Mad People…and the Cadillacs That Drive Them

thumbnail BRUNEIt was recently brought to our attention that the “American way” is rooted in a belief that hard work in the pursuit of “stuff” is how we do things…and central to what makes us exceptional. In fact, nothing is (apparently) more foreign to us than the thought of being away from work for more than a week at a time. Can we even conceive of taking the entire month of August off? We might agree that it sounds nice, but we have our priorities straight.

Or do we? When evaluating work/life priorities, ask yourself these questions: “How many vacation days have I banked…and how many will I bank this year?” The truth is there are a lot of folks who find it difficult (or completely impossible) to take all their vacation time and, perhaps even worse, to “unplug” and thoroughly enjoy a hard-earned week away from work. The very nature of our business makes it all too easy for us to justify checking in periodically; but doesn’t this come down to personal choice?

The question of “work-life balance” weighs heavy. It haunts us a little, and taunts us more. Not surprisingly, it’s a question that routinely makes an appearance in our Town Hall meetings…what should be surprising is that so many of us have allowed it to actually be a question. None of us deny the importance of “checking out” or “recharging” (which, oddly enough, sounds like work). So why don’t we take our own advice?

Is the answer found in a TV commercial that has proven brilliant in its well-calculated (or serendipitous) controversy? A commercial that has generated so much chatter precisely because it can be interpreted to equally support—or refute—opposing political and social agendas?

The spot raises some interesting points regarding the value of the American work ethic vs the unseemliness of American consumerism. The fact that it provides a strong argument for both sides makes one wonder: is it a spoof? Is it accurate, something to be proud of? Or is it offensive, the epitome of the “ugly American”? Buried in most discussion lies the question: Will it sell? Time will tell, but at least that brings me back to our world of advertising.

There’s little doubt that agency life as depicted in Mad Men has evolved (we seem to smoke less, at least). But there are some lingering traces of that world that we might not feel so good about. One of which is the work-life balance.

Along with agency politics, financial stress and creative differences, the world of Sterling Cooper etc is largely populated with Mad People. People who never seem to “leave” work. They leave the office (eventually), they go home, and they go out (usually with coworkers); but the office is a constant companion.

In Mad Men, we also see Don Draper’s career arc accentuated by (among other things) the car he drives. When the show opened it was an Oldsmobile…within a few years he’s in a Caddy. As consumerism goes, he is living the American dream…and his work-life balance predictably bottoms out to the left.

Of course, life in America has changed considerably since the ’60s, and the concessions in “quality time” that we make are driven by some newer realities. We’re as interested as ever in collecting our toys, but the cost of a college education (as one example) now applies significant additional financial pressure. And, unlike the ’60s, college is more of a mandate than a privilege—keeping up with the Joneses now absolutely includes college. This and other factors have no doubt influenced the decision by many families to take a 2-income approach, which can create scheduling issues that make it even more challenging to strike a thoroughly satisfying balance in life.

Is the answer as simple as being less driven to succeed? Probably not.

Just as the character in the Cadillac commercial advises us, hard work can get you the stuff that proves you work hard. But the point he, Don Draper—and perhaps too many of us—may be missing is that hard work is most valuable when we make the same commitment to take the time, to enjoy time.

The work will be there when you get back. But you’ll be living the American dream, with just a dash of je ne sais quoi.

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