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Gene Marks

Gene Marks
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Author, business owner and online columnist for Forbes, Business Week and American City Business Journals www.quickerbetterwiser.com

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OCTOBER 12, 2009 2:50PM

Alot's Changed In The Office Since The Days of Mad Men

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An edited version of this column appeared in Business Week on October 12, 2009.

 

Sexist comments.  Bourbon at 10AM.  Lighting up a Pall Mall whenever you want.  No, this isn’t the Mets locker room.  It’s the way of life on the TV show “Mad Men”, and boy did those guys at Sterling Cooper (the show’s fictional advertising firm) have it made.  Times were good.  No one cared about cancer.  And all the secretaries and stewardesses had hourglass figures.  Plus you could actually still call them secretaries and stewardesses (let alone giving them a little pinch in the tush like Roger Sterling likes to do) without even getting in trouble.  Oh, good times.

But times change.  The only tush I can pinch is my dog’s.  And he’s not happy about it.   I have to steal my drinks from a flask in the men’s room.  And smoking those Pall Malls? I’ll leave that to the President.  But that’s not the only change.

Most of us who work in an office have noticed something else on Mad Men.  It’s the technology.  Or lack of it.  You don’t see those big, black phones anymore.  Or those IBM typewriters.  A copy machine was newfangled.  If Don Draper, the firm’s Creative Director, was suddenly transported to today’s office, he would be shocked by how much of the technology he used every day in 1963…is no longer used at all.

Would the same happen to a business owner from today if he also was transported ahead 50 years?  Absolutely.  In fact, try five years.  Because in just that short amount of time, a lot of the technology we’re using today won’t be around as much.  So if you’re thinking of investing in something new, you may want to stop and consider a few technologies that are changing right before our eyes.

 

For example, forget about anything that’s wired.  Wired technology is on the way out.  Companies are putting in wireless routers and using wireless modems over cables.  They’re getting wireless headsets, keyboards, mouses, printers and monitors.  Sure, we’ll all have brain cancer within the next decade.  But at least we’ll be able to undergo chemotherapy “hands free”.  Thanks Bluetooth!

 

Presentation tools are also going to change a lot.  In Mad Men, the account team would have a big face to face meeting with the client and put on a big face to face presentation with boring story boards.   Then the men would go to a strip club for lap dances.  Now we have the internet, projectors, web conferencing and boring powerpoints.  And no more strip clubs.  Bummer! Things really have changed since then.  And yet they’re going to change even more.

 

Unless it’s an emergency, I wouldn’t buy that new projector you were thinking of.  Some cell phone and computer companies are starting to build mini projectors right into their units. And you know that stupid speaker box on the conference room table that everyone’s shouting at so the guy in Hong Kong can understand what’s going on at this meeting?  Say goodbye to that too.  Computers are being turned into phones, complete with conference calling capability too. 

And the whole visual side of meetings is changing too.  If you can stomach it - just look at your teenage kids:  They’re all ichatting away on their Macbooks.    Screens, projectors and phone devices will soon be replaced with just a plain old computer running an i-chat, AIM or Skype type application, sharing slides with an inexpensive technology like glance or crossloop and either projecting onto a wall or hooked up to a large flat screen monitor.  Because they’re also coming down in price too.

 

When Don went to California on a business trip last season no one could reach him for days.  Not that he cared to be reached seeing that he was cheating on his wife with Ms. D-cup in the hotel swimming pool.   Today it’s a different, and still changing story.   I see lots of business owners buying GPS devices for their service techs in the field.  Don’t.  They’re going to be on all our cell phones sooner rather than later and you’ll be using those old GPS devices as shuffleboard disks before you know it.  If Don was traveling just a few years ago he’d be dragging his laptop, full of data into with him.  That’s changing too.  Carrying around data is out.  Web access is in.  Today’s people on the road carry Netbooks (I’m not crazy about them, but some people are) and very low level laptops and doing everything online.  The technology is real and popular and becoming the norm. 

And you know what else is becoming the norm?  Squeezing tushes in the office.  Just kidding.  Apple technology is becoming the norm.  There’s a whole new generation weaned on Macbooks hitting the job market.  And a whole new generation of technology that easily gets these devices onto Windows-based networks or even runs Windows side by side.  Investing in this stuff is becoming less and less taboo in the business world.  The IBM typewriter moved over for the PC and the PC is slowly but surely sharing the space with the Macintosh.  And oh, if you’re going to buy a PC, make sure it’s not running Windows XP or Windows Vista.  Because in just a few years all you’re going to see is Windows 7 dominating the desktop (or Google’s Chrome or Linux).  Today’s operating system will quickly be yesterday’s news.

 

One final thing that’s going to change the office?  That’s the office.  At Sterling Cooper every manager had a secretary, each with an hourglass body and a pinchable tush.  Nowadays, with all this technology, we’ve got waif-like, half starved looking woman with no tush at all employed as the administrator and doing the work of many.  That’s going to change even more.  The office will continue to shrink over the next five years.  Remote control and desktop sharing technology allows people to do the work from home and abroad (or “over a broad”, as Roger Sterling might say).  Websites like guru and elance let us find people to do ad hoc work around the world.  Hosted applications let us share data wherever we are.  Space now rents for the hour, rather than the year.  Sterling Cooper would look a lot different today, and in five years, then it did in the early 1960’s.

 

The characters on Mad Men have no idea what terrible things lie ahead of them in the next five to ten years of their time:  a Presidential assassination, race riots, the Vietnam War, Sonny & Cher.   And, with the exception of Newt Gingrich’s potential run for the White House, our future does not look so terrible.  Especially when it comes to business technology.  So spend wisely.

 

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Interesting article. Certainly puts the ever-changing office landscape in perspective. Now, if only we can get some of this technology in the classroom...
Really like the column. My father and I wrote copy and print ads for Hawaiian Tropic and Johnny Walker back in the 70's...my father drank the profit and I used the samples to catch some good rays on the beaches of Hawaii (where we worked). Later the office became as you said, less like a war zone and more like the TV "Bewitched" office...total crap and total make believe...

Thank God I don't have a good smooth Rum Maker for a client.
great!
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Great insight. I like your vision of the future. It is morphing before us as we advance to 2012. I feel like a dinosaur. Hang on, as it is going to be quite a ride.

I see the actual physical building structure of a company as becoming obsolete. Putting millions of dollars into a fancy work place drains the energy. Working at home and going to school at home will be more of the norm.

I can also see people becoming more like robots. Creative, ambitious, exotic people will be less in demand that team players who can share and be equal with everyone else. The days of ambition and greed are over. Which is kind of too bad as those two things fuel lots of business interactions.

In the end efficiency rules. Who gets to the cheese first and doesnt get caught in the mouse trap wins. We are all running in these mazes and the true survivor will be able to stick his head up out of the maze and get a new idea and run with it. The exotic, creative Don Drapers of the world make it all worthwhile.
First of all, while a lot has changed since the 60s, "alot" was not a word then, and unless it's some new internet initialism, it's not one now either.

Your article can be broken down into 4 very succinct categories:

Productivity (i.e. GPS/cell tower tracking...which, by the way, usually includes scheduling and dispatch software and is a massive undertaking, or the teletype in the Draper-Age)

Cost Savings (wireless everything, or wired everything at a time when wireless meant no electricity)

Form Factor (what gets accepted by the users, so the kids ichatting on their Macbooks or records vs 8-tracks)

Device Convergence (a function of all 3 above as well as the tech to make it happen, or the mini projectors in your example, or 3-in-1 printers)

Basically, the more things change, the more they stay the same if you break 'em down to their root cause.