Monday, April 27, 2015

Don Draper and the American Way


Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner quickened the pace of this final mini-season with Sunday night's "Time & Life," in which the principals of Sterling, Cooper & Partners learn that they are being absorbed by their new corporate masters, McCann Erickson, and they will finally be locked into those gilded cages they have struggled mightily to avoid. More on that in a bit.

This was the best episode so far of this final stretch, which has been plodding and exceedingly introspective even by Mad Men standards. For me, "Time & Life" spoke more clearly to the themes of the show than any recent episode, with one pivotal exchange that leaps out: Roger and Don, in a bar, drowning as much in self-pity as booze over McCann's decision to reject out of hand their plan to move the firm to the West Coast. Roger laments not only the end of the agency that bears his name but also the end of the name itself, since he has no son, brother, or even cousins to carry it on. "What's in a name?" Don says wryly, living, as he does, under an assumed one. Roger tells Don he envies his ambition, and Don tells Roger that he envies that Roger never needed any. "In another lifetime, I'd have been your chauffeur."

Unlike Roger, the audience knows the other half of Don's Horatio Alger story and understands why he's an imperfect vehicle for the message that in America, it should only matter what you do, not who you are. Whatever role Don's considerable talents played in his rise, he owes much of his success to reinvention and criminal deception. I don't think I'm being overly cynical when I say that Don Draper's story is quintessentially American, in the tradition of Jay Gatsby and Vito Corleone. Don may believe in America, but he understands the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the myths we tell ourselves about our nation.

Some of Don's colleagues could tell him that while he's had to overcome that hypocrisy, he's also been its beneficiary. Don may lack the WASP pedigree of a Roger Sterling or a Pete Campbell, but he couldn't have pulled off all he's accomplished in the Mad Men era unless he was a white (and Protestant) male. Remember the very first episode of the series, when Roger, getting ready for a pitch to a Jewish-owned department store, asks Don whether the firm has hired any Jews. Don misunderstands the point of the question and says "Not on my watch." Whether Don is actually antisemitic is immaterial, his relationship with Rachel Menken, the heiress who runs the store, notwithstanding. Don has tricked his way into the club, and he knows full well who belongs and who doesn't.

Take Joan, for example, who despite being a partner who has brought considerable value to SCP, is convinced that McCann is a boys' club where she'll find little meaningful work. Or Dawn and Shirley, two African American employees, who wonder if they will have jobs at all. When Mad Men premiered it was a mirror of how America used to be, and we could nod and chuckle in self-satisfaction at how far we've come. Now, the show is often an ugly reflection of how little has changed, a half-century on, and it makes us squirm. Too many women like Peggy Olson are still forced to choose between a family and a career in ways that men are not, women executives don't earn as much money or respect as men, and there still are too few opportunities for minorities.

It's worth remembering that the agency went seeking a black employee to thumb its nose at a larger rival whose cruel treatment of civil rights marchers was reported in the newspapers. The agency may have grudgingly given opportunities to women like Peggy, Joan, and Dawn -- a gay employee like Sal was a bridge too far when an important, closeted client made a pass at him -- but it also fit its underdog, dare I say renegade, image. Now, though, the men and women of SCP are fated to be cogs in the corporate machine, and here Mad Men exposes another conflict between the story Americans tell about themselves and the messy reality. We extol the virtues of the mom-and-pop store, the entrepreneur and the visionary innovator, but the system seems rigged to favor the giant corporation. Apple may have started in Steve Jobs' garage, but now it rakes in billions and billions while employing cheap labor in China. Don and Roger once viewed McCann Erickson with the same resentful contempt that Jobs viewed IBM; now they are McCann Erickson in much the way that Apple became IBM, in scale if not in culture.

Not that we should feel sorry for any of them. Twice during last night's episode, someone tells the gang at SCP to give thanks for their great fortune. Peggy's career consultant tells her she won't find another agency who will pay her anywhere near what McCann will, and she can write her own ticket in a few short years. McCann's Jim Hobart, who's always been after the talent at Sterling Cooper going back to his early attempt to poach Don, tells the five partners that they've won. Goliath couldn't beat David. So he bought him out. What could be more American than that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Tweet Heard ‘Round the World: Twitter’s IPO Announcement (A PR ‘Masterstroke’)

Good analysis of Twitter's IPO announcement. However, not all of us always recommend our organizations "make a big splash." That's a good way to disappoint senior management when the big splash turns into a dud. Instead of a press conference to announce something, for example, host a reception that can stand on its own, and invite the media to attend based on the news you are announcing. It's a good way to manage expectations, which is half the battle most days.

The Tweet Heard ‘Round the World: Twitter’s IPO Announcement (A PR ‘Masterstroke’)

Sunday, January 13, 2013


A Pittsburgh tragedy has raised some interesting questions about the interactions between the media and public agencies, and how public relations staff should behave when put in an adversarial relationship with reporters.

A woman named Ka'Sandra Wade was shot to death by her boyfriend before he killed himself. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette learned that police officers had earlier investigated a 911 call made by Wade, but left her home after her boyfriend told them everything was fine. The police department, in response to questions emailed about this 911 call by Post-Gazette reporters, sent a press release to all local media outlets which included a verbatim copy of the reporters' email. In a subsequent editorial, the newspaper framed for the public the police department's offense:

Arthur Yann, a vice president of the Public Relations Society of America, referred details of the case to his association's ethics committee. The panel called the city police's PR approach "ill-advised" and a "violation of an unwritten custom of journalism."

The Newspaper Guild, which represents Post-Gazette staffers, said this "was not just an attempt to ruin a 'scoop' for two reporters, it was an attempt to derail any communication between reporters and police beyond what officials offer at staged news conferences." The Guild said the department wanted "to punish and intimidate reporters who dared to demand answers to important questions. ..."

That is precisely the problem. Some members of the public in a media-hostile age may dismiss this as special pleading. But once a government agency arrogantly decides to punish perceived enemies, reporters from any news organization become candidates for the same treatment -- the Post-Gazette one day, WPXI the next, with the ultimate victim the public's right to know. To dismiss this as unimportant is to suggest that a young woman's life was unimportant; it is to suggest that the people of Pittsburgh don't deserve real answers about public safety, police performance and what their tax dollars are buying. (link)

One caveat before we discuss who is right, and who is wrong, from a PR standpoint: A government agency has an obligation to the news media and the public (the former being a surrogate for the latter) that many of our organizations do not. (Though I would argue that we all have an obligation to treat the public, as individuals and in the collective, in an ethical manner). But many of us do work in industries that are covered aggressively by media outlets in competition with one another. So this discussion matters.

I always assume that any email I send in a professional setting can be forwarded without my knowledge and consent. But assuming a thing can happen does not make that thing right. I would never forward a reporter's email to a competing news outlet without that reporter's knowledge and consent. It betrays an implicit trust that exists between journalists and public information officers, and it's also rather stupid; that reporter will never trust me, or by extension, my organization, ever again. Similarly, if a friend sends me an email and assumes confidentiality, I'm a jerk if I violate that confidentiality, whether or not they knew it was possible.

Nonetheless, the police department was under no obligation to keep the Post-Gazette's scoop under wraps. In fact, once the department realized that it would soon be public knowledge that its officers failed to prevent a murder, it was smart for the department to come clean with everyone. It would have been even wiser to have revealed this information even before it came to the attention of any media outlets. Now one has to wonder whether the incident is only under investigation because it was outed by reporters.

As to the Post-Gazette's assertion that the police department's intention was to intimidate reporters, well, it's hard to avoid that conclusion. Now every reporter who wants to communicate in email with the police department has to wonder where their email will end up, and whether it is worth asking tough questions at all.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Should old acquaintance be forgot...

So it was a tough year: My mother died, I moved into a new house (a good thing, but stressful), and work was crazy. My blogging fell off, but nonetheless I cobbled together this list of my top posts last year in terms of page views:

1. What We Can Learn From America's Hat:  Unlike the American version, the Canadian definition of public relations includes an emphasis on relationships. Damn socialists.

2. Frankly My Dear, We Don't Give a Damn: In which a once-adored but declining amusement park tells customers with food allergies to go pound sand. 

3. And You Do What For A Living? Speaking of defining PR, in this post I reviewed the leading contenders in the PRSA's effort to eke out a new definition for our ever-evolving craft. 

4. The Medium is Still the Message: It turns out people trust "owned media", like a brand's web site, over paid media like advertising even though the source of the information is ultimately the same: the brand itself.

5. What's in a Name?  Faltering brands that think a new name and new logo will change their fortunes are sadly mistaken.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The House the Mouse Built

Last month I talked about the reasons behind Disney's buying spree, from a marketing perspective: With a diverse range of properties, there's less likely parents and kids will suffer Disney fatigue. Here is why it makes sense from a financial perspective, but from the marketing view as well. It all comes down to that old chestnut: Content is king:

The acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm will also bolster the company's theme parks as well. Iron Man, Hulk, Indiana Jones, and Darth Vader provide a draw for a wide range of age groups that will visit the parks and cruise lines each year. And it's big business.

Parks and resorts are Disney's second-largest business, generating 30.6% of the company's revenue in the past fiscal year. The studio entertainment segment generated just 13.8% of revenue and just 7.3% of operating income. If we assume that studio entertainment's $722 million of operating income continues, it would take 21.3 years to pay for the three acquisitions highlighted above, so Disney clearly thinks there's money to be made elsewhere and parks and resorts are a likely key.

Then of course there's that other old warhorse of capitalism, the middleman. With so many varied properties in its portfolio, there's less need for it to partner in the long run with third parties to distribute that valued content:

I think that Disney is beginning to position itself as a multidimensional provider of content that will have a lot of bargaining power in the future. The company recently shut down Disney Movies Online, a movie streaming service that never quite had the features consumers demanded. But the service was largely outsourced, and sources say that Disney is developing Disney Movies Anywhere, a service that will have more access across multiple devices.

So, let's assume that Disney creates a way to download or stream Disney content on your tablet or smartphone. There now becomes less need for Netflix, Disney could bypass iTunes, and even cable companies could lose a lot of bargaining power. WatchESPN is already available with your cable subscription; what if Disney offered that on its own?

The bottom line is that Disney has a lot of flexibility as our digital media future unfolds and the addition of popular content gives the company that much more bargaining power.

All I know is that this company will likely be liberating my dollars from my wallet for years to come.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

May the Mouse Be With You

A few weeks ago I flagged this story about Disney's struggling Internet division. I think it is still relevant in light of the Mouse's recent purchase of Lucasfilm.

I can't speak for every parent of Disney-crazed kids, but I know that mine consume so much Disney content and products that at some point I think they have their fill. Plus, my wife and I dearly want to limit the amount of time they spend staring at screens. So we're just not going to allow them to spend any time at I wouldn't be surprised if other parents didn't feel the same way, even if they are huge fans of Disney, like we are.

Which no doubt is part of the incentive for Disney to expand its reach with acquisitions like the Muppets, Marvel Comics, and Star Wars. It allows consumers to avoid Disney fatigue while still dumping dollars by the truckload in the company's coffers. Then of course there's the challenge of a company associated with children's entertainment trying to hold on to those kids as they grow older. Your kids might have outgrown Mickey Mouse and Jake and the Neverland Pirates, but not Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker.

It's diversification at its finest. How Disney capitalizes on its properties to turn around its Internet division is up to them to figure out, but something tells me that eventually they will.