'Mad Men' and Ad women: A love-hate relationship

March 23, 2012: 10:32 AM ET

Despite its sexualized portrayal of gender roles in the office, many women in advertising are eagerly awaiting the return of the hit television show.

By Vickie Elmer, contributordon_draper

FORTUNE -- When ad firm Leo Burnett throws a "'Mad Men' is back" party on Friday, executive creative officer Jeanie Caggiano will have to decide whether she's dressing up as Joan Harris, the sexy yet powerful executive secretary, or, she says with a wink, "I might try going in drag as Don Draper."

If Karyn Pascoe were going to dress as a character from the AMC (AMCX) television series about a fictional 1960s advertising agency, she says she'd almost certainly be Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss. Peggy is the lone female copywriter, smart and engaged yet struggling for her standing. "There's so many times when I'm surrounded by all guys -- just because there's so many in the industry," says Pascoe, who's executive creative director at Organic.

Many women in advertising are eagerly awaiting the return of the hit television show, which has been in between seasons for almost 18 months. "Mad Men's" fifth season debuts on Sunday, a return to the plot twists and nuanced characters who have worked on ads for brands like Hilton, Lucky Strike, and London Fog.

The four-time "outstanding drama" Emmy Award-winning show's fans will be watching closely for initial clues as to what happens to characters' careers and love lives. And despite its sexualized portrayal of women in the office, many women in advertising praise the show for its storytelling and say that many of the stories are similar to ones that play out in their workplaces today.

"I feel like it is the only show I've ever seen about advertising that gets it right," says Caggiano. She once inspired herself to make a client pitch by watching the show's protagonist and ad firm creative director Don Draper in action. It was a scene where Draper pitches to Kodak brass on an ad for its carousel projector. "I was so channeling that in my pitch. We won. Life imitating art yet again," she says.

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To be sure, not every woman appreciates the show. It "brings back too many bad memories … of a time when women were second-class citizens, belittled on a daily basis," writes Laura K. Chapin in a US News opinion piece. Chapin, a Democratic communications strategist, doesn't like the sexism and won't be tuning in.

Marcie Brogan, founder and head of Detroit-area Brogan & Partners, plans to watch it as she has since its start. "I thought it was a stunning show from the first five minutes" of the first episode, she says. Some of the scenes seem to jump from her early days in advertising (She started in 1972). "The agency I started at was not as liberal as Sterling Cooper," she recalls, noting it was more nose to the grindstone. Still, she recalls a female art director who "was fired for not acquiescing to the attentions of her superior."

The industry has advanced in many ways, Brogan says. "The sex, drugs, and rock and roll are not indicative of today's ad world. It's much more of a business" and much less of a fraternity house, says Brogan, who says she owns a Don Draper doll.

Women are still a minority within many ad agencies' executive suites, though they are plentiful in the middle. Several advertising and information companies, including McGraw Hill (MHP), News Corp. (NWS) and Omnicom Group (OMC), had no female executive officers, according to the 2011 Catalyst Census. This year, only six of the 27 board members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the industry's leading trade association, are women.

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Even those with the best track records according to Catalyst's research -- Viacom (VIA) and Time Warner Cable (TWX) -- reported around a little over 30% women among top officers, about double the 14.1% female officers at all Fortune 500 companies.

By contrast, women hold two-thirds of the 71,000 advertising and promotions manager jobs, nearly half (46%) of advertising sales jobs and 43% of the marketing and sales manager positions in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet women made up a majority of "Mad Men" viewers, accounting for 57% of viewers in season four, according to an AMC spokesperson.

Caggiano sees parallels between clients' attitudes then and now, and in the office romances depicted on the show. "Clients … have to be convinced and sometimes seduced into doing what is the right thing, as we see it," she says. She also holds that Draper's ability to grab insights and see human nature out in the world as he's sitting in a bar or on the train heading to work still applies today. "Even with studies piled six feet high … and research everywhere, I get my best ideas from watching people, the same as they did."

She also sees truth in the scenes where guy meets girl, and they end up half-dressed on his office couch or saying vows of eternal love. "I met my husband at the office. Many, many other couples who I know met in advertising," she says, claiming that at least 30 couples met and married while at Burnett. Her husband, Jerry Caggiano, worked five floors down from her. "Cubicles have kind of put an end to that -- sex in the office."

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The most powerful woman on the show may be Draper's ex-wife, Betty, who has kept his secret identity to herself so far. Or perhaps it's Joan, the redhead who runs the secretarial pool and in season four was promoted to a senior administrative role -- without a pay increase. Yet many advertising women today relate more to Peggy, the perky secretary-turned-copywriter.

"Industry-wide, I think everybody feels like Peggy these days," says Kelly Schoffel, strategy director of 72andSunny in Los Angeles. "You have to be really tenacious. You have to keep fighting. She's fighting for recognition. She really cares about the work."

As for Don Draper, Schoffel says he would never be hired at her agency, which she says strives for collaboration and ego-less team members. Plus his type -- "tortured creative soul clinging to his youth" -- is more common in New York than California, she says. "He's been unraveling before our very eyes."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Karyn Pascoe works at DiGennaro Communications. Pascoe works at digital agency Organic. 

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