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 13, the season finale …

“In Greek, nostalgia means the pain from an old wound,” Don tells the clients from Kodak who have come to hear his masterful pitch for their new slide projector. He says the most important idea in ads is 'new', it creates an itch — but a deeper bond is nostalgia.

They've called the main feature of their product 'the wheel', but Don tells them “It's called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels: round and around and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.”

He's loaded the slide projector up with his own family photos, and by revisiting this past, perhaps originally intended purely as a sales tactic, he actually rekindles a sense of what is important to himself, and what he's been steadily losing.

Don, since his hard childhood, has modelled his life on the vagrant who passed through in flashbacks we saw in 'The Hobo Code' episode — always moving on, seeking out the new adventure.

Throughout this season we've seen him prepared to drop everything and run. Leave behind his family, his career. He got a bonus cheque from Bert Cooper and the first thing he did was go to his lover, Midge, and suggest running away to Paris. When Pete Campbell threatened to expose who he really was, Don ran to his new lover, Rachel, and implored her to run away with him.

Last episode we saw Don grow up a little and decide to stand his ground and stay at Sterling Cooper to face down the fight. This episode we see him grow up some more and realise what he has with his family.

The scared little boy on the run is on the verge of becoming a man at last, a man with a sense of responsibility and perhaps even a sense of belonging.

Don Draper presents his view of nostalgia in advertising
Don Draper presents his view of nostalgia in advertising

Until now, Don has sacrificed his family life for his work (and affairs). He doesn't seem to have any friends or personal life. He's made it to partner as a result, but what is he as a human being?

Is he happy? In an early episode in this series he drove his car to a level crossing and appeared to be contemplating driving it in front of the train. The rest of the time he's ready to run.

What about financial success? He has money yes, but it's stored as a wad of banknotes in a drawer that he gives away. He gets a bonus cheque and gives that away.

Don's ended up on a hamster wheel. Always running towards the next thing. Winning the next client, coming up with ideas, selling the work to the client, taking the cheque to the bank, and round again.

Meanwhile Pete is with own family — but using them for his business career. His father in law is pressuring for a grandchild, and Pete leverages this to get the account for the brand he's in charge of, Clearasil. Everything to Pete is about getting ahead, climbing up the ladder.

Harry is paying the price of a workplace affair in the previous episode, and now his wife has thrown him out. He's sleeping in the office and devastated about what he is losing.

Duck has started as the new head of accounts and he wants to impress. From what we've heard through the grapevine about him in the previous episode he's a man who is putting his life back together after losing everything — his job, his marriage, his reputation.

And Peggy, coming into Sterling Cooper as the innocent, has increasingly been seeing Don as a role model and mentor. She's been moving further away from her quiet life with her devout mother and sister. Just as Don is realising what he's losing by focusing on his work, Peggy turns away from her family to focus on her nascent career. She's just got her big break to become a copywriter, a hard enough task to break into this career as a woman back then, and she's not going to let anyone get in the way of that.

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Back to Don. He'd planned to be working over Thanksgiving, but in his own pitch the images, memories and need for home and family get to him — piling on top of the shock at finding out about his half-brother's suicide. After the pitch he drops the plan to work all weekend, and goes home. He's expecting to start anew by going with his wife and children to his in-laws for the holiday weekend. But they've already left without him, and he's all alone. The redemption is denied to him. It's too late.

As season one closes we see the main characters selling dreams in their adverts, and all successful in their careers, riding on a high. But they're all losing a little bit of themselves, and what really matters in life. Their ambition is harming those around them, but most of all it's harming themselves. A happy family life is seen only as nostalgia — the pain of an old wound.

They dream of carousels, but they're stuck in the wheel.

The Mad Men cast in Season 1
The Mad Men cast in Season 1

Insights for agency leaders

  • Running an agency can easily become all-consuming. There is always more business to find, more people to hire, more growth to pursue, and more clients to keep happy. It can never stop.
  • But you can pause it. In the end it turns out Don could just decide not to work over Thanksgiving. He just had to decide not to. It is possible to pause obligations. Very little is so urgent it can't wait 'til tomorrow, or Monday or after a holiday.
  • Life, relationships, family and friendships are all important in living a happy, fulfilling human life. But they all need time and attention investing in them as well.
  • On top of that people need hobbies and interests to be healthy and happy.
  • If work takes over and breaks people or their relationships, they burn out or get to the stage of wanting to run away. That is not a sensible investment for the agency. Those extra hours are bad hours and they will come back to bite.
  • Plus, remember that when inspiration has struck any of the creatives in Sterling Cooper it's been when they are not at their desk. In the first episode Don was chatting to a busboy in a bar when he got an insight for Lucky Strike. Another time he was in bed with his lover, Midge (Note: extra-marital affairs are not required for creativity, and not recommended). People having happy and varied lives will bring more inspiration into your agency.
  • Imagine if your agency culture was based on supporting people in having great lives in a rounded and healthy way, rather than on overwork and climbing the ladder alone.

Things to try this week

  • Go home early, switch off at evenings and weekends, spend time with family
  • Plan and book a family holiday
  • Connect with friends you haven't been in touch with for a while
  • Spend some time on a hobby
  • Check on annual leave allowances for your team, and nudge anyone who hasn't taken holiday in a while
  • Watch for people overworking, and have a chat about priorities and time management

That's the end of our series of blog posts on the first season of Mad Men.