Mad Women: 4 Women in Advertising On 'Mad Men' and the Industry Today

mad men season finale

Harper’s Bazaar featured a powerhouse group of women in honor of yesterday’s season finale where this group of Mad Women came together to discuss Mad Men’s representation of women, its influence on the industry and being a woman in the ad world today. See what Alison Burns of JWT, Kim Getty of Deutsch LA, Lori Hiltz of Havas Media North America and Sarah Watson of BBH New York had to say…

By: Julie Kosin

As Mad Men comes to a close, we sit down with four of today’s leading women in advertising to discuss the show’s representation of women, its influence on the industry and being a woman in the ad world today.

It’s the end of an era: tonight, after seven seasons and eight years on the air,Mad Men airs its final episode. The show, about an advertising agency in 1960s New York and its colorful cast of characters, has been a conversation-starter from the beginning due to its unflinching portrayal of life during this tumultuous decade, including rampant sexism, racism and ageism. The show is also widely considered one of the most feminist on television; over the course of the series, we see two secretaries climb the ranks to become leaders within the agency, watching them deal with gender barriers in the office, work-life balance and motherhood along the way. In preparation for tonight’s final episode, BAZAAR sat down with four female leaders in today’s advertising industry—Alison Burns, Global Client Services Director of J. Walter Thompson; Kim Getty, President of Deutsch LA; Lori Hiltz, CEO of Havas Media North America; and Sarah Watson, Chief Strategy Officer of BBH New York—to disuss Mad Men‘s representation of women in the industry, what it’s like to be a woman in advertising today and the show’s influence on the industry.

BAZAAR: In seven seasons, we see Peggy and Joan climb from roles as secretaries to leadership positions at the top of the company (though not so much in recent episodes, with the merger). What are your thoughts on their trajectories, and how does it differ from a woman who is working in advertising today?

Sarah Watson: We’re talking about social shifts here, and the workplace only being a part of that. Even when I think about what advertising agencies were in culture was so different then. It was where alpha males went to do big, ambitious things and that’s completely changed from how it is today. The whole thing is like the Wild West and it’s almost as if everyone is just gonna dive in and find their own way and fight for it. The whole situation was a much more rough and rugged one. Everyone is coming up from their own ranks, even Don. But it feels wholly credible to me, the way in which, particularly Joan and Peggy, just know what they want and express themselves and go for it and get it. And the way they navigate this really difficult environment—they’re both on very, very clear trajectories.

Kim Getty: You remember a few episodes ago, Don was asked to define the vision and the future of the company, he’s trying to figure out what they’re going to be about and no one knows. He asks Peggy and she says, “I want to be the first female creative director.” She knows exactlywhat she wants, and I think that’s something that hasn’t changed. I think that whether you’re a man or a woman, if you want to succeed in this field, you have to know exactly what you want and you have to go for it. And that’s the thing I’ve loved about Peggy. I haven’t always agreed with all of the ways she’s gotten there but she’s had real focus and it’s been what’s mattered for her.

Alison Burns: I think one of the things that’s quite pioneering about their situation is they’re dealing with a starting point on the ladder, which recognized the conventions of the time. So they need to be so purposeful and so determined to start their journey of upward mobility because they’re starting from a very stereotypical, very ossified, very conventional place in the world, and they’re used to that. They know that they have got to drive hard to extricate themselves from what would otherwise be a suffocating situation. But it feels to me that it’s a much more pioneering scenario than—in a lot of ways—what we witness today because of the conventional and societal difficulties and expectations they are already confronting them before they even think about careers. When I went back and watched a bunch of the earlier episodes it’s striking that there they are, square-shouldered women in the workplace, determined to ascend. It feels as though, a generation and a half later, you would recognize their circumstance today in ways that you wish you wouldn’t. I’m not sure that we’ve come as far in lots of ways, since then, as they had come from their mothers’ generation, where they would not have been outside the domestic environment.

BAZAAR: So you’re saying that you still see this glass ceiling in the industry today?

SW: I don’t think you can generalize. I think it really is down to what country you’re in, what agency culture you’re in, and also what department you’re in. It’s so interesting what’s happened with them going to McCann now. I think it’s magnificent the way that they’re really portraying the cultures and the cultural differences. Everyone’s been talking about Mad Men all these years, “oh, it’s this sexist workplace,” and it’s like oh, now you’re in McCann, and what you thought was sexism was actually a fluffy family! The scene with Roger and Peggy and the roller skates when they were saying goodbye and he gives her that erotic portrait. It could’ve been seen as a really aggressive, sexist, nasty gesture, but I think he gives it to her as a fond gift between peers and you realize that it’s quite an egalitarian culture at Sterling Cooper. When you then go to McCann, you really see the difference. And I think this is true today. I think different agencies have very different cultures and it really depends on who’s in leadership. I think there’s also an interesting issue, which is, Peggy’s a creative, she’s a copywriter, Joan’s an account man, well, operations person. Those are two very different roles and I think gender plays out there because Joan is very client-facing and some of the worst things that happened to her are in the client sphere, which was incredibly male at that moment in time. Peggy is a creative so she has to fight slightly more internally within the creative environment.

KG: I also had sort of been able to manage the sexism on the show and enjoy the show, but watching what happened to Joan when she got to McCann was heartbreaking, like tears-streaming-down-my-face heartbreaking. And it actually caused me to think about the same thing. You know, working at Deutsch, I’ve been there 12 years, it basically makes me a lifer. It’s been an incredibly supportive environment and we have a lot of female leadership there. I’m surrounded by female leaders and I think because of that, I’m not always as tuned-in to some of the challenges that exist beyond this special community that we created.

AB: I think the departmental point is quite an interesting one because it has always been very counterintuitive to me and remains to this day astonishing that the creative department should remain so male-dominated as it is today. Because, rather stereotypically, one considers women to be highly successful creative human beings and they tend to be very successful in environments that are intrinsically or inherently creative. And yet that’s not true in advertising agencies. They’re still under-represented, as are openly gay people, as are ethnically diverse people. You need diversity of imagination and you need a colliding of disparate views to be inspired in that way and yet the opposite is true. They tend to be highly structured, very male, very heterosexual and very white creative departments. And it should be the photographic negative of that.

BAZAAR: Matthew Weiner once said in an interview that creative needed a woman there because they needed a woman’s point of view to sell the pantyhose and the lipstick and that’s where Peggy comes in.

SW: It’s a double-edged sword. It plays out as a bit of an advantage for Peggy because—one of my colleagues just wrote an article about this; she calls it going to “girl jail,” where if you’re a girl creative, you have to work on the tampons—so, in a way, it’s a card that gets her in, but then it becomes a bit constraining after a while. But I suppose it does give her that access.

KG: I do love, though, how some of those traditional “chick accounts”—I think some of the very best work in advertising has come out of those brands in the last year. If you look at “Like a Girl,” if you look at some of the Dove work—which, by the way, this hasn’t all been done by women—I think that there’s been some really, really interesting work there that sort of broke through some of those stereotypes. I think that women should be jumping on those opportunities and really take them as a chance to show people how great that work can be. Because for years it has had that sort of “girl jail” negativity attached to it.

Lori Hiltz: In my career, I was born and raised in Detroit in the automotive industry, so imagine this in 1982: I worked probably for the most chauvinistic group of professionals. I was the only woman in an entire organization. There’s no technology. There’s absolutely nothing but barriers. Starting in the business when media and creative and everything was still sitting together, it was, “oh, you go over in the media department, you can’t manage an account. You can’t. Because you’re a girl.” I swear. So that’s how I got into media, because there was no room for girls at the table. It was the real essence of advertising because it was perceived that it was a man’s world, especially in automotive.

BAZAAR: Do you think that Peggy and Joan are at all representative of your roles within the advertising industry? For example, critics of Homeland say Carrie is a poor representation of intelligence operatives.

AB: I think they’re very heavily outnumbered, obviously, so the responsibility those characters bear to be extrapolatable is a bit unfair. I don’t think any two female characters could be as representative of the breadth of women in the industry today. But I do think the poignancy of those characters is that they are very recognizable to me and very identifiable as lots of women that have worked around me and with me and that I work with today, including parts of myself.

KG: I think they are super interesting as—and I don’t know Matthew Weiner—but maybe he’s trying to represent two poles of femininity in the workplace. So you have Peggy, who has for the most part sort of shut down her sexuality and her femininity, down to giving up her child, which is the most defining symbol of her womanhood. And then you have Joan, who has gone very much in the other direction. And I think, if I look at myself, I’ve got Peggy and Joan in me. And as I look back over the last 20 years, I probably used to be a lot more Peggy and as I’ve become more confident and a little more settled into myself I’ve let a little bit more of my Joan come out. There are an awful lot of boxy pantsuits in my past. You just feel like you’ve gotta really close that part of yourself down so that you do fit in and you can be a part of this all-male room. And I think we’ve all had the experience of being the only chick in the room literally hundreds of thousands of times. But I look at my role now as helping everyone to feel more confident and comfortable sharing their femininity. I make intentional choices. I bring up my kids a lot at work because I want people who work at Deutsch to feel comfortable being parents and being moms and recognizing that’s an important part of being who they are. It’s been a surprisingly nice way to connect with clients, too, who don’t always get a chance to talk about that part of their lives. But I look at Peggy and Joan and I think we’re all a little Peggy and Joan, all of us.

LH: I think as women leaders, there’s a much greater dimension to us as human beings because of the mother role. I’m a stepmother, I’m a step-grandmother. It’s very different for me to walk into a room with my grandchildren. I have a day job. It’s a different kind of situation. Imagine back then, when all of this was really happening in the industry. You didn’t really put all that out. I was very guarded and somewhat private. I keep thinking of the evolution of them as individual characters and all of us sitting at this table—it’s a really different dimension than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.

SW: The thing that I’m playing with in my mind is the steely focus they both have and the sacrifices they’ve made and how hard-nosed they’ve had to be to get where they are. And I think oh, well, that’s different today, but now I’m thinking about my own life and the people around me and of course, you don’t know what people go through and actually, we know more about [the characters] and their other lives and the context than we do about our own colleagues. I’m thinking maybe that hasn’t changed, maybe it is a professional truism that you’ve got to be that focused to get anywhere in this business. So I guess they still represent that.

AB: I realize this is a bit of a digression but I look at the accusation at Hillary Clinton that she’s going to be distracted by being a grandmother—and having gone through the last election cycle with Mitt Romney juggling several hundred Mormon grandchildren—in 2016 it’s going to be used to diminish her because the implication is that she will be emotionally engaged and divided by the presence in her life of young children in an way that a man would not. She’s gonna be damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, because otherwise she’s a hard-nosed, driven, utterly ruthless and focused “man-girl.” But if, on the other hand, if you see her cuddling little Charlotte, it’ll be, “well, her mind’s totally somewhere else, isn’t it?” And I think that is present in the industry, the choices we’re making about what we wear and the presence of the personal side of our lives and all of those things that are used by us strategically and choicefully to present a brand that we think is going to be successful in our careers. And you see a lot of that in the show, those selections that are made. I think consciously and subconsciously, every day we make those selections. What dimensions of myself am I going to burnish, present, package, disguise, in order to be the personal and professional brand I choose to be?

BAZAAR: How have your male colleagues reacted to the storylines on the show? Is there debate over whether sexism exists?

AB: I’m putting words into their mouths, really, but a lot of my male colleagues are quite flattered by the glamorized resurgence of the industry, because there’s a lot of identity crisis in the industry, about its status in the world and whether it is a befitting corporate alpha profession. And I think for a lot of men, the reintroduction of the nostalgia that comes with Madison Avenue and martinis, the era where titans were titans in the industry, I think there’s a lot of flattery in it.

BAZAAR: How do you think the show’s female characters would react to the industry today?

LH: Shock.

KG: Thrilled. I think if you look at what’s happening, you look around, you look at these incredible women in this room, and there’s dozens and dozens and not enough of us but there’s certainly a lot of us. I think they’d be really excited about the battles that don’t have to be fought.

LH: I meant shock like in a positive way. Like, whoa! I think they probably look at this room and they think, yeah, you go girl!

AB: I think most characters would observe that we are less lonely as women in our industry today and I think this kind of phenomenon, which Kim talked about right at the beginning, which is, haven’t we all experienced being the only chick in the room in a sea of men? And you do look left and look right and the novelty or the intoxication of that uniqueness wears off very fast and you find yourself wishing that there were other female voices and other female points of view and that it felt more diverse. And so I think they would look at our industry today and say, at least I would not be either deified or vilified for being the only woman. I would feel as though I were more normal in that environment

KG: I think one thing that’s interesting is, we all get the calls for jobs, right? And I’ve been so surprised over the last few years that more often than not, they’re really looking for a woman for this role. And it’s very interesting to me because in one way, you think, wow, that’s great, I’m really excited that that company is thinking in that sort of way. On the other hand, it’s like, well, I don’t want to be wanted for this role because of my extra X chromosome. There’s gotta be other qualifications than that. But I do think it’s evidence that companies are looking to achieve that diversity that you’re talking about, Alison, and sort of pushing to drive more diversity into their organizations.

SW: I suppose the reason I’m stumbling a bit on this question is I think Peggy just loved being a pioneer and being a challenge and just doing her thing. I don’t know if she’d be interested enough, I think she’d be in Silicon Valley now, really breaking a terrible, one-percent female bias. I think Joan would be delighted by it but I think Peggy would be a bit like, she might want a bit more of a challenge somewhere else.

BAZAAR: What was your favorite moment involving a female character on the show?

LH: I’m still drawn to Betty. Because I think she was reflective of the change in society and culture and struggling with who am I, what am I doing and I’m married to this guy I don’t really love, but I love him, but I don’t love him, but I got all these kids and I don’t have a skill and I don’t have any ambition and I’m depressed. Seriously, she should have her own show. She was such a strong character at the start and all of her challenges that happened along the way, she was somewhat reflective of what was happening with women at that time. I was attracted to her and her character because I always figured that Peggy would win and Joan would just survive because she had it all going on.

KG: I’m just so sad for Betty right now because she waited so long to pursue her own dream. And so she does it and her first day at school, she finds out she’s out of time. And I think there’s a really strong message in that, which is don’t wait.

SW: Those are my favorite moments. There’s one very early in the series where I think Betty goes to be a model very briefly and she thinks she’s got it and then she doesn’t and the show ends with her, she’s got a cigarette, and she goes into the back garden and shoots the birds. I think what the show is so amazingly articulate about is that human beings are only fulfilled when they’re doing the work they want to do. The further they get away from just doing their thing, answering their calling, the further off the rails they get. The closer they get to doing meaningful work, and for me if there’s one amazing, beautiful message of the show, it is that. And [Matthew Weiner] acknowledges it in men and in women equally, but obviously the women have much more of a tough canvas to deal with it on. So if there’s one image for me, it’s her shooting the birds totally linked to her dreams.

LH: You know, Don always had a bourbon or a scotch in a gorgeous crystal class, it was always on a prepared cart in his office. Peggy had a beer! She had a beer in a bottle, sitting by the typewriter. I love that she’s slugging a beer and he’s got this beautiful, sexy glass. I was like, seriously, how many women would bring a beer bottle into an office next to their electric typewriter?

Originally featured on Harper’s Bazaar