Mad Men Helped Me Juggle Real Life with Agency Work Culture

Grab an Old Fashioned and light up a Lucky Strike as I walk you through some Mad Men memories that helped me balance my real life with agency culture

Grab an Old Fashioned and light up a Lucky Strike as I walk you through some Mad Men memories that helped me balance my real life with agency culture

After the final episode of the final season of Mad Men aired Sunday, I found myself looking back on the show’s debut and the start of own career a little more than seven years ago (Mad Men debuted on July 19, 2007 and I started my first agency job about eight months later on March 10, 2008).

I should back up and begin by saying that if only given one television series as a soul mate, you might want to choose Mad Men, like me.

I love everything about it — the history, the music, the set design and the clothes. I cherish Sterling’s Gold and Joan’s side eye and perfect updos. I covet my hate for Pete and admire Ken’s tap dance skills. I thrive on Stan and Peggy’s sexual tension. I have a love-hate relationship with Don, but still hold something special in my heart for each of the many women in his life.

I could go on and on. But above all this, for me, at its core most Mad Men episodes have always been work and — more specifically — agency work culture. So sit back, grab an Old Fashioned, light up a Lucky Strike and allow me to walk you through three of my favorite Mad Men memories and the work lessons learned along the way.


Don’t actively seek work life balance solutions


Jon Hamm at the Mad Men Black & Red Gala at the Dorthy Chandler Pavillion on March 25, 2015 in Los Angeles (Helga Esteb/

I use our life all the time in my work; they pay me for that. – Don to Betty

The term work life balance is relatively new, and the push-and-pull struggle it seeks to describe is often lamented as a contemporary problem. Mad Men shows us this simply ain’t the truth — as long there’s been work (and life), folks have fought to balance the two.

This is especially difficult when you choose to work in a field (such as advertising or public relations) that requires you to infuse your life — creativity, passion, point of view — into your day-to-day work.

Time and again, we watch some of the most beloved Mad Men cast of characters — Don, Peggy, Joan, Ted — lose individual work vs. life battles. But we continue to root for them to win the war because we see glimmers of ourselves within these characters.

Over the course of seven tumultuous seasons, perhaps what Mad Men revealed to its audience best is that perfect balance is an illusion, and we all, in fact, only have one life. In it, there will be days, weeks and months where the work side wins out. Then the pendulum swings, and “real life” gets the lion’s share.

Lesson learned: Don’t pretend to have all of the answers when it comes to achieving consistent work-life balance, and strive to work for someone and someplace who views you as a person, not just an employee.


Arrogance doesn’t help promote a positive work culture


John Slattery at AMC’s special screening of Mad Men season 5 held at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on March 14, 2012 in Los Angeles (Phil Stafford/

Do you know how to do what he does? – Don to Roger (about Lane Pryce)

When Don begins to set in motion the actions that will eventually lead to the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he’s a man humbled. In his personal life, Don’s marriage is crumbling, and he’s also recently lost the Hilton “New York hotels” account after been put through the wringer by Conrad Hilton himself.

After years of belittling the accounts team and truly believing creative was king, he receives his comeuppance when trying to manage the client relationship, essentially getting steamrolled. For the first time, he recognizes it took true skill to do what Roger and Pete and Ken had been making look easy all along.

When he goes to create his own agency, he knows he cannot go it alone and amazing creative work will not be enough to keep the clients happy (and the lights on) long term. It’s then that Don realizes he desperately needs Roger (the account man) as well as Lane (the financial chief) as much, if not more, as they need him.

Early in my career, I was guilty of this same naïve arrogance from time to time. Having started my career mostly representing no-name startups, I would think (and — ahem — bitch to my friends and colleagues) about how easy it would be to manage a handful of Fortune 500 accounts. Like Don, a few years later, I would have the experience firsthand and realize I had no idea what I was talking about.

Lesson learned: Before you criticize a boss, client or colleague, either privately or openly, stop and ask yourself, “Do I know how to do what he (or she) does?” If the answer is no (and often it will be), then shut up, open your mind and learn something.


2 words to describe work culture at an agency: highs, lows


Elisabeth Moss at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital 50th Anniversary Gala on Jan. 7, 2015 at theBeverly Hilton in Beverly Hills (s_bukley/ 

This might be my favorite quote of the entire series, spoken by the dearly departed Miss Blankenship, who observed decades of agency culture from the sidelines and knew what she was taking about. If agency life is truly a business of sadists and masochists, why do we get up each and every day and continue to ask for the pain?

Because for every awful client, crabby reporter or horrible moment when you start to believe there’s no more good ideas or creative moments left inside, that’s when a new business win, a delighted partner or a New York Times feature story will make you appreciate, as Don would say, for preparing “ … to swim the English Channel and then drown in Champagne.”

There’s also the opportunity for reinvention: think of Harry Crane, who made up his role as Head of Media, or Peggy, who started as Don’s secretary and ended up as Copy Chief.

Lesson learned: It’s not for everyone or the faint of heart, but if you choose to build a career in an agency, you can guarantee a high for every low and a number of unforeseen surprises along the way.

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