Dave Collins, Strategic Consultant, DEGW San Francisco
Last Sunday’s Mad Men season five premiere was more than just a welcome back party for the familiar gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. It was also a polite conversation on the value of offices in the Modern (read: 1963) workplace. Just as the twits at Y&R were dropping water balloons on the heads of the growing crowds of civil rights protestors, Pete Campbell was bemoaning the fact that his office is simply not big enough to bring in the large clients he now has under his control in the fledgling firm. But before we delve into the quandary Pete finds himself in regards to square footage and load bearing beams, let’s reflect a moment on how far the show has progressed in the realm of workplace design.

In the pilot episode, we meet Don in a 1950s era coworking space (read: bar). The camera pans across a smoke filled saloon, with intimate shots of men dragging on their favorite brands of cigarettes. Not unlike many of his contemporary peers, Don, it seems, has ventured outside of the office to do his creative thinking. He heads to where he’s most comfortable, in the confines of an oak chair in the corner of his favorite happy hour spot. When a busboy stops to light his cigarette, Don interrupts him briefly for an opinion on the work he’s currently finishing. A serendipitous encounter. Knowledge sharing between an unlikely pair. A moment of brilliance ensues. The busboy walks away and Don has his creative moment in the sun. “I just love smoking”. An ad campaign is born.

The interplay of setting and work is not taken lightly in the series. Series creator Matthew Weiner has been lauded not only for his impressive characters and precision dialogue, but also for his spot on recreation of what it “felt” like to live and work in mid-century New York. There is no better example of Weiner’s firm grasp on feel than in his portrayal of the office, a home away from whatever it is that goes on after work. Sterling Cooper’s original offices are a reflection of the people that reside within; polished wood desks, stuffy board rooms and post martini lunch nap couches. Everything is concealed behind closed doors, the only way to enter is through the gate keeper, the secretary. The office operates with increasing levels of security. To make it from the glassy reception space, past the sea of secretaries clapping away on typewriters, around the personal assistant and into an executive’s office takes poise, time, and some serious alcohol tolerance. Even if one is to make it into the private office of one of the star executives, he (or god forbid she) must still navigate the layers of sheen and secrecy that each high powered male must surround himself with in order to rise to a position of power.

Fast forward a few seasons (spoiler alert) to the offices of the new and improved Sterling Cooper Draper Price. The show moves forward into the sixties and can’t help but catch the winds of change swirling through New York. The new office is bright, light and full of open spaces. The copywriters no longer have their own rooms and work in a large, open, collaborative “pod”. Roger Sterling still has his private office, but it has been redecorated with hilariously small guest chairs and chic art. Even the conference rooms have received a facelift, with glass paneling on the exteriors to allow natural light in (and visions of smooth talking ad-men out). The suits in charge may not have changed, but the feeling among the workers surely has. Free from the tyranny of their former British parent company, Putnam Powell and Lowe, the new firm has the authority to pursue the clients it pleases. The newfound virility of the firm is reflected in the bold, brash new office into which they’ve settled.  Did Don give up his office in order to sit amongst his reports and collaborate freely? Of course not, he’s Don Draper. However his demeanor certainly has changed, he’s a little softer, a little less quick to go on the attack, and perhaps a bit more appreciative of his protégé, Peggy. Perhaps this has something to do with his stunning new bride “of French extraction”, but then again, perhaps it’s the natural lighting.

Which brings us back to the office subplot of the most recent episode. Pete’s argument is simple: he has important clients coming to visit that bring in more money than Harry Crane’s lowly Media Department. The equation is simple: Money + Power = A Corner Office. Therefore, Pete’s status should be reflected by an improved piece of real estate. Pete demonstrates his current conditions by inviting the partners to a meeting in his office and squeezing them into his tiny couch. See? If it’s too small for you, of course it’s too small for my clients. Although Roger responds by challenging Pete to a fight, cooler heads prevail when he offers to buy Harry’s office for Pete for the small price of $1000. Setting aside whether or not the $1000 bribe was an accurate valuation, the partners at SCDP have decided on the price for real estate, and have created a market for trading. It will be interesting to see how the ripples of this precedent spread through the firm and throughout the rest of the season. In the meantime, I’ll keep tuning in hoping for more appearances of Don Draper, workplace strategist.