Mad Men S1E8 — The Hobo Code

Each Monday we watch an episode of Mad Men (available on Amazon Prime) and put together notes on what we can learn from it about running agencies. Read an introduction to this blog series explaining more, and then follow our notes below for Episode 8 …


This has been the most difficult edition of Mad Men Mondays to write (which is why you're getting it on a Tuesday!) because this is a complex episode dealing with intertwining issues. Rather than try to boil it down into something simplistic, we're going to look at each strand and how they link up.

Essentially, the strands are like the intertwining double helix of Don Draper's DNA. It's Don's origin story, showing us the inflection point that started scared little Dick Whitman on the course to the heights he has risen to as big, bold Don Draper. Perhaps it also shows us the inflection point that sets big, bold Draper on course to whatever he becomes in future — a moment of deep self-reflection, if you like.

It's also going to be a key part of the origin story for the Peggy of the future.

Episode 8 is called 'The Hobo Code', for reasons we shall see. The main linked themes are 'Facing up to the truth' and 'Moving on'.


Don is at the height of his legendary powers. There's a meeting with Belle Jolie lipstick to present ideas for a new campaign, but the client isn't buying the new direction and just wants another ad with the same approach as before.

Don faces up to the truth straight away, that they won't be able to sell this client on any new idea. He doesn't try to persuade or argue, or rush to give in and agree to whatever the client wants.

He stands up, "I don't think there's much else to do here but call it a day."
"Is that all?" the client asks.
"You're a non-believer," Don says, "Why should we waste time? You've already tried your plan and you're number four [in the market]. You've enlisted my expertise, and you've rejected it to keep on doing what you're doing. I'm not here to explain Jesus to you. If you believe, he's in your heart."

Don explains the philosophy behind the campaign forcefully. The client is converted and agrees. "Sit-down," he tells Don, who replies "Not until I know I'm not wasting my time."

"Sit down," the client repeats, showing his acquiescence.

What made the client stop and re-think was that Don was clearly willing to move on from the client, but not from the idea, from what his expertise told him was right.

Meanwhile, Sterling Cooper's founder and chairman, Bert Cooper, is clearly worried Don is on the way up, and will move on, so gives him a $2,500 cheque as a surprise bonus saying he appreciates his talents and hard work.

There is power in this world, it seems, in being the one who is on the move, always ready to move on.

Don Draper is suprised by a bonus cheque from Bert Cooper

In a speech following the presentation of the bonus cheque, Cooper tells Don he thinks the two of them are alike: "You're a productive and reasonable man, who in the end is completely self-interested. It's strength. We are different. Unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work."

This is clearly true. He has recognised the essence of Don more than anyone else. But, is being so self-interested and unsentimental a good thing … or a bad thing? What damage might it do along the way? That's going to be an ongoing theme for the series to explore as we watch the different trajectories of Don and Peggy.

Cooper tells Don to read Ayn Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged. (Timesaving tip for Agency Radar subscribers: don't spend any time trying to read this book. It's awful. Imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg channeling Dan Brown to write a thriller about a hero making loads of money easily off the hard work of others purely because of their own family ties, and you're close. It's kind of a 'Fifty Shades of Greed' in terms of literary merit.) Don clearly has no intention of reading it.

Meanwhile, Pete Campbell is, as ever, displaying the opposite behaviours to Don. He complains about, but doesn't recognise the truth of, his situation. He can just complain about the unfairness of it all, and take it out on others. After a quickie with Peggy on his office couch, he complains about his wife to her: "I have all these things in my head … but she's just another stranger." Later in the morning his wife turns up and he hides his glass of whisky in a desk drawer and turns over the cushion he just pegged Peggy on. His wife brings a bottle of champagne to celebrate their new home and, after they've argued about her turning up unexpectedly and she's left again, Pete lies to colleagues that the champagne was given to him by a grateful client. He can't help but keep evading the truth.

Salvatore Romano, the head of the art department, is similarly avoiding facing up to the truth. He's gay, but he won't admit this, even to himself. He plays up to the flirtations of a woman from the switchboard, but he's tempted into a drink and dinner at the hotel with a male client who has dropped hints of flirtations — but Sal rushes off in a panic when there is the chance to move on to the next stage. "What are you afraid of?" the client asks. It's the 1960s and homsexuality is still a crime, so Sal answers, "Are you kidding?"

But Peggy, on the road to becoming Don's protégée, is matching Don in her willingness to face up to the truth and move on. After her flirtations and dalliances with Pete, in this episode we see her finally face up to the truth that he is an arsehole and steel her resolve to move on.

And she's moving on in terms of her idol and mentor too.

Until now Peggy's been under Joan's wing, but it's clear she's outgrowing that position. Joan resents this, belittling her. At news of Peggy's copywriting success, Joan says, "Well I'm glad your other work is suffering for a reason." At a party, Joan says to one of the switchboard operators, "I'm not saying that Peggy doesn't have something upstairs, just that at Sterling Cooper things are usually happening downstairs."

Instead, Peggy seems to be moving on to having Don as her inspiration. Her quickie with Pete left her with a torn blouse. When Don notices, she mentions she'll start keeping a spare at work — just like he does for his shirts, for when he's spent the night with a fling.

Speaking of Don's flings, he visits his lover Midge. She's with her beatnik pals, smoking dope. Don flashes his bonus cheque at her and asks her to come away to Paris with him. She says no, and persuades him to smoke with them. He does, and that sends him off back into childhood flashbacks. When he comes round he realises, from a Polaroid he's taken, that Midge and her boyfriend are in love. He asks again about Paris and she refuses. He faces up to the truth, and clearly decides to move on. He signs over his bonus cheque to her as what appears to be a parting gift.

So, Don and Peggy are facing up to truths and willing to move on, while Pete and Sal are in miserable denial.

So, now for those flashbacks of Don's, back to the days when he was Dick Whitman. Earlier in the episode, Bert Cooper was setting himself up as Don's mentor. But now we discover the real mentor that set Don on his journey. In the heat of the great depression a vagrant chances upon the Whitman household, and asks for a meal in return for work. Dick's father, a bitter nasty man, refuses him, but his mother, a proud Christian, agrees. The vagrant says at one point Dick "reminds me of myself," and the mother replies, "That doesn't surprise me at all."

Dick's mother offers the vagrant a coin in addition to the meal for the work that he'll do the next day. But Dick's dad takes the coin, saying it'll be given tomorrow, once the work is done.

Young Dick Whitman, long before he became Don Draper

The vagrant is clearly an educated man fallen on hard times. He reveals he is from New York originally. Later that night the vagrant talks to Dick:

"We all wish we were from someplace else. I'm a gentleman of the rails. For me, every day is brand new. Brand new place, people, what have you. What's at home? I had a family once, a job, a mortgage. I couldn't sleep at night tied to all those things. So, one morning I freed myself with the clothes on my back."

And those words seem to have burned into young Dick Whitman's brain and become the underlying urge behind everything that is Don Draper. Always ready to move on, leaving everything behind. Ready to drop work and family and vanish to Paris with a mistress. Ready to disown his brother for his career and freedom. Ready to become what Bert Cooper sees as "Completely self-interested [and] unsentimental."

Don Draper is the hobo of the episode title, not the vagrant who came to his home — he's the one that doesn't want to settle, will always be moving on, valuing his freedom above all else.

The vagrant tells Don he's an 'honorary' hobo, saying "This is how we talk to each other. On the front gate of every house there's a mark, it's a code." He takes out a piece of chalk and shows him some marks that show the food is good, there's a nasty dog, or a dishonest man lives here.

Midge's friends accuse Don, saying "You make the lie [as an ad man]." Don responds from deep within his personal psyche: "There is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent."

Don goes home, at last. He wakes up his young son, urging him to "Ask me anything, anything." The son is just a sleepy little boy, unaware of the truths waiting to come pouring out of his father, and simply asks "Why do lightning bugs light up?" "I don't know," says Don, "But I will never lie to you."

Back in the flashback and the vagrant has done his day's work and is set to leave. Dick's dad refuses to give him the coin that had been promised. The vagrant faces up to the truth and moves on rather than fight. Dick runs down to the gate and sees a hobo code etched on the gatepost that means 'a dishonest man lives here.'

In the 60s, Don goes into his office, the door closes, and we zoom in on his name on the door. Is this the mark of an honest man?


Insights for agency leaders

  • Don is not a role model for agency leaders as much as he is a warning. There's plenty to learn from him, but often this comes from seeing his faults play out. We have to pick our lessons selectively.
  • Don's whole personal life is built on some big lies that could crumble at any moment (so let's not copy that), but in the day-to-day of his work he's brutally honest — and that we can take inspiration from. It takes boldness to avoid falling into white lies, the little happy lies that people want to hear.
  • So, one positive lesson to learn is the confidence Don exhibits with clients. Always facing up to the truth, always being willing to move on if there isn't a productive working relationship. Clients are looking to be led to the truth.
  • Your time is just as valuable as the clients. Don't let them waste it, and don't waste it yourself, with happy white lies and work that will either fail or be unremarkable.
  • Like many bonuses, the one Cooper gives Don seems to have no effect, or even a detrimental one. Don doesn't know what it's for, and doesn't buy into the supposedly motivational message that's delivered with it. He doesn't seem to think it belongs to him or that he deserves it, and that it needs to be got rid of by spending quickly or giving it away. There's lots of research that bonuses are counterproductive, and its just better to pay people well and focus on other important factors like a healthy workplace and meaningful work.
  • Don is right. The universe is indifferent. We make our own weather. Facing up to this truth is what entrepreneurship is all about. Anything that is going to happen, you have to make happen.
  • But the failing of Don's we can all learn from is that his restlessness, his urge to keep moving on in life, has a weighty impact on him personally, and on his family. Work does not define us. Work is there to ensure we can support our families and have a good life.

Things to try this week

  • Face up to the truth of things, even if just quietly in your head for now. With each situation, what is the underlying reality? What truths would you love to be able to say? What truths should you lead your clients towards? Where can you start with saying some of these truths and getting more used to doing that confidently?
  • Think about mentors throughout your life (even if they weren't actively mentoring you) and what you've learned from them. If you're going to keep moving on, who should your next mentor be?
  • Ask yourself: if someone was to etch a secret mark on your office door, what would it advise others of? Do you want to change that? How will you start that change?

What other insights did you gain from this episode about leading an agency? Share them with us on Twitter at @agencyradar with hashtag #MadMenMonday. We'll share the best here.

Join us next Monday for another episode.

Finally, this is obviously mainly a bit of fun each week. The rest of the time we publish in-depth research briefings to help agency leaders better operate as shareholders, directors and in CxO roles. Find out what Agency Radar is all about.

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