When she approached Don Draper last year to resign her job, he thought she wanted to work on Jaguar. “We can’t let a woman work on this account,” he told her. And yet there she was, just the other day, slaving away on her IBM Selectric, cranking out concepts and slogans for a car we know is the doomed aluminum-block engine Chevy Vega.
I was once Peggy Olson. In the mid 1980s, I worked as a copywriter in a now-defunct advertising agency called Burghardt Wolowich and Crunkhorn. One of the accounts was a Big Oil company – I know they’re still around, so I’ll let them rest in anonymity.
One day, the agency suits decided to have a “focus group.” This meant gathering up all the ladies in the agency, sitting them down in the boardroom, and asking them who was in charge of changing the oil in the family car. At the time, I was married, and took the 1974 Dodge Scamp in regularly for oil changes, tune-ups and other maintenance. My ex-husband did the dishes and the laundry. It did wonders for domestic bliss.
Well, none of the other ladies had that kind of arrangement. And so, based on that very scientific and painstakingly researched data, the suits decided that women were not part of the Big Oil demographic. That pissed me off so much that I marched into the partners’ offices and told them they were making a big mistake. There was one very large fellow, one very bearded fellow and one very coked-up fellow.
All three of them laughed at me, gave me a couple of litres of 10W-20, and shooed me away.
Typical. For some reason, the three partners were reluctant to acknowledge my contribution to the Big Oil account. I wrote trade ads, a shop owner’s manual, product brochures, and a couple of new product campaigns. This wasn’t fluffy consumer stuff. This was complex trade literature that would be read by engineers, service technicians, shop owners, and other people who understood oil, big and small.
I worked on several other accounts, including Finesse hair care. On Finesse, I was front and centre. The very large partner would trot me out to meet with the client, lunch, drink and schmooze with them, attend casting calls and photo shoots, write and present campaigns from start to finish. I even used the product in my own hair, to make sure it did what I said it could do.
After working on a particularly challenging Big Oil campaign that involved evenings and weekends, I demanded the opportunity to present my work to the client. “I know this product,” I said calmly. “I can talk base oils and additives, molys and polymers and whatnot until I’m blue in the face. Haven’t I earned the right to present to the client?”
I pressed on. “Look at everything I’ve done with Finesse,” I pleaded. “The client loves me. Last week we talked about PH balance, surfactant, and silicones over martinis and clam cakes.”
The very large partner, the very bearded partner and very coked-up partners looked at each other. Finally, the large one spoke. “We can’t possibly let you present to the client,” he said.
“If they knew a woman was working on this account, they’d fire us.”
Had a giant can of oil opened up under me and swallowed me whole, I couldn’t have been more surprised. This was not 1968. This was more like 1986. Women could vote. They could work. They could, and did, write damn good copy.
But at this agency, they could not conspicuously work on automotive accounts.
Not surprisingly, I was fired a little while later. I went on to work at another agency, and learned to keep my mouth shut, at least occasionally.
But now I wonder – what would Peggy Olson have done?