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 9 …

The focus of this episode is all on Don's wife, Betty Draper, who he calls by the pet-name of 'Birdie' — but, as seems to be the way with Mad Men, the characters personal lives are all a rich metaphor for what's going on at the agency.

The Drapers' neighbour keeps homing pigeons. Each day they fly free, and each day they return to the coop. Then, one day, the Draper's dog tries to catch a bird, with great and dramatic effort. He catches one, but it is freed from him and goes back to the coop alive. The neighbour threatens to shoot the dog.

This all happens while 'Birdie' is out at a shoot, a photo shoot, seeking to fly free from her monotonous suburban housewife life to return to a modelling career. At the shoot multiple people say she resembles Grace Kelly. They mean physical resemblance, but it's notable that Kelly is the famous actress who gave up her career for marriage to a handsome prince and children, and never starred in a film again. The audition is to be the face of a Coca-Cola campaign, and is offered to her by the Jim Hobart, head of the massive McCann ad agency.

Sadly, Betty doesn't know that this offer is just one more carrot being dangled in front of Don by Jim Hobart to try to tempt him away from Sterling Cooper. McCann have sent him membership of the exclusive New York Athletic Club, and a set of golf clubs. They offer vast sums of money, and the temptation of working with the biggest clients with the biggest budgets. But, from the start, Don seems uninterested.

The head of McCann tries to tempt Don away from Sterling Cooper

Roger picks up the scent that they're after Don, and tries to talk Don out of it. He tells him he wouldn't enjoy a big place like McCann — "Always having to keep the stock-holders happy. You'd never be able to fire a client. You'd hate that!"

Roger says, "It's not just about money. Look around you. The team, everything. You'd be starting again."
Don: "I haven't made up my mind yet."
Roger: "I'm taking this very personally"
Don: "Why? It's just business?"
Roger: "Is it?"

There's buzz all around the office that McCann are going to poach Don, and the assumption that he couldn't turn them down as it'd be so much money. It unsettles people and they wonder who he'll take with him.

Finally, Jim sends Don photos from Betty's photo shoot for Coke and suggests it'd be a shame if they weren't used, implying Betty's career revival is contingent on Don saying yes.

McCann send Don photos of Betty's shoot for Coke, with conditions attached

This switches Don off completely — "That was not a big league move," he tells Jim. He marches into Roger's office and negotiates a pay rise to stay, way lower than he could get at McCann. His only condition is that he won't have a contract.

Roger: "No security? What's in it for me?"
Don: "I guarantee you. If I ever leave this place, one day, it will not be for more advertising. It'll be for life being lived. I want to stop talking about it and go do it."

Of course, we know one reason Don doesn't want lawyers and paperwork involved is he's using a stolen identity, and is really Dick Whitman. Perhaps he also knows a big firm like McCann would have thorough vetting processes for big hires. Or perhaps he genuinely does want to be the bigger fish in the smaller pond — the one calling the shots.

There's lots in this episode that foreshadows the grand finale of the whole series in seven seasons' time, showing that our ends are always seeded in our beginnings.

Betty is offered copies of the photos from the shoot for her portfolio, but she tells Don "I don't want to be running around Manhattan touting for work like a teenager." She stands in anger, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, taking pot shots at the pigeons with her son's BB gun as we fade to black.

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Insights for agency leaders

  • Competitors will sometimes make a move on your key people. It's their job to find and recruit talent, and it's hard to blame them (unless it's overstepping the line of some history of collaboration).
  • To leaders with any kind of humanity, it always feels personal when someone leaves or just considers leaving. But it's not. An agency is not a family, it's not even a group of friends — it's a workplace. Friendship is sometimes, even often built on top of that working relationship too, but don't get the two muddled up. If someone leaves, it is just business.
  • People have many motivations for choosing where to work. Research has found that money is generally low down the list. Trying to poach people simply with a bigger paycheck tends to fail for the best people, and succeed for the less good. Be careful.
  • Instead, attract people with meaningful and interesting work, the chance of greater autonomy, and the qualities of the people they will be working with. Those things tend to attract the best of the best.
  • Great people are often not actively looking for new jobs, so do need to be approached with offers rather than hoping they'll see a job ad and apply.
  • But the people you'd want get really switched off by sleazy recruitment tactics. Don't do it.
  • If you feel you have to dangle other incentives, besides the work and the workplace, to attract and retain people, then you might have some work to do on improving the agency.
  • There's a big opportunity in helping talented people return to work after having families. They have experience of the job, plus wider experience of life.
  • Don't leave appreciating someone for their value to the organisation, whether through a pay rise or other incentives, until they receive an offer to leave. In giving that offer any consideration they have already mentally taken one small step out of the door, and you can't get that back. Plus, you'll resent what feels like being held to ransom, rather than having had a chance to show that recognition of your own free will. It ever so slightly pollutes the working relationship — and that's something we'll see play out in future episodes between Roger and Don.

Things to try this week

  • Review what your process is for regular pay reviews. How are you going to make sure everyone is fairly paid for the level of work and the breadth of responsibilities they have?
  • Sit back and think — if your key team members had an offer of 20% more pay from a competing agency, what are the differences between your business and the competition that they would be reluctant to give up, or reluctant to have to get used to? Do you need to create more of those differences?

Next: Mad Men S1E10 — Long Weekend