Sep 172010

Article first published as Mad Men Women Start To Roar on Blogcritics.

Peggy Steps Up. Joan Speaks Up. Don Cleans Up.

Much of the drama that took place at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in this week’s episode happened with Peggy and Joan. Mad Men turned the lens on the issues and challenges facing women in those heady days. High on the list of those issues were the kinds of sexual harassment that Joan experienced with the boys in the creative department, the “boys will be boys” attitude that  Don displayed to Peggy, and the general second class citizen status of women at male-dominated agencies. Unfortunately, scenes like the one that played out in the creative lounge at SCDP did happen and were part of the daily fare at agencies. Freelancer Joey’s refusal to apologize to Joan and his declaring to Peggy “That’s why I don’t like working with women, they have no sense of humor” were not far off the mark.

That Was Then

The business challenges facing women went beyond sexual harassment and stereotyping. Educated, attractive, smart, savvy, creative women were graduating from college and eager to be part of the growing and glamorous advertising business. To break into the business they filled roles as secretaries, personal assistants, media analysts, and researchers. Women in the executive suites were non-existent, they rarely made it to executive positions on account teams and were only welcomed into the creative ranks when an account demanded a female touch. Thanks to pioneering women like Mary Wells, Phyllis Robinson, Joy Golden, Shelley Lazarus and others those Mad Men days are over. Mary Wells, for example, founded Wells Rich Greene, in 1966 and by 1969 she was reported to be the highest paid executive in advertising.

This Is Now

Today, thankfully, the ad agency workplace is nothing like it was in Peggy’s day. Industry estimates that more than half the staffers at agencies are women excelling at positions that used to be dominated by men. Today, there are many Don Drapers, Roger Sterlings and Pete Campbells that are women. There’s no doubt that the role of women in agency management has expanded and deepened and female power and positive influence on the industry is pervasive. That said, however, it was a long, tough road and women still are disproportionately represented in the very top management and ownership positions at agencies. I’m sure that women in advertising today view Peggy with mixed emotions. On the one hand she is a benchmark of how far women have come and in another way a reminder that it still is not a level playing field.

Real Mad Woman Insights

While the blatant discrimination and sexism of the Mad Men days are history, high powered women in the business today will admit that advancement still requires overcoming obstacles and some deft handling of male stereotypes and attitudes. In a prior post I mentioned that my friend and former colleague at McCann Erickson, Nina DiSesa, was masterful at navigating these waters. In addition to her superb creative talents, Nina knew how to play the game beautifully. She chronicled her rise to the Chairmanship of McCann in her book Seducing The Boys Club and here’s a quote that puts this reality into perspective. “You just have to wrap your head around the fact that hard work and talent isn’t going to propel you to the top. Seduction and benevolent manipulation will help turn being a woman into a huge advantage instead of something you need to overcome.”

Recently I came across a great article on…Meet Joy Golden – The Real Peggy Olsen. Joy is a colorful and talented creative person from the Mad Men days and I’ve long been an admirer of her work. Joy was one of the best comedic copywriters in the business and she started her own creative company in the ‘80’s that specialized in humorous radio advertising. I had the pleasure of meeting Joy when I worked at DKG since Joy was friends with my partners Neil Calet and Shep Kurnit. In an interview that Joy did for a Selling The Sixties segment she talked about the sexism and hanky-panky that went on in those Mad Men offices. “You just had to kind of keep away from the guys, at least I did. I was cute in those days so they used to knock on my cubicle, so to speak. ‘You wanna have lunch?’ ‘No.'” See Joy in this video…79 years old, a great story teller and still talking about a little hanky – panky.

Finding Some Solace With Dr. Miller

When we first met Dr. Faye Miller they butted heads from the very beginning. Don didn’t believe in her focus group research and the softer, more emotional approach to advertising that she usually recommended. So it is ironic that when Don is struggling to deal with his demons and shortcomings that he turns to Faye and asks her how she convinces people to do what she wants. Faye responds with a fable whose moral is the antithesis of what Don believes. Kindness, gentleness and persuasion win where force fails. The combination of Faye and Peggy helping Don sort through his male issues is sure to bring out a kinder gentler Don in future episodes. The question is whether Don will still be able to maintain his “master of the universe” persona and keep his creative edge. We’ll see.

The NYAC – Another Male Bastion

Seeing Don in front of the NYAC brought a smile to my face. I joined the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) in 1968 and am still a member. Located on Central Park South, the NYAC is a classic old school club that was much more than a gym. In the 1960’s it was an exclusively male club and it still has all the trappings of a boys club of business, civic and religious leaders…hard core New Yorkers. Beyond being a premier athletic facility it also served a private gathering place where men could be alone for some introspection, unwind in the gym or the pool, hang out with other guys and talk business, sports and the other things that men talk about. It was an especially popular with Mad Men like Don, Roger and Pete Campbell.

Peggy seems to be on a roll and Don is climbing out of his hole. Let’s see what happens next.

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