Stefani Zellmer
Freelance writer of all trades
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I've been in Peggy Olson's shoes, but never those pantyhose: A female advertising exec's view on Mad Men

by Stefani Zellmer
March 26, 2012

For 18 years I've worked as an advertising copywriter, and in that time I’ve been employed by every kind of advertising agency out there. I’ve worked at some of the big shops characters mention on Mad Men, like Ogilvy & Mather and BBDO, and I’ve spent time at smaller ones akin to Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price.

Truth be told, Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price doesn’t quite ring true as a boutique start-up — it has far too many accounts. Did you hear Pete Campbell rattle off all of the accounts he manages as “head of accounts!” And could he work “I’m head of accounts” into more sentences? Poor Pete.

However, Mad Men does get a lot of things right, which is one of the reasons I love the show dearly. It mimics "real life" inside advertising agencies without offending my little advertising soul. (Yes, people in advertising do have souls.)

Sunday's season premiere episode opened inside a creative team’s office that was decorated like a dorm room: toys and gadgets scattered about; stuff pinned to the walls every which way; boys in arrested development procrastinating by pulling off childish pranks. It’s spot on actually. That’s how it really is inside creative departments. Still. Only nowadays there are more women. I mean, women like Peggy. Not the ones manning the phones and jumping up the second someone barks, “Get me a coffee.” Still, there are not as many women as there should be in the corner offices, but don’t get me started on that.

Peggy’s Bean Ballet presentation was fairly accurate, too: the way she pitched it; the way they “boarded up” the work; the way the client’s first comment was something ridiculous, “Where’s my bite and smile?” It was all too close to home. Especially her comment — after the client killed the idea — about how she should have saved it for the second round.

Every creative knows that trick well: Never present an idea you really like until the client’s had a chance to kill something else first. This trick is actually more often employed to get ideas through creative directors who happen to be way more ruthless than clients, as evidenced by Don’s stock reply of “What else ya got?” I’d be retired by now if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that.

I won’t belabor the male domination in creative departments, but I will talk about the sexism on the show because — Wow. Is it me, or was it worse than ever in Mad Men's season premiere? Between Roger flirting with Pete’s secretary, Don demanding that his wife flash him her tits at work, Roger telling his wife to shut up and then going on and on in front of her about how Don stole the woman he wanted, the overt sexual objectification of Don’s wife Megan, the total disrespect of wives in general, I mean, the list goes on and on.

But isn’t that part of the show’s charm — the shock of it all? The smoking, the drinking, the aggressive honesty, the philandering, the racism, the lack of females in the boardroom. Okay, sorry. I can’t not talk about that. 

The lack of women in advertising’s creative departments is entertaining when it's dramatically scripted for a show like Mad Men; it lures us back to the era when everything was so different — even attractively different. But when you consider the absence of the opposite sex in present day advertising, it's shockingly sad. When I watch the series, it hits me that equal male and female representation (or the lack thereof) is the one thing about the industry that hasn’t changed enough. 

Opinion aside, the fact is that while women control 85 percent of consumer spending these days, only 3 percent of advertising creative directors are women.

Even in last week’s Los Angeles Times, Jane Maas, who was a real-life copywriter in the 60s, had a few things to say about Peggy Olson’s character and the lack of female peers on the show. She said, "If they want to keep the realism in the show they need to promote Peggy to assistant creative director. Or I predict she'll leave to go to another agency. Or start her own."

That’s what I did. Unfortunately, that’s still what a lot of women have to do to become the boss. I’m not complaining. I enjoy running my own agency. But I do miss the drama of office shenanigans and politics. That’s why I’m glad Mad Men is back from its long hiatus. 

And though I considered Sunday night’s episode a good reintroduction to the characters, as for dramatic plot twists, I must say to Matthew Weiner…“What else ya got?”

 

Stefani Zellmer