Why Mohawk Airlines fired the Mad Men – for real

By Bob Schulman

Fans of the just-ended TV series Mad Men may recall a recent scene in which agency superstar “Don Draper” cancels a meeting with his client, Mohawk Airlines. He didn’t know it, but – had the writers come up with a script from real life in the late 60s – Draper was lucky he backed out. Because he would have been fired.

There really was a Mohawk Airlines. Based in Utica, N.Y., it mainly served routes in the Northeast U.S., and in the 60s the carrier was gushing red ink. So it hired a new marketing team, which turn brought a new ad agency on board, a biggie from Madison Avenue full of guys in grey flannel suits. The pairing up of the agency and the airline turned out to be a disaster.

Here’s the bizarre story of what happened:

On the agency’s first trip Upstate to visit their new client, most of the airline’s execs were there, but the chairman and CEO – let’s call him Mr. Plum – wasn’t.

I’ll digress a little here to mention that Mr. Plum, who was known to, er, imbibe a bit, often was gone for weeks at a time. Once, he zipped off to England and bought a fleet of 69-passenger BAC-111 twinjets from British Aircraft Corp. That was a headline-maker because the purchase marked the first time one of the nation’s dozen or so regional airlines had upgraded to pure jets, having until then flown only smaller prop jobs. More about the jet deal later.

When Mr. Plum finally showed up, he found his phone ringing off the hook. On the other end of the line were irate passengers who’d called to tell him horror tales of lost reservations, late flights, mangled luggage and the like. It was almost as if the passengers had been led to believe the chairman really wanted to hear their gripes. (He didn’t – calls like these were supposed to go to the airline’s Customer Service Department.)

What Mr. Plum didn’t know was that the new ad agency had cooked up a promotion called “Board of Perfectors.” Ads encouraged passengers to become “perfectors” by reporting – to Mohawk – certain things that went wrong on a Mohawk flight. Complainers were rewarded with a “Gold Chip” worth a dollar in cash or a free drink on their next flight.

At the time, most of Mohawk’s flights – which served all five of the heavily congested New York-area airports -- were running late, in no small part due to a slowdown by the air traffic controllers. Thus, thousands of passengers felt they’d be eligible for a Gold Chip (even though, if they’d read the fine print, they’d know late flights weren’t one of the reward categories) and called Mohawk asking to talk to “a perfector.”
 

But the switchboard operators hadn’t been told about the promotion. So when someone asked for a perfector, they thought the callers were asking for a director – like in board of directors -- and passed the calls on to the chairman’s office (the only director with an office at Mohawk).

No surprisingly, Mr. Plum jumped all over his new marketing department, who in turn jumped on the agency. The men from Madison Avenue defended the promotion this way: “We know lots of flights are late, but that’s not Mohawk’s fault...it’s the FAA’s fault because the airports can’t handle the traffic...the passengers shouldn’t be complaining to Mohawk. Besides, late flights don’t qualify for Gold Chips.”

When he heard that, the chairman shot off a memo to the agency: “Do you really think an irate passenger cares whose fault it was? And by the way, who had the dumb idea of inviting unhappy customers to call me? Drop that stupid ‘perfectors’ campaign.”

So the ad guys went back to the drawing board and came up with another way of spotlighting Mohawk: by putting a hip new paint scheme on its planes. Gone would be the distinctive sideview of a Native American’s face on the planes’ tails,  to be replaced with “something modern.”

Had the agency done its homework, the Mad Men would have known such a move was flirting with disaster.

A last digression: After Mr. Plum came home after buying the fleet of BAC-111 jets – without approval by Mohawk’s board of directors -- he had to find a way to sell the deal to the rest of the board, especially to its powerful vice chairman. That took some doing, given the company’s long ride in the red. What he did was to promise the vice chairman that his beloved Native American face (putting it on the tails was the vice chairman’s idea) would always remain on the tails.

The planes never got to the painters, and the agency never came back to Mohawk. When he heard about the new paint scheme, Mr. Plum fired the agency. And on the same day, there was no one sitting at a bunch of desks in Mohawk’s marketing department.

Later on, after Mr. Plum died in 1971, the Native American face did come off. So did its replacement livery, when Mohawk was sold to what was then Allegheny Airlines in 1972.

Allegeny’s livery came off when the carrier gobbled up a number of other smaller airlines to eventually become US Airways, and most recently American Airlines.

Disclosure: The writer was Mohawk's director of public relations for several years in the 1960s.

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