Season five of Mad Men is half over as I write this and what a season it is. Everything we knew to be true about the beloved and reviled characters is being turned on its head (fat Betty, really!!?!). While Don Draper is on ‘love leave’, busy getting in the groove with new wife Megan ‘Zou bisou bisou’ Draper, secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson has been keeping it together at SCDP’s creative department.
Life isn’t rosy for Peggy as she struggles to make her presence felt in this male-dominated industry. Unfortunately for her, she’s a bit too inspired by Don’s workaholic, chain smoking and hard drinking ways. The Heinz pitch is a classic case of Peggy trying hard to be Don by passionately defending her ideas and failing miserably in the process, with the result that the client asks for her to be taken off the account.
Being a woman in a man’s world isn’t easy, but a woman trying to be a man in a man’s world is infinitely worse. When Don tells clients off, it’s considered bad-ass, cool and sexy; when Peggy does it, she’s thought of as naïve, strident and bratty. But even as Peggy grapples with her position, we see a new theme emerging: it’s the 60s and women have arrived in advertising.
"When Don tells clients off, it’s considered bad-ass, cool and sexy; when Peggy does it, she’s thought of as naïve, strident and bratty."
Peggy’s character has been modelled on several real-life mad women, of whom Shirley Polykoff and Mary Wells Lawrence are perhaps the most popular.
Polykoff, whose famous query, ‘does she… or doesn’t she?’ was responsible for transforming an entire nation’s perception towards hair colour, started her career writing copy for a women’s fashion and specialty store and held several other jobs before being offered a position by FCB New York for their newly acquired Clairol account. It was 1955, Polykoff was 45 years old and she was the only female copywriter at FCB, but within half a decade hair colour sales soared from $25 million to $200 million and Clairol accounted for over 50% of the market share. Polykoff went on to become FCB’s only female Executive VP, 1967 Advertising Woman of the Year and established her own creative agency in 1973.
Mary Wells Lawrence was yet another pioneer; she had worked under Bill Bernbach and was very keen about ‘being different’. In the mid-60s she put this philosophy to the test with her ‘The End of the Plain Plane’ campaign for Braniff International Airways. She signed on Emilio Pucci for the stewardesses uniforms and he designed several components that could be worn in different combinations with the result that no two stewardesses looked alike. Similarly, every Braniff plane was painted in different colours, breaking pretty much every rule in the aviation industry’s design book. Wells also went on to set up her own firm, Wells, Rich & Green and became the highest-paid executive on Madison Avenue.
Call it an insight into the female mind or plain, shrewd thinking, but both Polykoff and Wells Lawrence brought something new and different to the table that their male counterparts hadn’t yet thought of. (Incidentally, that’s how Peggy started off in copywriting as well – by offering insight on a lipstick brand that none of her male colleagues could understand.) However, ad copy in the 50s and 60s, even the stuff written by women was very much about how men saw women.
Call it an insight into the female mind or plain, shrewd thinking, but both Polykoff and Wells Lawrence brought something new and different to the table that their male counterparts hadn’t yet thought of.
In 1973, a 23-year-old college dropout from California working at McCann Erickson called Ilon Specht decided to change all that. Annoyed about being treated like a ‘girl’ in a male-dominated business, Specht sat down and wrote one of the most famous slogan’s in advertising in about five minutes – “Because I’m worth it.” L’Oréal’s tagline has undergone several modifications since then but the underlying message of independence, rebellion and liberation remains intact.
Since then, plenty of women have made it big in advertising around the world, making invaluable contributions to the business. Just like Mad Men’s Peggy, and the real-life mad women, they too have had to deal with sexism in the workplace but on the whole they have survived and thrived. They have come a very long way.