13 May 2014

The Decline of Mad Men- and What it Teaches about Brands

My old friend Bill Barnes- the undisputed king-of-deadpan- used to say: "Ask me the secret of comedy."
"Okay, wha-"

The man had chops.

So much of branding is about timing.  A lesson niftilly illustrated in the recent woes of Mad Men, whose final season debuted this spring to underwhelming ratings.

The wonderful John Hamm, too often the de facto spokesman for the Mad Men brand (whose headquarters is found between the ears of showrunner Matthew Weiner) spun it thus- as though a decline in ratings was part of the Mad Men master plan:
"It's gotten to where it's only the hardcore people are down with it," Hamm said of "Mad Men." "It makes sense. It's a different viewing experience."
Conventional wisdom has it that Mad Men is suffering from hiatus-itis-  lags between seasons (and half-seasons) that allowed audience interest to cool.  And the reason for these lags and disappearances?
  • A 17-month 'holiday' a couple of seasons back while Weiner and host network AMC squabbled over, yes, money
  • The network's desire to hold the show for one of four US Sweeps months (February, May, July and November).
  • Disagreements over production details: including-

      -how much product placement to sell within episodes.

Consider a similar dispute- between The Sopranos and HBO.  During a hiatus of nearly two years (June '04 to March '06), James Gandolfini, rest him, lost 160 pounds, and the show lost 1.6 million viewers, about 14% of its constituency.

Squeak, rumble, squeak.  Hear that?  It's the sound of glutes squirming in leather boardroom seats in AMC sales meetings.

Indeed- The Mad Men Season 7 première last month yielded 2.3 million viewers-  about a million fewer than its Season 6 début in 2013. The sense of disappointment is compounded by news that AMC would dispense the final AMC season with an eye-dropper- seven episodes now, and the final seven a year (!) from now.

Oh yes, cliffhangers work- as well today as they did for the landmark film series The Perils of Pauline exactly a century ago...

...and for Scheherazade, whose 1001 tales saved her life, one story at a time.


The Eclectic Film Company (it's said owner William Randolph Hearst had a hand in generating stories)  knew they'd need to release the next installment in a week.

And Scheherazade knew that a failure to resolve one story and begin another the very next night would be fatal.


Was this Mad Man lapse avoidable?  Could AMC and Weiner have agreed to put their customer first and air shows while their audience interest peaked?  We mere mortals may never know. What is certain is that Mad Men forgot- or ignored- two of the sacred pillars of Branding:

1.   When your Brand succeeds, it no longer belongs to you

Brands reside and thrive in the imaginations of those who consume them.  When that brand succeeds, its consumers- it's fans- assume ownership.  Those who created and run the brand become managers.  Or, to switch metaphors, the consumers own the ship; it the manager's job to steer.  And, true to the metaphor, the larger the ship, the harder it becomes to steer.

2.   Servitude

To serve the brand's 'owners' is to serve the brand.  Like the yellow sun that makes Superman out of Kal-El, consumers imbue a brand with its power. Mad Men draws its power from its viewer base.  They are what put AMC's original productions on the map; they're the reason Matthew Weiner doesn't ask his waitress to recite the dinner specials. But consumers need to be cultivated, fed, and lovingly nurtured.

So easily, so often- brand managers forget that.  The delays-for-ratings, the contract wrangles, the 'split' seasons of Mad Men weren't devised for the viewer's benefit.  Worse, they ignored the viewers' appetite for fresh episodes.

AMC and Weiner, as brand stewards, ignored the rule of servitude, and it cost them a million viewers.  And probably a lot of its momentum.

It's a common tale.

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