Harry Crane is Mad Men’s Least Likable Dark Horse

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Harry Crane is such a subtly interesting character. I mean, he’s a douche, and he is utterly inelegant in how he manages his affairs and nobody likes him, sure. But subtle cues throughout the series make it clear that Harry’s media department is a big, big deal and is largely responsible for making SC&P what it is by the end of the 1960’s. On a first watch, you might miss his impact, but trust me, signs of his importance are sprinkled everywhere. Harry Crane made SC & P.

This fact is also backed up by the history of mid-century advertising. Media placement was a huge money-maker for advertising agencies, especially back then. As Paul Kinsey notes in season 1, what agencies are really selling to clients is placement — with a markup. The actual creative work is just window dressing. It’s basically given away.

What really changed in the 1960′s was the science of advertising. Research into demographic trends and contextual influences was just beginning, and it was only the savviest of advertisers who knew how to capitalize upon it. Many ad men were still running on instinct and charm; the young, hungry professionals were learning how to study consumers as scientific subjects, and were beginning to see the media landscape as a commodities market that could be yield pure profits when played correctly.

Harry is one of the few characters on the show who “gets” that. Dr. Faye is another notable example, though her focus is on the advertising-design piece. Her work involved a lot of qualitative data collection — focus groups, interviews, and the like. But Harry was learning to use national and local media habits statistics to influence ad placement and media buys, creating a whole new sub-field of advertising and steam of revenue.

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It’s easy to forget this when watching Mad Men, though. The show is sometimes overly focused on the acquisition of new clients. Like Roger says in one of the early seasons, he loves the chase. To the account men (and Don, often), winning a client is an enticing challenge akin to wooing a woman. A disproportionate amount of time is devoted to meetings, dinners, brainstorming sessions, and pitches — many of which go nowhere, or yield only problematic clients barely worth their billings. But it’s the exciting part of the biz.

In comparison, client maintenance really gets short shrift, even though it’s keeping the client happy and billed that makes the business stay afloat. Half of the big clients in the series end up amounting to nothing because they either leave, are fired, are lost in a merger, are lost due to a conflict, or never actually sign with SC & P at all. Hershey’s. Jaguar. Chevy. Heinz. All these big names receive a ton of attention from SC&P’s top brass, but none of them end up really being worth it. The day to day struggle of keeping clients happy and placing their advertisements gets comparatively little attention. It’s easy to forget that’s where all the money actually comes from.

This is a deliberate narrative choice based on the fact that bagging big, sexy clients is the main focus of nearly all the main characters. The prestige of working with Heinz or Hershey is why they want those clients, really, not the day-to-day money. Meanwhile, it’s the mid-tier characters who are making all the actual money doing the real maintenance work. It is implied (especially in the middle seasons) that Peggy’s constantly writing copy and coupons and magazine inserts, Stan’s churning out art, and Harry…Harry is selling media placement. Which is a big deal. And it’s easy to miss.

Harry single-handedly changes the entire landscape of SC & P, restructures the whole business, woos tons of new clients, gets the office a state of the art computer, and has a big hand in establishing SC & P West. And yet everybody is constantly super annoyed with him and dismissive of his value, to the point of refusing to give him a partnership for years. He’s inventing a new area of applied data science and expanding the business into a bi-costal enterprise and nobody seems to care because he’s a prick.

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And as audience members, we tend to mirror the passions of the main cast, so we miss Harry’s importance, too. We get sucked in by the pitches to Jaguar and Sunkist; we think of Harry as a useless schlub…but he’s the one revolutionizing how advertising is done. It’s no coincidence that Butler Shoes, St. Joseph’s, & Dow Chemical are all kept in SC & P’s pocket by virtue of their television buying capacity. In season 7, Joan says this outright. We laugh at Harry for pitching “Broadway Joe on Broadway”, but it saved the business millions of dollars in annual billings by cleaning up Dow Chemical’s image.

Throughout the series, Don is focused on the “art” of advertising (as is Ted), and Roger & Pete & Jim are focused on the sexiness of the chase. Joan and Bert just want to make as much money as possible while controlling the other men’s egos. But Harry is doing something completely. It’s easy to miss because hey, all the other characters are missing his grit and brilliance, so why wouldn’t we?

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The show is brilliant at alluding to big tide changes in small ways. In Season 2, Joan brings in the office’s first copy machine, representing a total revolution in how administrative tasks are performed. She tells the girls in the secretarial pool that it will make their jobs much easier…and then, over the course of five seasons, we see the number of women at desks dwindle, getting smaller and smaller, until there is no secretarial pool at all. There’s just a few administrative assistants assigned to the higher ups.

The same thing happens with the telephone operators. In Season 1, they are part of the inner infrastructure of Sterling Cooper — Joan makes it clear that they’re a mighty force night to incur the wrath of, lest they fail to ever connect your calls and get you fired. It’s implied this is what happened to the secretary preceding Peggy. But that entire position is gone less than five years later. The technology changes and it just…disappears. And all the telephone operators disappear with it. Blink and you’ll miss it. That’s how change happens.

The same subtly is being used to inform us of Harry Crane’s importance. We barely see his prowess, but the signs of it are everywhere. The fat checks Bert writes him. The expanding media department. The clients that fall to their knees to not lose Crane’s media buys. The surprisingly caveat-free praise Joan gives him. And one other big thing:

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Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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