Being Peggy Olson in a Modern-Day Mad Men
Work + Life Balance

Being Peggy Olson in a Modern-Day Mad Men

by Kelly Ayres
Photos Aubrie Pick | April 06, 2015

HAS THE ADVERTISING WORLD REALLY CHANGED SINCE THE DAYS PORTRAYED IN MAD MEN? ONE AD AGENCY PRO SHARES HER EXPERIENCE.

You’re probably familiar with the premise of Mad Men: we get a peek into the lives of attractive, arrogant ad men who can deplete the state’s liquor reserves at night and deliver award-winning campaigns in the morning. It’s entertaining in its audacity. Infidelity? Absolutely. Sexism? You bet. Had Mad Men debuted in the decade it portrays, the people of the sixties would have watched in indifference. It perfectly reflects the environment they experienced daily.

But in 2015, we enjoy the show as a fantasy; an echo of the past that is enjoyable in its antiquity. Most of the viewers can watch unattached, because there are no personal life parallels. But for me, watching Mad Men sometimes feels like working overtime.

Since the show began, I would (politely) scoff at any agency who claimed they didn’t idolize or mirror that lifestyle. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed verbatim at networking events, conferences, and happy hours. But I’ve also personally seen where they fall short—too many liquid lunches, not enough creative home runs—a near true replication of Mad Men in its modern form.

If you’re like me, you see the C-suite of Mad Men in the barest sense: It’s a typical boy’s club; a collective group of ego and brilliance that has little time for gender equality and all the time for double standards. The men outrank the women in the workplace and in the home. It was begrudgingly accepted and only battled for a storyline. These days? That behavior doesn’t exactly fly.

If you’re like me, you see the C-suite of Mad Men in the barest sense: It’s a typical boy’s club; a collective group of ego and brilliance that has little time for gender equality and all the time for double standards. These days? That behavior doesn’t exactly fly.

The show is a study in gender opposites, too. Peggy is the plucky upstart—an unsatisfied secretary who pushes her way to the inner circle with her brains, not her body. She goes from being Don Draper’s assistant to a beloved copywriter in the blink of an eye. The reaction from her female peers? Jealousy. From the men? Astonishment, for some. For others—who was Peggy Olson? She was still undervalued, put on the “female-centric campaigns,” and treated like a glorified assistant.

I’m a digital marketing director at an advertising agency. While the similarities between my job and the show are more subtle, they do exist and are frequently celebrated. Being in the 2015 version of this sensationalized situation can be an out-of-body experience. Deadlines exist as the very real equivalent of putting out hypothetical fires. Office politics are debated heatedly behind closed doors (and sometimes with a few drinks). The “work hard, play harder” motto rings true still, with a Don Draper seal of approval.

And we do work hard. In my nearly two years at the agency, I can count on one hand the weeks when I have worked less than 50 hours. We’ve turned around million-dollar campaigns in less than five days and will fly across the country for a pitch at a moment’s notice. We go to conferences three times a year, we’re on our feet for 14 hours straight, and we’re always expected to keep up on what’s going on at the home base.

This stress of the job does not come without a price—or without a reward. Coping with the stress is almost a full-time job in itself. Working late hours and going above and beyond for key accounts is sometimes praised, but it’s mostly expected. You will get a nod for your zeal; you’ll also get an automatic floor applied to your performance. Now going the extra mile is the norm, and those who don’t? They might as well be the Mad Men secretaries—invisible and unappreciated.

But “play harder” is not only encouraged—it’s kind of anticipated. You rest, reboot, and prepare your liver—and your moral boundaries. You get to become a family very quickly. Peggy was often demoted to being the sounding board for Don’s philosophical (read: inebriated) discourse on life. I’ve been on the receiving end of tearful (and, to be fair, heartfelt) speeches after a long night of cocktails. Oversharing? Get used to it.

In Don Draper’s world, Peggy is the exception. At my company, her character is the rule. The women in charge aren’t meek or submissive, in the same way that the faceless, rotating door of secretaries are presented on Mad Men. They’re not doormats, like the wives. We are all Peggy Olson.

But are we just a modern version of Peggy because we play the game? Not exactly. Climbing that proverbial ladder didn’t grant Peggy entrance into the boys’ club. She still needed to keep up—drink, smoke, and talk dirty—all while performing above the curve professionally. But now, each rung of that ladder represents an achievement on a higher plane than Peggy was able to reach. Being Peggy in 2015 means pretending that club doesn’t exist.

Climbing that proverbial ladder didn’t grant Peggy entrance into the boys’ club. She still needed to keep up—drink, smoke, and talk dirty—all while performing above the curve professionally. But now, each rung of that ladder represents an achievement on a higher plane than Peggy was able to reach. Being Peggy in 2015 means pretending that club doesn’t exist.

I didn’t succeed in my agency by telling dirty jokes or out drinking the partners or playing the game. I rose to the ranks of middle management by doing ten jobs for the price of one. I proved my worth in front of major accounts; in the face of crucial deadlines; in response to emails at 2 AM. I didn’t compromise a thing.

The spotlight doesn’t go away once you’ve “made it.” You work hard, you play hard. You keep up. You kick ass. And after a while, the boy’s club? It’s just a club.

Photo: AMC TV