AMC’s Mad Men returned Sunday night for its midseason premiere (check out our recap) with “Severance,” episode eight in the countdown to the end of the series. We asked a team of Boston-based advertising professionals to weigh in after the episode: What do they really think about the merge? Is Don’s “method” really working, or is he just working all of us?
Joining us this week: Andrew Fatato, senior copywriter at Havas Edge, Graham Shepherd and Erin Murphy, both senior copywriters at Digitas, and John Winer, in-house digital marketing manager at a luxury brand that SC&P would be dying to get their hands on.
What are your initial thoughts? How did you feel about the fur coat pitch and casting sequence?
GS: God, it’s good to be back. It feels like coming back from summer vacation when you were a kid and seeing all your friends again. Except in this case some of your friends are millionaires, the cool kids are still the cool kids, and nobody’s really happy — except Don, maybe. Don is back to his old form — he’s got his office back, he’s revived his Rolodex of lady friends, and he’s as vigilant as ever about his mid-morning naps. He seems to be on top of his game creatively–and creepily good at directing a casting call. Honestly, where does he learn this stuff? I thought it was an interesting callback to Don’s first gig in advertising: selling fur coats. It’s almost as if things have come full circle for him.
JW: The beginning of the end… Sad, but I agree with Graham it is great to be back. I’m in so deep with Mad Men that the first scene I had to shake the rust off of jumping to conclusions. I was pumped when I initially thought Don was back to his old form and not a complete emotional wreck from the break up. Then I was nervous that the woman he was speaking to was a “lady of the night,” and I was upset because that only happens when sad/journal-writing Don is around. The show for me has always been about Don, so even when it’s revealed that there are other people in the room, I was still transfixed on Don’s mental state. To see that he was back to his old form of filling his emotional void with random women had me prepared for up-and-down final episodes.
AF: It’s definitely good to see all our friends again, and I kept thinking that while mustaches change, what’s underneath hasn’t. Everyone really seems, more or less, to be the people they’ve always been. Except Pete. Pete seems like the only person for whom getting a shitload of money actually did result in happiness. Everyone else has that hint of discontent that has always pushed them forward (or back into the same place), but Pete, God bless him, seems to have risen above. At least for now.
I found the fur casting more interesting after Joan decides to buy a bunch of clothes to make herself feel better about being objectified. Seeing her standing in the mirror at the department store, looking at her dress brought me back to that opening scene. The episode starts with a woman being objectified in a mirror, and then Joan, in response to the same sort of behavior, runs to the same type of luxury as a salve. What’s the point? I don’t know. Mirrors.
EM: I would love to see any one of my coworkers attempt run a casting like Don did with those coats. Cut to me giggling on that couch like a maniac middle schooler.
But it is nice to be among friends again. It’s great when Weiner gives viewers those throwback moments where everything feels comfortable and right: Don’s being butter smooth, there’s a bunch of white guys ogling beautiful women on a casting couch, times are simple, life is good. Even just seeing Don and Roger being slick old tuxedo-ed drunks with three inappropriately-dressed and inappropriately-aged women feels right. You know it’s a lie, but you just wanna snuggle up in it like a chinchilla coat. And you know it’s all gonna go to hell very shortly after.
What about Ken? He made some major power moves last night. Thoughts?
GS: Ken happens — to all of us. We get comfortable, bored, domesticated, and our minds wander. And we begin shopping for golf clubs. It isn’t until he has been blindsided and snapped out of his idyllic dream world that he takes action, instead of drifting away like a retired pirate (Retirate? Is that a thing? It should be.)
Instead of taking Pete’s advice to write an adventure novel — because, ironically, there aren’t any interesting stories in advertising! hah! — Ken decides to become a swashbuckler of sorts in his own story. I was at once delighted by Ken’s nonchalant, middle-finger of a move, and also horrified at the reality of a colleague-become-client. It’s real, people. It can be as gnarly as it can be advantageous to know a client.
How’s Bob Benson doing at Buick, anyway?
JW: I’ll preface this by saying I’m a big Don-and-Roger guy. I have never been really into Ken, besides losing the eye, I’m not sure he has added much. For me the story line wraps back to what Bert told Roger in the midseason finale: essentially he is not a leader. He is a rich playboy who only cares about himself, his money and his connections. He is always willing to throw people away/under the bus as long as it serves his needs. When “Ferg” essentially tells Roger to fire Ken, it reminded me of what Roger said at the diner to the two girls: “I have to drop one of you off the other comes home with me, you decide.” He doesn’t care “who” gets left out as long as HE is in.
AF: I’m with Graham on this Ken stuff, it happens, and it’s sad, but it’s not surprising. People get complacent. And then, just being the guy who’s working a bunch isn’t enough, which Ken learns that the hard way over and over. What really makes me sad, though, is that Ken got all riled up about following his dream, and then his hand is forced. He’s practically shoved off the gangplank toward adventure and…. he runs right back to misery. Sure, it’s a “fuck you” to Roger and the gang, but he had a chance to do what he said he always wanted, and he pushed it away. He was probably scared, I don’t know, and can I blame him? Maybe not. But it doesn’t make me feel sorry for him.
EM: Ken always feels to me like the sane guy in the asylum. Unfortunately, that guy never ends up curing all the crazies — as we saw with Ken, he’s cast out, and instead of taking the high road (as a younger Ken might have) he abandons his dream just to become the villain his eye patch always wanted him to be.
How much money is Dow bringing in? I’d have to think when a client warns you they’re going to make your life hell, your agency would have the sense to let that one go. That being said, I wish all terrible clients were that forthcoming about their assholery.
Peggy and Joan’s meeting with the McCann bros was pretty dismal IMO. What are your thoughts on a merge between two agencies? Is it typical that it’s almost like two teams going up to bat at the same time?
GS: In short, yes. Yes it is. It’s probably way more commonplace nowadays, as there are more larger corporations (like McCann) that own several agencies apiece. Also, most large clients have multiple agencies doing their bidding–traditional, digital, social, media, event. So at any given time, there are many teams on the playground, and everyone tries to play nice.
JW: I’m a non-agency guy, so I’ll leave this to the pros.
EM: Ah, the inter-agency pissing contest. A classic bit. The term “sister agency” is incredibly apt, because the relationship is just that–girls who have to play nice, but are constantly fighting to be the prettiest and get the glory. I think there was definitely more to it than that though, with the obvious bro-down on one side of the table being blatantly sexist to rattle the women.
It was a nice reminder that even though Peggy and Joan have earned the respect of their colleagues at SC&P, it’s still a big boys club everywhere else. Interestingly, the jokes are still as crass, the girls just get to make them, too, nowadays.
Let’s talk about everyone’s facial hair.
GS: While I do appreciate the ballsy mustache move, Ted just looks like a pubescent oil tycoon. Roger, on the other hand, pulls it off well. It even adds a bit of gravitas in his new role as company president.
JW: Love it. Not much more to say is there? Mad Men has always perfectly captured the year/decade they are trying to recreate. I feel that the wardrobe really tries to bring out the extremes in the 60’s mostly to point out the ongoing theme/Don’s worst fear that he is out of touch (See the episode where they go backstage at the Rolling Stone Concert). You have Roger walking around looking like a skinny David Crosby — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Sterling. Meanwhile Don is still sporting the Gentleman’s Regular $5 cut. As a guy who thinks it’s an ODD look is someone goes no sideburns, I applaud the sideburns era.
AF: All fall short in the shadow of Stan, who deserves his own show.
EM: Yes, what Andrew says. Forget who’s pulling off the facial hair, I challenge any one of you to rock a jaunty neck scarf like Stan does. God, I’m obsessed with Stan.
GS: Agreed. Team Stan here. Stan is the OG on the show when it comes to fashion. Now, where to get me a neck scarf… Does Menken’s sell them?
The money. Everyone is talking about the partners’ money. Anyone out of line in being jealous?
GS: Not out of line. For someone like Peggy, who has done a great deal of work for the agency, it’s easy to understand why she’s jealous of Joan. Though I don’t know that I’d bring it up in the elevator. Work talk in the elevator: THE WORST.
JW: The money jealousy is more of a justification for Ken to leave. Peggy, Ken, Pete and Joan all started From the Bottom, Now They Here…. in Season 1 they were all pretty equal and now randomly Joan and Pete are rewarded with cash because they became partners, by taking every shortcut/dirty trick to get there. Meanwhile Ken and Peggy just plugged along and got work done. I’m not sure if the jealousy is about money or more about resentment.
EM: I’m jealous of the money. I love that plot point also–now that they’re all paid, it’s fun to dissect why the fuck they’re all sticking around in this dysfunctional business. Really drives home what masochists everyone is. I think that’s the point though–even though Ken and Peggy have done the work, they wouldn’t be doing anything different if they’d gotten the payout. Ken’s wife, Alex Mack, more-or-less says so–they have the money for him to quit and write his novel, but he doesn’t. Peggy could up and go to Paris on a whim if she wanted, but she doesn’t. It’s a reminder that the money isn’t what’s keeping people where they are. Jealousy has much less to do with the money than it does about everyone sniping and speculating about the ladder, the power, and whose life is better because of it.
How would you save the Topaz account?
JW: I didn’t even think Topaz was still an account.. That’s how forgettable they are. Don’s approach as a re-brand is spot on. If the “drug store” market is flooded with cheap options in a cheap marketplace/price point re-brand yourself and move up a level, especially if your ad firm has a direct connect to Macy’s. The focus I would push to the consumer would be the “disposable versus non-disposable” argument. Disposable products convey cheap to the consumer without saying it directly.
EM: Embarrassingly, my first thought when Don suggested the re-brand was “He can do that?” Today, the ad landscape is so much more segmented, I had a waking nightmare thinking about the process that would go behind something like that. Perhaps it never was as simple as Don offhandedly remarking that they should get a department store name on the packaging and *poof* we’re having meetings with Macy’s, but today it certainly isn’t.
And although I really liked the idea of my pantyhose coming in a sparkly jewel-shaped case, I had to side with Peggy in her argument that we don’t want to copy the competition just to be the also-ran. It’s always a tempting approach that, in the end, no one is satisfied with.
AF: Yeah, Peggy was right, second is a long way from first. And Don, high-level, is right, you have to change the brand perception, but Erin makes a good point, that’s a lot harder than it seems. And it’s certainly not as easy as slapping Macy’s on the packaging. It’s probably a combination of a few things. Change the packaging, make it feel more premium, make the consumer think they’re getting department-store quality in the drug store. A strong brand campaign would also help. Re-brand the line to make it feel new, while not abandoning the equity you have in the history of your brand. Then, once you get consumers to try your product over Leggs, the hope is they’ll stick with you because the quality is better.
JW: Erin, I thought the same thing when Don proposed it: “He can do that?” Then I realized, “Oh yeah, he’s Don Draper.” My other thought was that in a world of leggings and LuluLemon, who buys disposable pantyhose? 2015 versus the 1960s: Different world, same mustaches.
GS: Maybe because Leggs is now becoming a more “everyday” fixture in grocery stores, Topaz should take the high road and promote a more “premium” stocking. And that may very well be what Don was onto in approaching Menken’s.
EM: Speaking as a woman who has bought drugstore pantyhose, you usually just need something to cover your legs because you’re on the way to work or your grandmother’s house and you just get whatever is gonna get you through the day. Not sure what that says about the strategy, but those kinds of hose are usually seen as one-time-use anyway, so getting the “nice” ones isn’t really on the radar.
AF: I resent the implication that I’ve never bought drugstore pantyhose.
JW: I honestly didn’t know that 1) Pantyhose were ever not disposable 2) How to spell pantyhose… I had to Google it.
This transcript has been edited and condensed. If you’re an ad pro and want to participate in next week’s Mad Men roundtable, shoot me a note: Rachel.Raczka@Boston.com.
[Images via AMC]