Life after 'Mad Men': The rise of women in agencies

Iris' CMO, Americas, searches for the real-life Peggy Olson

My grandmother was a typist in the 1940s. She married my grandfather when she was 22; had my father a few years later; and boom, that was the end of her career. My granny is a firecracker— a classic case of a woman who, if born today, would lead a very different life.

In contrast, my mother’s generation, during the bra-burning ‘60s and early ‘70s, helped fundamentally shift the amount of opportunities for women. They made it feel like it was an attainable goal to ascend from being a secretary into a bigger, more influential post in the business world. Their daughters and generations behind them are now lapping up those opportunities in spades.

It's hard to not have enormous respect for someone like Jane Mass, the famed ad woman and closest thing to a real life Peggy Olsen. Not because she was a female who "made it" in a man’s world but because, when you hear her or anyone speak about her, she found success through breakthrough work and immense career passion. Her "I Love NY" campaign is legendary. It was open-minded, progressive men like David Ogilvy who spotted her talent and gave her the opportunity to shine. They didn’t do it because she was a woman; they did it because her creative genius would make the agency more successful. It was a smart business decision.

Jane Mass may have paved the way for future female creative leaders, but the journey’s certainly not over.

Droga’s #NotThere work for the Clinton Foundation made that crystal clear in March this year by pointing out that the pay gap for equal roles is still far too big. Women who work in agencies know they must mentor one another and continue to support smart talented people as equals, regardless of gender.

I have immense respect for the efforts of Kat Gordon and The 3% Conference to boost representation of female creative leaders. But we also need to be sensitive that what's right for one businesswoman isn't always right for another. I believe in "lean in" but also support "lean out" (male or female). This new era of respected choice is what will hopefully redefine our perception of equality.

In today’s world, ad women have grown up with comparatively fewer obstacles. But just like Jane Mass, we can’t expect special treatment because we are women. We should only expect special treatment if we are uniquely great at what we do.

Fortunately, there are many women today in adland who are. There's Sarah Thompson, Droga5's Global CEO and Sophie Kelly at The Barbarian Group.There's the impressive resume of MDC's Lori Senecal, along with creative leaders like W+K's Colleen Decourcy and our very own Lisa Bright at Iris, to name a few. And there are loads more of incredibly strong women atop the industry who are acting as clear role models for the upcoming generation.

The list of female leaders is happily expanding, and I for one am looking forward to that day — sometime soon — when we can finally go from #NotThere to #WeMadeIt. 

Sarah Aitken is chief marketing officer, Americas, at Iris.

Editor's note: This Sunday marks the end of the "Mad Men" Era. Not the one it portrayed, but the one it hooked, influenced and shaped in ways we're still figuring out. To honor the finale of one of TV's great series, we've asked thought leaders from across the industry to share their views on how far we've come, and where we might go from here. The columns will run all this week, culminating in a Twitter party with some exciting industry figures during the final episode on Sunday. Join us and them with the hashtag #MadMenCamp.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free