The Evolution of the Ad Agency

How One Modern Agency Stacks Up Against Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper of the 1960s.

As Mad Men prepares to enter the second half of its final season, Houston–based advertising agency Design At Work is also anticipating a monumental milestone in its own history — the celebration of its 25th anniversary. While times and advances in technology have certainly driven marked changes in the advertising industry, a comparison of Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper and real–life agency Design At Work reveals that many aspects — the creative process, client relations and even the character traits of a successful executive — have remained constant through the decades.

The Process: Man vs. Machine.

According to John Lowery, founder and CEO of Design At Work, the AMC series provides an accurate depiction of the advertising process and how ads used to be created. Drawing the artwork, stripping, bleeds, color separation, all of the design aspects of creating an ad that are now done using computers used to be done by hand.

While computers have made the design process far less labor intensive, what hasn’t changed is the thought process behind each ad development. “I believe that the creative is a derivative not the driving force, and you end up with better creative by starting with the needs of the client in mind,” Lowery explained. “Our designers still start with a concept and an idea first.” Meaning, just like in the 1960’s, people are still the mechanism responsible for advertisements that truly speak to customers, not the almighty computer.

The Clients: Corporations vs. Small– to Mid–Size Businesses.

In its most simple form, the advertising industry is about two things: winning clients and keeping clients. As both Don Draper and Roger Sterling state in the first season, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing one (him).” And though Sterling Cooper may go after big corporations while Design At Work targets small– to mid–size businesses, these two firms are one–in–the–same when it comes to satisfying clients’ needs and keeping business in the door.

“This is the same scenario all agencies encounter today,” Lowery said. “I truly believe we can help anyone sell anything, but we also have to build relationships and constantly reaffirm our value in the minds of the clients.”

The Staff: Gender vs. Talent.

The role of women in the work place in the 1960s is an undercurrent that runs through the entire Mad Men series. Peggy’s constant struggle to be seen and treated as an equal among her male copywriting counterparts and Joan’s objectification illustrate the idea that men ran the advertising world in that era.

Flash–forward to 2015 when only 8 of the 32 employees at Design At Work are men. Once a male–dominated company like the rest, it’s arguable that current executive vice president of Design At Work, Tricia Park, was the catalyst for this shift. In 1997, she started as a part time administrator and quickly rose to the top to become Lowery’s right–hand woman.

“We’ve always interviewed objectively, but in many cases the women put more heart into their work. They are more detail–oriented and more nurturing with clients. For the majority of the roles in our company, the female candidates continue to be a better fit.” Lowery said.

The Boss: Don Draper vs. John Lowery. Don and John — even the coincidental rhyming of names hints at the profound similarities between these two advertising executives. Neither Draper nor Lowery came from affluent beginnings, suggesting the career success of each is the product of the unrelenting drive, determination and hard work that characterize both men.

Like Draper, Lowery’s life has been marked by an endless pursuit of more and better. At eight years old, Lowery’s grandfather introduced him to the field of advertising; at 23, he started Design At Work and served as its sole employee. As the business approaches its 25th year, Design At Work has more than 30 employees and is expanding its space to accommodate even more growth. “My goal is to be known as the best advertising agency and the best employer,” Lowery said.

His similarities to Draper, however, stop there. Whereas Draper is aggressive, brooding and unsympathetic, Lowery is hungry and ambitious, yet compassionate and understanding. And while his strive for growth and perfection never wanes, he is also able to find satisfaction in all he has achieved thus far. Something that cannot be said for his silver screen counterpart.


Design At Work (DAW) is a full–service advertising and public relations firm that helps small to midsize companies market their products or services through integrated campaigns including advertising, public relations, collateral materials, logo identity, graphic design and website development.