The seven-season-long nonstop drink-and-smoke-a-thon that was Mad Men has come to a close. Were you entertained? Were you satisfied? Better yet, did you learn anything? I will spare you my personal thoughts on the merits of the ending as there are countless commentaries available on the Web. (Really, it’s amazing how many there are.) Suffice it to say that the “ending” appeared to bring more new beginnings than closure: Roger Sterling’s (third) marriage to Marie Calvet; Joan’s new production company; Pete Campbell’s new job at Lear Jet; Ken Cosgrove at Dow Chemical; Peggy and Stan finally admitting they loved each other (though no one makes falling in love more awkward than Peggy Olson); and, last but not least, Don/Dick Draper/Whitman with his back to the California coast dreaming of the most iconic Coca-Cola ad of the 20th Century.
From the perspective of an employment lawyer, one of the most notable developments that occurred in the last few episodes, however, was not one of the evolution (or devolution) of the individual characters, but the constant upheaval at the advertising behemoth, McCann Erickson. The second half of the final season begins with the revelation that McCann’s acquisition of Sterling Cooper was not a partnership but, rather, Jim Hobart’s mastermind plan to fold the old competitor into McCann’s ever-increasing portfolio–even at the expense of several expensive conflicts-of-interest. But, the Titanic of the ad world can’t hold on to it all. And, companies of all sizes and industries can take a few lessons.
The first example is the unrelenting sexual harassment of Joan Harris, which results in an out-of-court settlement. While Joan’s parting gift is likely a drop in the bucket to McCann financially, the nonmonetary cost is a bit more significant. The company not only lost Joan and her ever-burgeoning professional prowess, but also her Rolodex. Sure, McCann has lots of people with connections, but they could still have Joan’s, too, had they not been such pigs. Also, there is nothing said of any recourse to responsible harassers within McCann. Because the setting is 1970, it’s easy to conclude that Jim Hobart feels Dennis and Ferg are infinitely more valuable to McCann than Joan. In today’s world, however, this view is shortsighted to say the least. Having not been counseled, the harassers are likely to repeat their actions, setting the scene for potential legal action down the road. Moreover, the company’s failure to respond to complaints of alleged harassment damages its ability to establish the affirmative defense in later litigation. Companies should have dedicated lines of communications for employees to communicate complaints of this nature and must respond with internal investigations and, where necessary, disciplinary action.
Then, there was the swift exit of Pete Campbell to Lear Jet. While I never personally liked Pete’s character, a consistent staple of the plot line was his solid ability to manage clients. As a result, his contract with McCann was apparently airtight, and his buyout sizable. Still, this didn’t keep him from making the move when a better opportunity came calling. The lesson here is not so much legal as it is practical: Employees come and go–especially talented ones. Such is the natural order of things. So, the best thing an employer can do is to make sure it is protected if and when this turnover occurs. If you have employees like a Pete Campbell, who represent your direct contacts with your clients and customers or who have access to confidential, trade-secret information, you should take steps to protect those business interests.
Noncompete, nonsolicitation, and nondisclosure agreements are not always necessary but can be very helpful in some cases. More important, these documents don’t draft themselves and magically appear when you need them. Business owners must take the time to put thought into the specific business interests they are seeking to protect and should typically enlist the help of a professional to tailor these agreements to their needs and the laws of the states in which they may be applicable. Even if the agreements are in place, when an employee or former employee challenges or breaches these agreements, the company must make a business judgment on how far it is willing to go to enforce such an agreement, as this type of litigation can have ancillary consequences to client relationships or market reputation.
Lastly is the real McCann’s handling of its role in the show. If you have read any commentaries about the show or are familiar with the world of advertising, you may be aware that McCann is actually a real company. While reports state McCann wasn’t consulted on the details of the show’s plot, the company has apparently played along by commenting on Twitter about the ups and downs of its made-up history on the show. (Though — it is apparently true that McCann was responsible for that iconic Coca-Cola ad seen at the end of the finale.) Credit should go to McCann for its good-spirited response to its role in show. While the company certainly could have responded negatively to being used as the villainous backdrop for the final season, it has instead chosen to play along, which has resulted in an uptick in its notoriety. Granted, not every circumstance can be handled with the stroke of a pen. In this situation, however, McCann’s savvy serves as a lesson to business owners about the ability of a well-crafted response to diffuse conflict in many instances.