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 3...

This episode is all about competitors. On the train to work in the morning, Don is looking at a page in a magazine. He's interrupted and puts it down, but it catches the conductor's eye too. It's an ad for a VW Beetle, with a picture of the car and the word 'Lemon'.

When he gets to the office, the ad is also the first topic of conversation in the morning meeting. It's an ad by one of their competitors. Don doesn't like it, but he says the client must be getting results as they keep going back to the same agency. "Love it or hate it," he says, "but we've been talking about that ad for the last twenty minutes."

Meanwhile, the team have drawn a blank on ideas for a campaign of their own. "Part of this job," Don says, "is doing the things you don't want to do."

Don goes into a meeting with the owner of a department store, Rachel Menken, in which the firm's head of research presents a detailed report on their research work. The report then outlines what her store should do, including introducing a personal shopping service.

”It is comprehensive," Rachel says, “I already feel more informed about my competitors  just by holding it. But my store already has a personal shopping service. Which makes me wonder if you were so focused on my competitors, you forgot to visit my store?"

The team make excuses, and tell some bad lies to cover for this — but Don turns to her and says straight out "I can guarantee you that nobody in this room has ever been to your store. A wrong I will personally correct."

When he goes to the department store, which is in a grand old building, Rachel tells him the story of how they came to be there. Her family were running a small business and this was run by a big competitor — but when the crash came the owners went bust and her family could buy it.

But now it's old and tired. Too dark, too dull. In the bed sales department the sales assistant is asleep in an empty room. Rachel knows she needs to make a change — but she has to convince her father. They need to move upmarket, but are stuck in a cycle of cheap goods and discounting to drive sales. Competitors have pulled ahead to dominate the luxury market.

After showing him round she takes him to the roof of the building, and they kiss. He reveals he's married. She gets angry with him and tells him to leave.

At the weekend, it's Don's daughter's birthday. Don's wife and her friends are clearky worried about a competitor moving in on the block too — a divorcee.

As he talks to the parents of the other children, who admire his success, we get signs that Don's really not happy with his lot — at work or at home. His mind is churning things over. He's depressed, and gets drunk. Later, when he's supposed to be going to collect a cake he drives his car to a railway crossing and watches as the trains charge past.

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Insights for agency leaders

  • It's important to have the right balance between being aware of your competitors and admiring of their work, but not obsessing about them, or doubting your own work too much.
  • While it's tempting to be dismissive of competitors' work (we've all fallen too easily into that, as part of shoring up our own self-belief), that doesn't give us any chance to learn. There's room enough in the world, and your industry, for there to be multiple great agencies. Respect others' work, admire it. Remember that clients are happy to pay them for it, and to keep going back. What can you learn from them?
  • Doing competitor research can help you spot trends in your industry, giving you insight into where you can move next.
  • But don't obsess about competitors to the point you forget to walk your own floor and see your own business as others see it.
  • Be honest and straight-talking in all business dealings. Don't make excuses. 'Fess up and fix things is the motto to live by, as done did by being straight that they hadn't been to Rachel's store and then going there.
  • Look after yourself. How are you? Is your agency contributing to having the life you want? Take time to sit back and consider these things from time to time before they build up too much in the back of your mind.

Things to try this week

  • Ask some team members to freshen up your competitor research. Who should you be studying? What are they doing, what's their strategy? What are they working on for which clients? What is there to admire in their work? What patterns and trends can you spot from the field of competitors?
  • Walk your 'shop floor' as a client would. Look at your website, marketing materials, your presence in the industry, and anything else they would see. What do you notice? What needs work?
  • Take some time to check in with yourself about whether the agency is contibuting positively to your life. What might you want to change to improve on that?

Next: Mad Men S104 — New Amsterdam