Ken Cosgrove’s Mad Men Revenge Will Warm the Cockles of Bitter Adlanders
At the risk of being incredibly spoiler-ific, there’s a
moment in the latest episode of Mad Men (‘Severance’) that is sure to have many
people who’ve undergone the rough-and-tumble of the advertising industry’s
hiring and firing process cackling with bitter glee. As the retro TV show
enters its final run, don’t let the early ‘70s polyester and sideburns fool you
– Mad Men has always had as much to say about modern day adland as it has the
good-old-bad-old days of husband-hunting secretaries, sexism and scotch. And
I’m not just talking about Stan Rizzo, the bearded hipster of an art director
who could slip, unnoticed, into any contemporary agency (Spoilers ahead, you
have been warned…)
When amiable account man Ken Cosgrove is unceremoniously ditched from Sterling Cooper & Partners following his father-in-law’s retirement from client Dow, he enacts the kind of revenge fantasy that puts Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy to shame. But it’s not with Korean-inspired ultraviolence that he responds. Instead, he strikes fear into his erstwhile employer’s heart with the chilling line: "I'm going to be your client, and I hate to tell you, but I'm very hard to please."
Unsurprisingly Kenneth, with his passive-aggressive chirpiness and killer eyepatch, has since been dubbed ‘Ken Bossgrove’ by fans online. And I’m sure it was a cathartic experience for more than a few adlanders who have found themselves unexpectedly rendered ‘between jobs’. In recent weeks there have been some pretty high profile instances of senior figures ditched with breath-taking ruthlessness and I couldn’t help but think of them as Ken delivered the ultimate middle finger. It’s a small, small gene pool particularly at the top. As the roles of agencies, production companies, marketers and media channels becomes more fluid I wonder how far companies should consider future-proofing themselves with a little civility? (Indeed Ken himself loses his job thanks to his acrimonious split with McCann in previous episodes.) On the other hand, the first half of season seven saw Don Draper lick his wounds and furtively try to win back favour as he’s demoted and put on notice – undoubtedly another familiar scenario for creatives who have flown a little too close to the whisky-soaked sun.
Advertising is, above all, a ‘people’ business. And while that means it’s more fun and silly and sociable than, say, accountancy, there’s also a dark side. It means wrongs are taken personally, grudges are held, wounds fester and vindictive exes lurk round ever corner (poor old Ken had the chance to take the high road out of adland altogether to write his novel, but the promise of revenge was just too much to refuse). Bad behaviour and outright sleaziness often goes unpunished too. This week, for example, the magnificent Joan was treated to an offensive display of misogyny and although I’ve not had to experience anything nearly as bad as Joan has over the course of seven seasons, I have nonetheless witnessed my fair share of ‘ew, gross, really?’ moments.
Another curious link between Mad Men’s setting and today is the use of real advertising agency rivals to the fictitious Sterling Cooper & Partners. DDB will be using that VW ‘Lemon’ scene from the first series to kick off seminars and sales pitches well into the 22nd century while poor old McCann really gets a kicking in this episode (it’s a juvenile creative team at McCann that subjects Joan to sexist treatment and Ken explains to Pete that he didn’t fit in at the agency because ““I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. And I can read”). To their credit McCann tweeted along – all the better to laugh with than take the huff. (Check out The Wall Street Journal's great blog post on the subject.)
Suffice it to say, I’m pretty excited about the final episodes of Mad Men. Well, perhaps excited isn’t quite the mot juste for a series that’s more about languid literarism than high octane plotting (speaking of which, roll on Game of Thrones). But I think the show and its success has put advertising under the spotlight and forced the industry to reflect on itself (“we’ve moved on from the ‘60s.” “Oh, have we? When did that happen?”). Sure the glamour and the typing pool may be long gone, but the spirit of Don Draper – and Ken and Peggy and Joan and Pete live on.