As Mad Men enters its sixth and penultimate season, it’s hard not to compare and contrast it with today’s offices. Certainly, we’d like to think that we’re better able to take advantage of the skills of minorities and women, who were given short shrift in that era. And we now view all the smoking and drinking as self-destructive. Beyond that, though, it offers a few valuable lessons.

  1. Look for competence rather than credentials. There doesn’t seem to be any question that Don Draper does his job well, even though he grew up dirt poor, doesn’t seem to have been to college, and has no experience other than being a fur salesman. Yet his bosses, wisely, don’t seem to care about that.
  2. Don’t take your people for granted. While Don was able to escape the strictures of his age well enough to promote Peggy, a woman, to copywriter, he constantly criticizes her, particularly when she’s trying to expand her role. That’s deliciously ironic, of course, because he climbed to the top doing the same thing. As a result, she leaves and he loses his right-hand man, or woman, as the case may be, after he’s invested so much time training her. It’s still a valuable lesson today: Make sure your people know they’re appreciated and that they know how they can expect to move up.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be innovative — but keep your bosses informed. It’s a creative industry, so by definition they need to think outside the box, and perhaps that’s where all the liquor (not to mention Roger’s LSD) comes in handy. On the other hand, while it’s okay for the big boys to do risky things, they get cranky when the underlings do it without running it by them first.
  4. Make somebody responsible for reinforcing the right mood. Like Jennifer in WKRP in Cincinnati, Joan is competent and makes sure all the organization runs smoothly, as well as being beautiful. All those conference room setups with the coffee and pastries that put everyone in a receptive frame for the advertising? All those restaurant reservations? All those carefully arranged board meetings with the proper procedure? She handles all that, and isn’t given much acknowledgement for it, either.
  5. Don’t set your people up to compete with each other. Kenny and Pete were set up as two separate account executives. The result is that Pete, and possibly Kenny as well, feels resentful and spends more time competing with his co-worker than cooperating with him.
  6. Give your creatives freedom. Don comes and goes all day, and is just as likely to do his work at home or on a cocktail napkin as in the office. Peggy and the other copywriters work in the evenings when the office is quiet and go to the movies for ideas. You don’t see anyone telling them they have to be in the office, and that’s in the days before smartphones and tablets. If you’re happy with the results, let them work the way they want.

Admittedly, this is just a TV show, and is to a great degree idealized. None of us looks that good in a suit, for one thing. But in the same way that the people in Mad Men took their ideas from the popular culture of the day (remember “Bye, Bye, Birdie”?), you can do the same thing. Who knows. Perhaps instituting “Mad Men Mondays,” where everyone wears a suit while they discuss the previous night’s episode, might inspire your whole office.

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