In the Mad Men episode that aired 20 September, 2009 the chairman of the board of the British company that bought Sterling Cooper gets his foot cut off by a John Deere rider mower being ridden at an office party.* The scene is hilarious, shocking and gross all at the same time.
The grotesqueness of the involuntary amputation however matches the grotesqueness of the forced jollity of the party being held to honor . . . what exactly nobody knows. In a brilliant bit of satire, the creators of Mad Men nailed the quintessential agency event at which agency higher-ups spout bromides about commitment and partnership and announce decisions that muddy the waters for the staff, leaving it confused and insecure. Then, once finished with speech-making, and to make the muddle somehow more palatable, they pour booze and present plates “of delicatessen.” This sort of thing goes on all of the time. The ties may be skinny, credenzas filled with liquor and assistants called “girls”, but the scenes in this year’s Mad Men are pure 2009. The writers have captured the ad world’s zeitgeist perfectly.
Roger Sterling, co-founder of the agency and ambivalent recipient of a windfall from its sale, is absent from the party when the foot is lost. He finds some of his staff sitting in a room from which the blood is being squeegeed from a smoked glass window. On his way in he says “Woah, it looks Iwo Jima. . .” He then says to the huddled, shaken, and gore covered-staffers, “somewhere, this has happened before, in another agency.” That one line captures the best of what agency life is all about: dark humor, insouciance, a jaded invincibility and an appreciation for the absurd. It is funny, and perhaps true — if not on a literal level, then definitely on a metaphorical level — and the knowing laughter of the folks in the office affirms this.
Too often these days agencies are dour places, filled with folks worrying about utilization and billable hours and the stock prices of the holding company which will ultimately determine the their employment prospects. Art and magic are increasingly replaced by metrics and ROI as a decidedly soft-science business tries to dress up as a hard science business and provide what Wall St. investors demand. Trust me, I support it — it forces us to be accountable and provides value for our customers — but there is a fundamental, and growing conflict at the heart of the large, publicly-traded-holding-company-owned agency. Art and creativity and design and all of the things that go into great creative, and into making agencies fun places to work are fundamentally subjective. It’s hard to produce objective results from quarter to quarter with unbridled subjective judgments — both of consumers and clients — driving the metrics that determine the success of your business. This season of Mad Men deftly chronicles very modern ad-biz problems, and in a literal and metaphorical mangled foot, we see the old spirit (a spirit we try to keep alive in our own fledgling shop) of the ad world shining through, reminding many of us (at least me) what it is that we love about agencies at the same time that we witness their diminishment as wholly owned subsidiaries of out of town land lords.