What if Mad Men Were Set in 2016?

by luke patrick

we put down the scotch & do the math

I love Mad Men. A long time ago, while binge-watching in my basement apartment, the show convinced me to leave a job as a writer and pursue one in marketing. It’s like Patch Adams inspiring someone to be a doctor — but with a lot more nihilism. To this day, the show makes me laugh, cry and reflect.

But who cares about all that sappy stuff? It’s time to ask ourselves the big questions. Like, “What if the characters in Mad Men were working in 2016?”

You guessed it: It’s the Hypothetical of the week. What would it be like if our beloved Sterling Cooper crew worked today, perhaps in the Silicon Valley?

Thankfully, it’s not that hard to get our maths in order. So for a detailed look at what the Mad Men office might be like, here’s the rub:


Money is a big deal on the show. People work up the nerve to ask for raises, and Peggy fights the whole Patriarchy to get hers. Don just drinks until the checks arrive. But what would any of those dollars be worth today?

There are other great articles that detail this. But we’re going to give a quick update to adjust for 2016 inflation. Let’s start with Don —

Don Draper, in the onset of the show, gets a raise from $35,000 to $45,000 a year. That’d make him Middle Class somewhere like Little Rock. But that’s 1960 money.

Adjusted for inflation, Don would be making $362,028.06 in 2016. Not too shabby! It’s not enough to afford his fancy New York apartment, though. Is it enough to get a sweet pad in the Valley?

To Don’s pleasure, it’s looking plausible. With his annual salary (plus bonuses) he’s fairing well against the terrible housing market. The average price of a home in the Valley is approximately $1 million. With today’s mortgage rates, ol’ Dick Whitman can afford roughly 150% of that. Anything around $1.5 million is no sweat on his scotch-infused brow.

He’s also doing quite well compared to a modern counterpart: According to Glassdoor, someone in his position could expect to make between $150,000 and $220,000.

Sadly, inflation isn’t as nice to the office heroines. Take Peggy Olson for instance. Post-season one raise, she’s making $40 a week, or $16,733.

Chump. Change.

She even had to ask for the 15% raise to get to that point. Which brings us to the uncomfortable truth about Peggy’s position —

Things are better for her in the modern era, but it’s not all silver lining. For instance, she’d likely make $67,000 in 2016 doing the job of an average copywriter. But considering the national average wage gap gives her only 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, she’s got a lot to fight for. Some reports even put the figure closer to 49 cents within Silicon Valley. And that number is startlingly below 1970’s national average of 58.7%. That’s a whole decade after the show “began”!

What about the Top Dogs? If you’re wondering what Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper themselves make, you’d better strap-in.

As founding partners, their salary likely fluctuates often. Still, it’s not hard to figure up a potential net worth for the pair.

All other assets and investments not withstanding, the final sale of SC&P ($65 million) would earn them roughly $4,972,500 a piece. Or, in 2016 money, $40 million dollars. Which feels like a lot of money. But is it?

By today’s Unicorn standards, it’s an almost laughable amount of capital. Snapchat alone is valued anywhere between $16 and $20 billion. With a “b”. Billion. SC&P’s $522 million dollar valuation would hardly get a geek in an Uber shirt excited.

Twitter — which most analysts consider to be in dire straights — is valued at $12 billion in April of 2016. Even the rookie FitBit is market capped at just under $4 billion.

That’s about it for the salary highlights. If you’re curious about the others, here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Pete Campbell is bringing in $3,900 or $31,375 in 2016. He’s on the lower end of doing well in most Midwestern cities, but in the Valley? He’d be hurting without his wife’s considerable inheritance.
  • Joan Holloway never mentions a specific salary, but we can guess she’d be doing around $55k - $65k in today’s money. Like Peggy, she too is fighting the wage gap here. It’s possible she’s being held at the average line, or makes little progress each year in the raise department.
  • Paul Kinsey, despite the bohemian attitude, is doing quite alright. We don’t hear a number, but by today’s Valley standards, he’d be making roughly $100,000. He isn’t stealing typewriters because of his wallet.
  • Ken Cosgrove likely makes about the same as his peers. But how much did he get paid for that published short story? The $100 he received would be worth approximately $804 in 2016.
  • Salvatore Romano can expect to rake in about the same as Paul — roughly $100k. But he too is fighting social norms. He’s likely earning 10-30% less than his straight counterparts. Whether his life in the closet changes this is hard to quantify.

Everyone else on the show is almost certainly living in poverty. Given Peggy’s starting salary ($35 /week), secretaries at Sterling Cooper are making less-than $15,000 a year. That’s only $20,000 worth of house to a typical modern lender. Assuming the various men we see are talented, straight and white, they’re likely making something in the $30,000 range. Give or take.

Anyone else not in those boxes? They can expect a wage gap as much as 50% or lower. It’ll be many decades before that changes. Keep that in mind the next time someone mentions The Good Old Days.

Office Life

At first glance, you might think life in the modern office would be downright foreign to the Mad Men crew. But let’s not forget one of the show’s core messages: Fads are everything. And Sterling Cooper is all about fads.

Sure, most hip companies today are using stand-up desks and open floor plans. But Don Draper’s office is only an IKEA delivery from being there. In fact, a lot of the show’s fashion would be “retro” by today’s standards.

Peggy Olson, the real hero of Mad Men, being a total badass

So what about everything else? Well, for starters Sterling Cooper would be somewhere near Salesforce Tower. And companies like Salesforce would get more mention than Secor Laxatives. In fact, the entire scope of advertising has changed considerably since the 1960s.

In the show, almost everything is done through the company: Creative work, ad placement, sales tracking, etc. But as shown by that Salesforce shout-out, this isn’t the case any more. The Internet has completely unwoven the fabric of bundled advertising. Facebook and AdWords have replaced newspaper placements. Television ads are still around, but the nature of those is changing, too. Plus, Hulu and Netflix are making things even stranger for the characters, creating new opportunities and new headaches.

In short, the Web has made it all more direct. Companies now regularly have in-house marketing teams, in-part because everything is easily accessible. A Hulu rep can talk to you about ads. Facebook is almost too accesible. Even the tools we use to make graphics are simpler. Photoshop is a Creative Cloud login away. It’s all right there, and that means fewer thousands spent at Sterling Cooper.

Not to mention the fact that services are now the biggest industry in America. Don Draper spent the 1960s trying to sell cigarettes. Now, he’d be selling platforms as a service, grocery delivery, or Angry Birds downloads.

Speaking of smartphones, I don’t have to tell you how different the show would be with iPhones. Or computers. Think about that the next time you’re bored on BuzzFeed.

Alright, that’s a lot of stuff that Peggy, Don and Roger would find different. But what’s the same?

Sadly, the industry still faces problems with diversity. If we’re going to treat Sterling Cooper as a tech start-up, the situation is even bleaker. Despite the fact that world-leading start-ups come from all over the globe (eg. China, Kenya, South Africa and so many more) Silicon Valley is a haven for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

On a lighter note, many of the Don’s clients are thriving in 2016. American Airlines is still with us, and for better or worse, Lucky Strikes are too. The list is extensive, but Jaguar, Chevrolet, Ocean Spray, Sunkist, Western Union and Manischewitz are all doing just fine.

I like to think that, through it all, that would make Don Draper smile. If he were still “with us” today, he’d be in his 90s. Maybe he’d be scrolling through Tumblr and laughing at Denny’s ads. He’d smoke imported Lucky Strikes from his bed at the nursing home.

That’s what I like to think, anyway. We’ll never know. But either way, don’t expect that show any time soon.

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