What would Peggy Olson do?

Written by on May 22, 2013 in Cars and Chicks, Perspectives - 20 Comments

Peggy OlsonWhy do fans of Mad Men tune into our favourite show every week? We never know what to expect. And I, for one, never could have predicted they’d let Peggy Olson work on the Chevy account.

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.oil derrick

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. shampoo

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?


20 Comments on "What would Peggy Olson do?"

  1. Jane Langille May 22, 2013 at 6:43 pm · Reply

    Fantastic post, Krystyna. Peggy would have done exactly what you did!

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:47 pm · Reply

      Why thank you, Jane! I’d like to think Peggy and I have the same attitude in these matters.

  2. Arleen May 23, 2013 at 12:18 am · Reply

    What I find interesting is that a man can present to client a shampoo for women but a woman can’t present to client about oil when we all use cars. When I started my promotional products business in the early 90’s I met up with many a distributor who said I will never make it because I am a woman. At that time the industry was mostly men, so what. Well that sparked me to continue onward. Then I was told I would never make it on the internet. The same man who told me that is now doing the same on the internet. Gender should not be issue, it should be who is the best for the job.

    I guess I am showing my age. I have no idea who Peggy Olson is.

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:46 pm · Reply

      That is a paradox, isn’t it? On the tv show, Peggy is given accounts like cosmetics, pantyhose and cold cream but works her way up to more mainstream business. That’s how women got their foot in the door – I’ve worked on more hair accounts than I care to remember! Funny thing is, you need the same components for a strategy and any campaign, regardless of the demographic – or the product.

  3. Debra Yearwood May 23, 2013 at 12:25 pm · Reply

    There must be something about the communications sector that makes it uniquely obnoxious on the issue of what roles women should and should not play. It’s not that other sectors don’t show bias, they are just less obvious. In the early 2000’s when I was a lobbyist, I regularly caught people off guard, because I was not an old, rich white man. In one particular case, after staring at me and clearly being shushed by his subordinates, the head of an American health association finally blurted out in the middle of a meeting, “Most lobbyist in Canada don’t look like you do they?”

    I never let it phase me. People were so preoccupied with thinking I couldn’t do the job or so amazed that I had the job that it allowed me to get it done twice as fast. 🙂

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:42 pm · Reply

      And that’s just it – women have been underestimated for a long time, to our advantage. We don’t approach business the same way men do, and we’re better at this whole social media/networking racket. The “mommy bloggers” are a case in point – mothers have been networking for eons, and having the tools to do it more effectively have given them incredible reach and power.

  4. Darlene May 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm · Reply

    We all know women face so many obstacles in business. We are too bitchy, too emotional, too soft. We take time off work to have babies and to take care of them. We are judged by our physical beauty, and are the victims of disrespect or sexual harassment. And let’s face it, many of the men in business would rather “wine and dine” with other men – golf games, sports events, fishing..

    Now that I have hit all the stereotypes, women are intelligent trend setting people who have a lot to offer. It is the open minded businesses that will benefit leaving the old fashioned in the dust.

    Eventually, women will fill the boardrooms – we’re blazing the trails.


    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:35 pm · Reply

      We are blazing trails! In a quieter, more grassroots kind of way than had been imagined by the “women’s libbers” of the 70s. Although we do owe them a debt, just for getting the ball rolling. It’s true that men would rather deal with other men – they just feel more comfortable. Women take in body language, look you in the eye and ask a lot of questions, which makes men feel uneasy. Hopefully, they’re getting used to it …

  5. Elizabeth Scott May 23, 2013 at 10:46 pm · Reply

    I love the fact that today there are many women in a man’s world. In today’s society many women are making a name for themselves. I believe there is nothing a woman can do. Hopefully society will feel the same way.

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:32 pm · Reply

      Women are making huge headway, and less because of regulated “affirmative action” than because there are simply more women entering the workforce and taking on non-traditional roles. The younger generation – not just women, but men too – think differently and act differently, and it’s inspiring to see. It’s been an organic process.

  6. Susan Cooper May 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm · Reply

    What a story. I had a very similar experience while selling industrial chemicals in West Virginia, of all places. They loved having a token woman on the sales team but when it came to the “serious” stuff I was always left out, even though I knew more then the ones they assigned. What that boiled done to was I was never allowed to make the commission that the bigger accounts allowed… Sigh! I moved on and became a VP of sales for another company and THEN my old company wanted me back to the “serious” stuff. I said no. 🙂

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:29 pm · Reply

      Good for you! They realized what they had too late, and it serves them right. Women still don’t make as much as men do, but we’re catching up. In more households than ever, we’re also the primary breadwinners. That’s going to really alter the landscape in the next few years …

  7. Mary Slagel May 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm · Reply

    Good for you! This post is inspiring and motivational. I love reading a good empowerment post.

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:27 pm · Reply

      Why thank you, Mary! I’ve been wanting to write something about Peggy for a while now, and this gave me the opportunity.

  8. Jon Jefferson May 24, 2013 at 8:16 pm · Reply

    I like the character of Peggy Olson on the show she is stark contrast while remaining exactly like the men she is competing with.

    The world has changed so much even over the past 40 years. I remember the Virginia slims ads “You’ve come a long way baby.” Now it seems so odd to see that women can smoke the same cigarettes as men for the same lung cancer.

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:23 pm · Reply

      Peggy is one of my heroes. I’m hoping she just leaves and starts up her own agency eventually – it’s believed that the character is based on Mary Wells Lawrence who did just that! As for Virginia Slims, the campaign was ground-breaking – a great tag line that, as you point out, we realize today is beyond ironic.

  9. Becc May 27, 2013 at 3:25 am · Reply

    How bloody frustrating. When will it be ok to be great at your job regardless of gender, what you look like, what you are? The proof should have been in the fact that you could do the job. I wonder if it was the perception of those 3 guys or whether it really would have crumbled if you got the chance to work directly with the client. We will never know. Someone else got your expertise, but a little sad that you felt the need to keep your mouth shut (although you didn’t say how occasionally, so maybe there is no need to feel sad?)

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:19 pm · Reply

      Yes, it was downright maddening – at the time. I do speak out more than I should, and have learned to channel that more appropriately, even productively. And these days, it’s not unusual for women to work in many areas of the automotive sector, especially on the marketing and communications side.

  10. Savvy Working Gal May 27, 2013 at 10:39 pm · Reply

    It would be interesting to hear if women get to present these type of accounts today. I work in the construction industry. We currently do not have any females on our sales staff and when we do they don’t last long. Apparently our customers would rather work with a male. I do have a friend who owns a construction company with her husband. She handles much of the business side of things – bid processes, negotiations with the union and vendors. He runs the projects. I doubt if anyone would have hired her for this type of job off the street though.

    • Krystyna Lagowski May 31, 2013 at 3:06 pm · Reply

      Thanks for stopping by! Women are much more involved in automotive accounts these days, which only makes sense. We’re very well suited to advertising and marketing type work, since much of it is intuitive and let’s face it, we’re much better communicators than men. Interesting about the construction business, but I’m not surprised. That would be one of the last bastions of male-dominated business.

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