Why Mad Men’s Don Draper doesn’t need an IT manager

It wasn’t the smoking, the sexism, the racism, or the fact that everyone gets all dressed up to go to work that seemed out of place when I watched my first episodes of the hit TV series Mad Men. All I could think about as I watched the machinations of advertising firm Sterling Cooper was the fact that nowhere behind the scenes was a data centre at work. Not even so much as a server. This is a company that existed in the 1960s, before we started referring to such organizations as an “enterprise,” but its protagonist, Don Draper, isn’t that far removed from the concerns of a contemporary executives. He’s trying to generate more revenue. He’s trying to deal with staff. He has work/life balance issues (maybe a little worse than the average guy). But everything he accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, is done without the help of a BlackBerry, a SharePoint portal or – and this is hard to believe – a Google search. And yet he’s more than effective at what he does. It’s tempting to fall back on the fact that Mad Men is basically a period piece, and that the employees of Sterling Cooper simply didn’t know what they were missing. If we accept the premise, however, that technology problems are often people problems, Don Draper (for all his many faults) has a few character traits that are worth an IT manager’s attention. To wit: People are his databases: Like most executives of his generation, Draper relies on his staff to keep him up to date on appointments, clients, and the minutae of office life. Peggy, his secretary and would-be copywriter, is a great example. When another member of the staff asks her for the latest dirt on Draper, she promptly responds, “I’d never tell you.” You can’t buy better encryption than that. He avoids scope creep: Draper isn’t afraid to put off clients who make unreasonable demands. “Clients come and go,” he says to an over-zealous colleague in one episode. “It’s best to disabuse them of expectations that can’t be met.” How many IT projects would have been saved, or abandoned for a more reasonable alternative, if more senior managers thought likewise?He focuses: When the door opens to Draper’s office all you can hear is the clatter of typewriters and ringing phones. When the door closes, it’s as though a cone of silence descends. Sure, he doesn’t have to worry about managing his e-mail, but can you really imagine Don Draper, when you came into his office for an important conversation, glancing back and forth between you and his monitor? That kind of attention results in smarter decisions. He ignores office politics: While IT managers frequently get immersed in clashes between sales, marketing, HR or the finance department, Draper pauses only briefly in one episode as a fistfight breaks out in the main office to respond to an equally higher-up colleague who asks him to go out for a drink. He saves his passion for the real work, as should we all.He understands control: In an episode late in the first season, Draper’s wife, a former model, wants to go back to work. Although some men of that era might have raised a ruckus, Draper hears her out and says, “If this is what you want, I can’t stop you.” Understanding what’s in your power and what’s not can make the difference between achieving a goal and wasted energy. Draper makes his share of mistakes, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be living in that era again, but it’s interesting how confident a knowledge worker could be with little more than cool calculation and people savvy. Instead, we hope that gadgets and software will get us farther and farther ahead. Talk about madmen.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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