first instinct is to run away from the conflict with Pete. And all this is fuelled by the conflict within himself. He doesn't have confidence in himself, he doesn't know what he stands for, so he can't stand for it. But here we see him begin to figure that out, resolving the conflict in himself, and becoming ready to stand for things in the outside world.
  • Avoiding conflict is not healthy. Running from conflict is harmful. It's healthy to stand for things, and be clear about what you will accept or not. It's healthy to support your team in doing the same.
  • Figuring out what you stand for, and the behaviours you expect from others and will demonstrate yourself, is a first step.
  • Keeping an eye out for conflicts emerging, visibly or under the surface, is the next step.
  • Engaging productively with those conflicts is then the key.

Things to try this week

  • Take a good long walk. While you're walking, think about what conflicts exist within yourself. How might you begin to address those and allow yourself to become more confident, more assertive as a leader?
  • Think about the behaviours you want to see in your agency. What do you stand for?
  • Think about how you model those behaviours, in particular those relating to how conflicts are raised and addressed.
  • Spend time noticing what conflicts exist, or have potential to arise, and deciding how you as a leader can help to productively address them.

NEXT: Mad Men S1E13 — The Wheel