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Column: 'Mad Men' and Irate Women

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NEW YORK While watching Mad Men last year, I was struck by how precisely this brilliantly produced series captured the world of New York advertising as it must have been in 1962, and I was thankful that I didn't work in advertising back then.

I started as a copywriter in 1973, and shortly after that I was working successfully on an automotive additive business for a full year. I was asked off the business when the client discovered I was a woman.

Fast-forward to 1983 when I started at Y&R in New York —eerily similar to the Mad world of 1962—where the going gag was that a woman would never be group creative director, the second most powerful position there, unless she could pee standing up.

It's 2008. How are we doing?

How many women are creative directors in the large New York agencies?

How many women are running advertising agencies that don't have their name on the door?

How many women have P&L responsibilities that indicate real control and authority?

Although I have led creative departments at two agencies (JWT, Chicago, and McCann Erickson, New York), advertising is still by and large a boys club. And I think the few women who hold top positions along with me will agree. It's still big news when a woman is given the top job in our industry. Women in charge at boys clubs are still an anomaly. And it's not just the case in advertising. Forty years after women burned their bras to liberate their sex, only 2 percent of the Fortune 1000 CEOs are women. Two percent!

What are we doing wrong?

First of all, it's not a level playing field, and we need to get over that. Stop complaining about it, stop getting irate and do something about it. And for God's sake, don't bash men.

I have noticed that the women who make it in these boys clubs have a few things in common. The main thing is that almost all of us were promoted and supported by men. The men we worked for and with felt comfortable around us. We learned to adopt some of the male traits that make men so successful, and in doing so, we reminded the men of the thing they admire most: themselves.

Throughout my career I have tried to help women get more in touch with their male sides by being more decisive, focused, competitive and shrewd about asking for what they want and expecting what they deserve. At the same time, we need to exploit our uniquely female traits like compassion, collaboration, intuition and empathy—things a man simply doesn't want to learn.

It's a fine line we women walk when we are trying to become players in the boys clubs. If we are too girly-girly, the men won't relax around us and they will treat us like women. I hate when that happens.

I knew I was in trouble back in 1973 when I met that automotive client for the first time. He needed some copy changed ASAP, so I was introduced to him and fixed his ad while he watched—kind of like when AAA comes to change a tire. He was very polite to me, and that was the kiss of death. With the men he was always rowdy, crude and raucous.

At the same time, we can't become just like the men: We know what those women are like.

We have amazing powers as women. If we're smart and use our powers without malice, we can seduce and manipulate the men in our lives to earn their affection and even their respect.

There is an art to seduction and manipulation. I think I always knew this, but the notion crystallized for me during my first marriage to an out-of-work Sicilian actor who felt it was unmanly to help with household chores. So I worked at a full-time job, then did the shopping, cooked the meals and cleaned the apartment.

One day I bought a super heavy-duty vacuum cleaner, and after a few days I told my husband I was returning it. It was just too heavy for me to manage, I said. I wasn't strong enough to push it around. "I can do it," he boasted, and for the duration of our marriage he did all the vacuuming. My strategy had worked.

The skillful use of benevolent manipulation—where everybody wins—works wonders at work, too. I use the vacuum-cleaner strategy all the time. I play on men's masculine pride and their natural instincts to protect the "weaker" sex.

I can't figure this out and I'm exhausted," I will say to one of the men.

"And if it's not done by tomorrow, I'm dead."

"I'll do it," he'll invariably say.

But his rescue mission isn't as satisfying to him unless I appreciate the sacrifice he is making on my behalf.

This is as crucial as saying "thank you."

"No, no, you're swamped, too," I say.

"I'll make the time for it."

"Thank you. I love you."

"I know."

"You're welcome."

It's like great sex. Everyone walks away feeling fulfilled.

Now, I know that a lot of women will object to the notion of using seduction and manipulation in the workplace.

"Why should we stoop to conquer?" they ask. "We're smart, we're educated, and we work as hard as the men."

That's not enough. We've been doing that for years, and where has it gotten us? In most boys clubs there are token women, just enough of us in enough positions to prove that the old boy network is enlightened.

We've been playing by everyone else's rules long enough. It's time to screw the rules and make up your own. Take it from a woman who has been in advertising for 35 years: The most dramatic change in advertising since 1962 is that most of us have stopped smoking.

Nina DiSesa is chairman of McCann Erickson, New York. Her book, Seducing the Boys Club, (Ballantine) hits shelves Jan. 29. She can be reached at nina@mccann.com.