As the central characters in Mad Men fall down the rabbit hole that is the 1960s, let us pause and reflect on the Zen milquetoast that is Ken Cosgrove. You know, Ken. He’s from Vermont and writes short stories under a nom de plume. He caught Sal Romano’s eye but was too clueless to realize he was being hit on. While Pete attends to a client’s every need, Ken makes them feel as if they have none, at least according to Lane Pryce. He smokes “tea” and has an unwritten pact with Peggy Olson to drag her to every pitch meeting and client meal (except when he’s meeting with a book publisher). Yeah, that guy.
To call his style effortless would be inaccurate, I think of it more as nonchalant. Sure, he gets high, writes weird stories about robots and you could not imagine him having anything other than missionary position sex, but Ken has remained religiously (and relentlessly) bland through five difficult seasons of Mad Men. Take the competing reactions he and Pete had when PPL promoted them to “co-heads” of Account Management. Pete had a temper tantrum and poured himself a drink. Ken? His response was basically “neat-o” and away he went. He brought a Deere riding mower into the office but shouldered no blame when poor Guy MacKendrick ended up losing a foot because dimwitted Lois ran over it. Somehow, like those quiet types who fly under the radar while the loud mouths get voted off the Island on Survivor, Ken knows how to avoid danger.
Ken is also a realist. Having been passed over by the big feet who alit from PPL-owned Sterling Cooper, when he was brought back underneath Pete in Season Four, he took his place without objection. He views his job as just that, a job, not as the thing that defines him as a man. While Pete, Don and Roger all lean on Ken to leverage his soon-to-be father-in-law for contacts when Lucky Strike leaves the agency, Ken refuses, resolutely distinguishing between his work and personal lives. Instead, he finds a comrade in Peggy and they get a new, albeit, small account, Topaz Pantyhose. His lack of competitiveness appeared to be a strike against him when the firm was suffering, but by avoiding the high pressure stakes of leadership, Ken has also carved out what is now called “work/life balance” that does not result in the bad behavior and feelings of emptiness that seem to consume his superiors.
Even as SCDP has begun to rebound from the loss of Lucky Strike, Ken is blasé. When Pete complains about Roger’s imperiousness, Ken shoots back with a droll observation of the way advertising works –building a book of clients, eventually leading to the big fish that will allow SCDP to “go public” with Elvis playing at Tammy Campbell’s Sweet 16 in Buenos Aires. I told you he wrote science fiction! Ken is disinterested in making waves. Consider his reaction to the dueling proposals of wunderkind copywriter Michael Ginsberg and Don for the Sno-Ball account. Instead of choosing between offending his boss and going with the lesser of the two concepts, he says, “let’s pitch both.” This inoffensiveness is precisely what makes Ken so successful. He knows how to avoid office land mines and politics. He may have made an internal calculation that either pitch would win the account, so there was no reason to choose sides, or, he may have suspected that there was no value in choosing one or the other, but he certainly avoided getting a dress down from Don like Michael did in the elevator the next day.
The more mendacious version of Ken is the corporate suck up, the sycophant who rides mediocre talent and the lack of a gag reflex to the corporate corner office, but Ken is not that deceitful. He’s very aware of where his lines are drawn. That probably means that he will never ascend to the top of the corporate ladder, but it also ensures he won’t have a heart attack while riding a 20 year old around like a pony after hours, becoming a miserable, alcoholic divorcee or an unhappily married suburbanite who lusts after his commuter friend’s wife. Not a bad trade off, if you ask me.