Mad Men's new business strategy gets lost in translation

Five episodes into the fourth season of Mad Men and I think it is proving to be one of the best, the only competition being the first season, which masterfully set the stage to draw us into the world of Don Draper and Co.

Five episodes into the fourth season of Mad Men and I think it is proving to be one of the best, the only competition being the first season, which masterfully set the stage to draw us into the world of Don Draper and Co. As with every episode, aside from the drama, there is always a lesson to be learned for marketing and PR execs, even though the show takes place nearly 50 years ago. Sunday night's episode, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” (the same name of a 1945 book by Ruth Benedict that is considered to be a “classic in cultural anthropology” as it details the nuances of Japanese culture, no doubt of great interest after WWII) was no different.

The theme of this episode was contradiction and expanding cultural horizons. It was evident in nearly every frame, from Don asking his young date Bethany to teach him how to use chopsticks at Benihana's (apparently the best way to do research on Japanese culture, according to Don and now-arch rival Ted Chaough) to WWII vet Roger Sterling's inability to move past his prejudice and dislike of the Japanese to allow the firm to pitch the Honda Motorcycle Company (did anyone else think that entire situation was eerily reminiscent of the current controversy over the proposed building of a mosque at Ground Zero?).

The storyline involving the prospective Honda Motorcyle Company client, who according to Lane Pryce were “miserable at Grey” brings to light many issues that are still relevant today for agencies in any discipline. The first is how much should the personal beliefs of an agency CEO or senior leadership impact which clients agencies take on? Certainly eponymous, independently-owned agencies have more flexibility and can figuratively, though maybe not financially, afford to turn away clients that conflict with their personal beliefs. But, when you get into a situation where there's a partnership, a board, or shareholders, it becomes more difficult.  Even though Roger Sterling said, “As long as my name is in that lobby, I get to choose who I do business with,” it's not really true, because he's now one of five partners, all of whom get a vote.

Certainly major CEOs don't always let their personal political beliefs affect which clients—or employees—they take on: Richard Edelman's political beliefs did not stand in the way of him hiring noted Republican Steve Schmidt; Mark Penn is one of the most visible Democrats in the PR industry, yet this didn't stop Burson-Marsteller  from hiring Dana Perino.  But how much should you compromise your personal beliefs to take on-- or even work on-- a client? I once met someone who worked in PR at McDonald's, talked up its hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and other meat products, but was a vegetarian.  So, was Roger right to want to decline the work from Honda? Have any of you ever been in a similar situation?

The other issue in the episode was cultural sensitivity and globalization. Our friends at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were absolutely comical in their dealings with their prospective Japanese clients. Though everyone had a copy of the aforementioned book that was supposed to give a glimpse into Japanese culture, no one but Don actually read it. That's when he learned that following the rules and calling out those who didn't was the best way to win the account. Hell, he didn't even produce any work and the firm still won Honda's car work (described as a motorcycle with doors and windows so ”you can watch your brains splatter” according to Pryce). Was Don's dubious plan the right move? Do things really get that ugly between rival firms? I want to know!

That's all until next week. My Mad Men recap will be a weekly blog from now on, and certainly I'm not the only marketing  journalist to do so, but I can promise that my recaps will be different in that they'll really emphasize the lessons to be learned for marketing and PR folks, not merely a recap of the episode. Incidentally, if you're looking to read an insightful recap on the other elements of the episode—Betty's breakdown and poor Sally Draper—I urge you to read Karen Valby's weekly recap at EW.com.  Until next week…

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