Mad Men & Office Politics: Different Era, Same Drama

(All images courtesy AMC Networks)

Like many of you, I harbor a very real Mad Men addiction. It’s not so dire that I need it in the morning before work (that would be very Mad Men, come to think of it), but it’s extreme enough that I often can’t get through the day without something triggering a knee-jerk Mad Men reflection, or a Mad Men-related Google search that leads me down a rabbit hole of mid-century minutia. I’m not proud to admit the number of times I’ve excitedly interjected the phrase, “That actually reminds of that one scene in Mad Men when…” into a conversation that, well, wasn’t about Mad Men at all.

Even though the show is set in an office, Mad Men isn’t really a show about working, in much the same way that The Sopranos wasn’t really a show about the mob. It’s an evolutionary character study that just so happens to be set in a Madison Avenue ad agency. But strip away the intense psychological examination, and the show does realistically highlight the differences between workers just blindly tadpoling their way into the shallow end of their careers, and their more experienced managers — and the conflict and disgruntlement they share. Which are lessons that ring true today, especially for anyone managing the political and psychological minefields that offices can be.

One of my favorite Mad Men scenes (since you asked) — and one that feels like an epigrammatic blanket statement about many of our work lives — is in the Season 4 episode entitled “The Suitcase.” Peggy and Don are having it out in Don’s office. Peggy’s frustrated at Don’s lack of praise and encouragement. (She’s also probably upset that he’s a drunken, morose, lying shithead, too, but that’s a different conversation.)

She calls him on the carpet over the fact that he rarely praises her work, and Don, well, he gives her a firm reminder of why they’re having this conversation in the first place:

Don: It’s your job. I give you money, you give me ideas.

Peggy: And you never say thank you.

Don: That’s what the money is for!

It’s a scene set in 1965, but it’s also a timeless workplace paradigm that’s just as relevant half a century later.

Peggy is approximately the same age as the twenty-somethings I manage, and while I’m younger than Don, I find myself suspended somewhere between them both, ideologically speaking. Half the time, I feel like Mr. Draper, and I just want to tell my staff to grow a pair, get the job done, shut up, go home and have a drink.

But I also feel Peggy’s frustration — she’s young, honest-earnest and eager to get a little credit where it’s due. Who doesn’t want to hear that she did a good job?

The takeaway is, don’t be Don. Just freaking say thank you. Ultimately, we don’t need to be thanked at work. We’re not volunteers. We’re not martyrs. The money is the thank you.

But it’s also really not that hard to stop and express some gratitude to the people who help you get your job done. The key is to do it sparingly. Save it for when it really means something. What you don’t want is a staff that expects to be praised every time they write a draft line of copy.

Here are a few other pieces of workplace advice I’ve already learned at this point in my career, but am more than happy to put in Mad Men terms:


1. Be Eager, Like Bob Benson. Not with a possibly fabricated past and potential con artist intent, or the supplication and sycophancy, but with the eagerness to learn, help and to demonstrate instead of demand. Bob comes off like kind of a tool, but he’s modest, eager and willing to learn the ropes rather than have them handed to him. Be that guy. People want to work with that guy. Bob’s opposite? Pete Campbell. Pete is entitled, spoiled and prone to pitching comically unflattering hissy fits. Don’t be that guy. No one likes that guy, and no one likes Pete, either. Well, maybe Peggy a little, but barely.


2. Don’t Be Roger Sterling. Sure, he’s a silver fox who was born to wear a suit. He’s quick with a joke and a smoke. But what does Roger really do? Very little, actually. He’s the type of guy you want to have a drink with, but he’s not the kind of guy you want on your team. But he’s a figurehead and, like Don, he all but refuses to change with the times. Dude wore an ascot to a party in the Hills, for God’s sake.


3. Speak Up, Like Peggy. Peggy Olson’s entire career was launched by her willingness to step out of her comfort zone. Sure, she climbed the corporate ladder from secretary to copywriter by inadvertently quipping the now-famous “basket of kisses” line, but she also realized that continuing that climb would require not serendipity, but actual hard work.


4. Just Get Shit Done, Like Joan. Joan Harris endlessly rules for endless reasons (the coiffed hair and bullet bras ALONE), and while I’d never suggest, you know, prostituting yourself out to a client to make partner, she constantly finds opportunities to make herself invaluable, How? By Getting. Shit. Done. And who’s Getting Shit Done’s best friend? Not Taking Shit. People may talk about you behind your back (er, literally) when you’re Joan, but she’s walking, sauntering proof of the key difference between being liked and being respected. At the end of the day, Joan’s respected by everyone (except Harry Crane, the ultimate tool of tools) for being the type of worker who is capable of summing up their job like she did at the end of Season 6, when she flatly remarked “I’m in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them.”

5. When You’re Done For The Day, Go Home. I’d never recommend opting for the Don Draper vacation package, in which any given work day is also a vacation day. (See how that turned out for him at the end of Season 6?) But at the risk of sounding like one of those stodgy old curmudgeons waving a rolling pin and yelling “Kids today!” I’d be remiss not to mention something I’ve learned from the younger people I manage: They’re willing to work their asses off, but they’ve still got work-life balance on lock. (Even Joan enjoyed a day at the beach and an occasional trip to da club.) I’ve been doing this for longer than half my office has been legally allowed to drink, and I’m just beginning to get the hang of cutting myself off from work at the end of the day. And that’s what really scares me. After all, I don’t want to be Miss Blankenship — she might’ve been an astronaut back in her day, but she still dropped dead at her desk.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.