Sunday, June 16, 2024

How to Re-create ‘Mad Men’ Business Technology

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It was the best of times to be in the business world; it was the worst of times. I’m talking about the early 1960s, as depicted in the award-winning AMC TV series, Mad Men.

The show centers on a successful Madison Avenue creative director named Donald Draper. Most scenes take place in the advertising agency’s office. (Season 4 premiers July 25.)

Mad Men has been praised for painstaking historical accuracy — every ash tray, beer can and tail fin is authentic for the period. And so is the office technology. The show is a time machine that lets you see how businesses operated 50 years ago.

The blatant sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, infidelity, alcoholism and heavy, ubiquitous cigarette smoking depicted in the show can shock modern viewers. But so can the technology. This is an alien world — one without laptops, cell phones, the Internet, electronic reminders, social networks, apps, fax machines or GPS.

How on Earth did they conduct business?

Early 1960s offices weren’t devoid of technology. They just had different technology, which was considered ultra modern at the time. IBM Selectric typewriters, Time-Master/7 Dictaphone dictating machines, adding machines, office Intercom systems and rotary-dial telephones. The most bleeding-edge business technology in the show is the introduction in season 2 of a Xerox 914 copy machine.

“Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology,” one character tells a secretary fresh out of secretarial school during her first-day orientation, as she pulls the cover from a typewriter. (The show’s typewriters represent a rare inaccuracy in the series. The IBM Selectric IIs used on the set didn’t actually exist until the late 1960s.)

The idea that a typewriter could represent intimidating technology to a secretary is funny to modern viewers. But don’t laugh. Those secretaries could take perfect notes at 125 words per minute. Can you?

Although 1960s-era business technology sounds quaint, the truth is that some of it worked better than today’s technology. It enabled a level of privacy, agility and mental clarity that business people today can only dream of.

Don Draper didn’t have e-mail. But he also didn’t suffer from information overload, PowerPoint fatigue, carpal tunnel syndrome or paranoia about being hacked.

No question: Life as a business professional is far better today. Information technology has transformed business for the better. But while IT has solved a thousand problems, it has at the same time created some new ones.

Now for the good news: You can have it all. With a little creativity and the right technology, you can have the power, insight and automation of 2010 business technology, with the privacy, agility and mental clarity of an office right out of Mad Men’s 1960s.

So grab a scotch from the office bar, light up a cigarette and have your secretary hold all calls. I’m going to tell you how to re-create 50-year-old business technology.


By far the biggest advantage Mad Men executives have over today’s business people is the secretary. Not just the person, but the entire secretarial system.

People today have assistants, but in the 60s, secretaries were highly trained buffers between you and the outside world. She was an intelligent firewall.

You couldn’t call or interrupt an executive directly. You requested such an interruption of the secretary, and she would decide whether or how or when such an interruption might occur.

Very much in the loop, secretaries could also answer questions about various things, such as your availability — without interrupting you.

Secretaries also filtered, edited and polished communication going in the other direction. In those days, as on Mad Men, executives dictated the equivalent of e-mail into a recording device called a dictation machine — or they hand-wrote cryptic notes on paper. The secretary would take that raw material and produce a polished, grammatically correct memo. She filled in the gaps of what you were missing, and made you look professional, even if you personally couldn’t write well, spell or were too drunk to remember small details.

Better still, the “e-mail” you got from others was also clear and polished — unlike the rambling drivel that passes for business communication today.

Can you imagine how great that must have been?

Your company won’t assign a professional secretary to keep watch outside your office door and protect you from the world — and from yourself. Those days are gone. We don’t have secretaries anymore. But we do have off-shoring.

An entire cottage industry of “virtual secretaries” exists. For a small monthly fee, you can set up a secretary-like buffer between yourself and the outside world. Your company probably won’t pay for it. But it might be worth your while to pay out of your own pocket.

You can use an educated professional with good language skills (usually based in India, but not necessarily) to answer your phone, manage your schedule, edit and send some or all of your e-mail and answer questions from colleagues, clients and partners without disturbing you.

Virtual secretaries cost money. But you can also now re-create some benefits of a secretary for free. For example, Google Voice and other services enable you to get voice mail as e-mail. By never answering your phone, you can make phone calls asynchronous, or force calls to take place at a time of your choosing.

You can also “blacklist” callers, and otherwise prevent constant interruptions by the telephone. One underappreciated feature is custom voicemail messages for each caller. So, for example, you can set up a group of people and deliver to just those people when they call a recorded message about where to get the information they’re looking for (without bothering you).

A service called reQall lets you record reminders by merely speaking. It works online, via phone or using one of the cell phone apps. Best of all, it applies computer intelligence to reminders. Out of the blue, it will send you a reminder to do something you may have forgotten. It can also use the GPS in your phone to give you reminders based on where you are.

Bing-411 and Goog-411 act like secretaries. Just speed-dial one of these services, and say what business you’d like to call. They’ll connect you, and you never even need to know the phone number.


Mad Men executives communicate with their secretaries using an Intercom system. Press a button and talk. Low-tech by our standards, the office Intercom system was a marvel of efficiency — way quicker and more reliable than today’s texting, calling or any other form of communication.

Next Page: More online business apps

I’ve been using an Intercom system lately called HeyTell, which works over the iPhone. Press a button and talk. It’s just like an old-school Intercom, but way better. For starters, you can connect with anyone else who has the app, not just a secretary on the other side of your office door. Also: It doubles as a location finder. It shows you on a map where the other person is.

If your virtual assistant in India has an iPhone, you can use an intercom system just like in Mad Men. “Nitan, get me Roger on the phone, will you?”

Dictation machine, shorthand and memos

In place of e-mail, Mad Men executives dictate memos into a recording device called a dictation machine. Alternatively, they dictate to the secretary directly, who uses mad shorthand skills to capture every word. The secretary would later craft the executives’ sloppy, cryptic attempts at communication into a polished, clear paper memo.

We don’t have dictation machines — and we definitely don’t have shorthand-capable secretaries. But we do have Dragon Naturally Speaking from Nuance, now available as a free cell phone app on iPhone, Blackberry and Android phones — and the Apple iPad.

Recording on Dragon is just like dictation — you talk, combining the text of your “memo” plus the instructions. So for example, you can say “comma” or “period” to insert punctuation, or “next paragraph” — and the software understands all this and much more.

You can bang out “memos,” e-mails, notes, or any other written communication much faster and easier. And you can send memos, er, e-mails, directly from the app.

Paper letters

One of the ironies of human psychology is that obsolete technologies can have a stronger impact than current day tech. For example, if you really want to make an impression on someone, trying sending a paper letter instead of e-mail.

What’s that? You don’t know how to use a pen anymore? No worries. A web service called SnailMailr lets you type your note in a form, and — for a buck — will send the recipient an actual physical paper letter in the mail.

Short, unscheduled meetings

Because they don’t have e-mail, and because writing a memo is such a time- and resource-consuming process, the fictional Mad Men office workers and the real white-collar workers from that era perfected the ad hoc, walk-in meeting.

In the show, a bunch of ad execs get an idea, form a mob and storm Don Draper’s office. The moment Draper gets what he wants from the meeting, he orders everyone out. These meetings last five minutes. It’s breathtaking. When is the last time you were in a five-minute meeting?

For flexible, ad-hoc communication, we have something even better than meetings: Business-ready microblogging. Services and products like, Jaiku, Obayoo,, Socialcast, Socialtext, StatusNet, WorkSimple, Yammer and others give you the benefits of 5-minute meetings, without the need to be in the same office.

File cabinets

Mad Men secretaries use carbon-paper and their fancy Xerox 914 copy machine to produce paper copies for alphabetical filing in paper folders, organized in metal file cabinets. When executives want to recall something, they just tell the secretary to pull the file.

Fortunately, there are apps and tools that index all your e-mail. By both using one of these products — and also sending a copy of your documents to yourself via e-mail, you can instantly recall every important piece of business communication.

I personally use fwdMail, formerly known as reMail, to achieve instant recall on my iPhone.

The 1960s are long gone. And that’s a good thing. But business technology from that era provided levels of privacy, agility and mental clarity that are rare and valuable today. The good news is that with creativity and the right apps and online services you can re-create the benefits of some 1960s Mad Men business technology.

Like Don Draper, you too can have it all.

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