Lessons from Peggy Olson’s ‘lean-in’ moments

Last week, PR Daily explored what Don Draper would be like if he were in PR. This time around, we look at AMC’s hit drama ‘Mad Men’ from a woman’s point of view.


Ever since the debut of AMC’s hit show, “Mad Men,” the character of Don Draper has often been held up as an example of successful industry practices and career savvy.

RELATED: What if Don Draper were a PR pro?

But let’s look at the flip side, shall we?

The character we could really learn something from is the indomitable Peggy Olson, portrayed by Elizabeth Moss.

The entertainment environment is light on relatable serious female characters; yet for the past six years, those of us who park on the couch every Sunday at 10 p.m. have found ourselves rooting for the one woman clawing her way to the top in a male-dominated world.

You could say the fictional Ms. Olson was “leaning in” long before Sheryl Sandberg made it fashionable.

Going from secretary to copywriter and on now onto copy chief, Peggy’s career trajectory hasn’t been without its challenges. Although PR is seen as a predominantly female business, the creative industry as a whole has tipped the gender balance into more of a 50/50 split.

Is it any different for women climbing the career ladder now from what they faced during the 1950s and ’60s? I canvassed female industry professionals—and “Mad Men” devotees—asking them how they navigate their own career successes and challenges compared with those of Ms. Olson.

Some of their answers may surprise you.

Learn to say “no” without saying “no”: Peggy often disagrees with the men in the room, and at times her criticism is dismissed. As she’s become more seasoned, her strategy in getting to “yes” has changed. Is it any different nowadays when a woman provides negative feedback compared with her male counterpart? Absolutely, according to Alyssa Schwartz, Toronto-based digital consultant and content strategist. “I’ve been in many meetings when a woman says ‘no’; she’s considered difficult. Criticism seems to be more acceptable coming from men. I’ve learned how to turn ‘no’ into a win/win situation. Even if the client’s idea isn’t great, I often use it as a springboard into an approach I think will work.”

Sit back and listen: Peggy started out as a secretary, giving her a great vantage point to observe the agency, its work, and its people—all helping her find a better opportunity for herself. “For me, it’s all about the people,” says Julia Beck, founder, Forty Weeks, a marketing strategy firm with a focus on new and expectant parents. “First, the listening, observing, and paying attention to the relationship side of the business; and learning to connect the players both carefully and well—helped to create an indispensable, central, but essential role for myself.”

Create alliances: Many women cite the need to develop strategic alliances to create better opportunities for themselves. Peggy finds an unlikely ally in Joan, who needs schooling in account management but shows promise in reeling in clients. “Peggy has her work cut out for her. As a woman, despite being at least as skilled as any of her male colleagues, they often treat her as a secretary,” says Eden Spodek, a Canadian digital communications strategist. “She’s got an uphill battle ahead of her and is starting to figure out she can effect change by bringing other women into client-facing roles and cultivating allies.”

Keep your integrity: Even when her colleagues are losing their heads all around her—or tripping on the narcotic du jour—Peggy often chooses not to follow suit just to be part of the gang. New York City-based marketing and communications strategist Holly Rosen Fink identifies with this. “Keeping my head up at all times and staying strong in my convictions is important to me; also, maintaining as much integrity as possible even when men don’t see eye to eye.”

Look for unlikely opportunities: Peggy’s promotion to junior copywriter started when testing Belle Jolie lipsticks with other secretaries. When she poetically described the wastebasket full of blotting tissues as a “basket of kisses,” she showed she had a way with words. Male copywriters were usually tasked with tapping into a woman’s point of view; Don Draper’s promotion of Peggy broke with that traditional thinking.

“For me, I’d say it’s looking for opportunities others haven’t focused on yet,” says Joanne Bamberger, principal of Broad Side Strategies, a political/social media consulting firm. I knew that in a world with so many strategists, I needed to find a way to stand out from the crowd—looking for and finding unlikely intersections of needs have definitely been helpful!”

RELATED: Ragan’s new distance-learning site houses the most comprehensive video training library for corporate communicators.

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