‘Mad Men’ was a decade-long whale hunt antagonized by an economist

Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick
Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick

The series finale of ‘Mad Men’ closed a fictional window to the 1960s. Women’s and civil rights, The Beatles, Serge Gainsbourg and The Doors, the introduction of birth control and realization that cigarettes cause cancer. The series remained authentic by intertwining itself with events of the decade.

The crash of American Airlines Flight 1, the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr and the Vietnam War all influenced the direction of the decade and the series. However, one of the decade’s most pervasive antagonists remained hidden. His influence only evidenced through McCann Erickson’s relentless efforts to acquire the creative talent of Sterling Cooper.

Bertram Cooper, Roger Sterling and the team that stayed with them to the end were a creative entrepreneurial bunch. Founded in 1923, Sterling Cooper had remained an independent and profitable company for 40 years until their recent acquisition would soon result in the loss of their agency’s autonomy.

The executives of Sterling Cooper thought fast and abandoned ship to create Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to avoid being absorbed by McCann Erickson. McCann in 1960 had created and was itself a subsidiary of the Interpublic Group of Companies, the world’s first marketing services management holding company.

During the final season, in July 1969, McCann Erickson offers an irresistible buyout to the executives of SC&P. However, just a year after their lucrative acquisition the other foot drops as the team is absorbed into McCann. “They waited so long that we thought we were safe” comments Don.

The agency’s autonomy lost, McCann’s Jim Hobart refers to the acquisition and especially landing Don Draper as capturing his “white whale” in reference to Moby-Dick. References to acquisitions and consolidations and how much economies of scale would multiply client dollars under McCann are used throughout the series but are at a fever pitch in the last season.

What is not stated in ‘Mad Men’ it that American business in the 1960s was being shaped by the economic theories of Milton Friedman. In September 1970, while SC&P was being swallowed by McCann and Don went rouge to find his own humanity – Friedman published one of his most influential articles in New York Times Magazine. “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” is probably Friedman’s most cited work where he described a simplistic model for business that placed creating shareholder value above all other business responsibility.

While Friedman’s theories would drive globalization for the coming decades ‘Mad Men’ fortunately closes with the iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad from 1971. The ad previews a future of humanized brands that today are working to repair the damage done by disregarding that business is a human endeavor.

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