Each Monday we watch an episode of Mad Men (available on Amazon Prime) and put together notes on what we can learn from it about running agencies. Read an introduction to this blog series explaining more, and then follow our notes below for Episode 6…

The Israeli tourist board seeks the services of Sterling Cooper this week, leading the team to try to work out how they would sell the country as a tourist destination. Don turns to Rachel Menken, the department store owner, for advice, asking "Why aren't you there?" She says "I'll visit, but I don't have to be there. Maybe it's an idea more than a place."

"A utopia?" Don asks.

"The Greeks have two meanings for utopia," she says, "The good place, and the place that cannot be."

And so, this episode is all about the characters aspiring to some ideal that is forbidden to them. In particular the focus is on the female characters and their aspirations, and the misogyny and insecurities of the male characters that stand in their way, love or relationships they can't have, or can't keep.

From an agency work point of view the focus is on Peggy. Her love is work, her relationship is with her career. She wants to be more than just a secretary, to be treated as an equal. She feels isolated from the other secretaries in the office, but unable to take a place among the creatives because of her gender.

The secretaries are ushered into a research session for Belle Jolie lipsticks, with the men watching secretly through two-way glass. There's a box of a hundred different lipstick colours and the women are asked to select their favourite and put it on. Peggy sits quietly to one side.

At the end of the session, Freddy Rumsen asks her why she didn't take part and she says "No woman wants to feel like one of a hundred colours in a box."

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olsen, in Mad Men S1E6 — Babylon

He thinks that's an interesting insight, along with liking the poetry of her comment about the wastepaper basket full of tissue paper covered in lipstick prints being 'a basketful of kisses'.

Joan approaches Peggy and, clearly not entirely happy about the situation, tells her that Freddy and Don have agreed that Peggy can do some copywriting on the Belle Jolie account. This follows up from an earlier episode when the all-male copywriting team struggled to figure out what women wanted as part of a deodorant campaign.

This chance could be her big break, her chance to show her creativity and move on up from her secretary's desk.

Is Peggy's utopia really going to be a place that cannot be? Or is she going to overcome the sexism and misogyny and stake her claim to it?

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Insights for agency leaders

  • While Mad Men depicts the rampant overt sexism (and racism) of the 1960s, we can't kid ourselves we have eradicated it in the 2020s.
  • In agencies, we really need to be finding the talent to bring into our organisations, and rise within them, wherever it lies — regardless of gender, skin colour or any other demographic factor. Talent is talent. Sometimes that means we need to make a particular effort to find talent in groups of people who have to climb a steeper mountain.
  • Nothing is better in a creative organisation than somebody with a lot of talent who has a dream, an ambition, a utopia they are willing to strive for. By helping them achieve that, the agency can benefit enormously.
  • So we need to ensure that our recruitment, our performance management, our pay review and our promotion process are truly focused on merit.

Things to try this week

  • Run your recent job ads or job specs through this free gender decoder tool to look for even subtle bias in the language.
  • Kick off a review of your entire recruitment and internal progression processes to see if there are ways you can focus more on merit, talent and aptitude, and factor out natural biases.
  • As you deal with different people around the agency this week, take time to chat and find out their aspirations. What is their utopia and how might the agency help them get there?
  • Look actively to see is there anyone with high talent in your agency who may not have reached the level they could/should be at? Why might that be? How can you address that?

NEXT: Mad Men S1E7 — Red In The Face