What man, laid on his back counting stars, ever thought about a number?

Spoiler alert: I’m discussing a theme from the first half of the latest series of Mad Men, season 7, but I don’t mention what happens to major characters.

Towards the end of the 1960s, technology had begun to creep into advertising and in ’68, Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper and Partners agency (SC&P) install their first computer, a room-filling, low-humming IBM System/360.

SC&P want their computer at the front and centre of their business, physically as well as philosophically. Senior partner Jim Cutler asks rhetorically:

“Why not let every client who sets foot in that door know that this agency has entered the future?”

Of course, this being Mad Men, nothing’s ever as straightforward as installing a computer. Practically, entering the future means installing that computer on the site of the agency’s creative lounge, a space where art directors and copy writers meet to collaborate. Without a central space to share, the creatives are forced back into their separate offices, afraid that the computer will replace them.

“Let me put this in terms the art department can understand. They’re trying to erase us.”

Copywriter Michael Ginsgerg says. Don Draper’s only half joking when he asks the engineer who’s installing the computer:

“Who’s winning? Who’s replacing more humans?”

Installing the computer in the creative lounge area typifies the way that the agency views creative work since they pushed out Don and replaced him as Creative Director with Lou Avery. Lou’s conservative and doesn’t value the creative process. When Peggy Olsen complains that Lou didn’t fight to save their creative lounge, she says:

“Lou didn’t fight for our space. He doesn’t believe in creative because he doesn’t know how to do it.”

Lou’s reply says much about the direction the agency is heading with him at the creative helm:

“We’re going to use that computer more than you use that lounge.”

As much as they’re worried about being replaced, I suspect the creative team are equally worried about the impact that use of the computer will have on their work. Perhaps they also fear that decisions will be made more on the basis of data than on their creative instinct and experience?

Under Don’s creative leadership Sterling Cooper had excelled creatively and as a company because they put creative work at least on an equal footing as other aspects of agency business. They understood the importance of creative and that it wins accounts.

After their merger with CGC, their new partners take SC&P in a different direction, one that culminates in them forcing Don out and is typified by the installation of the computer. SC&P’s lack of creative direction doesn’t go unnoticed among the original Sterling Cooper partners. When Bert Cooper says:

“I don’t like the way that our agency is spoken of out there.”

Roger Sterling replies, critically:

“You don’t think that’s because our creative is invisible right now? One (award) nomination?”

New partner Jim Cutler’s vision for SC&P is in stark contrast to Don’s. In the final episode of the season, Jim says to Roger Sterling:

“I know what this company should look like. Computer services. Media buys pin-pointed with surgical accuracy. We can offer these services beyond our clients. It’s the agency of the future.”

Weeks before that, in the episode Field Trip, Jim makes his disdain for creative in general and Don in particular, very clear:

“This agency is too dependent on creative ‘personalities.’ We need to tell our clients we’re thinking about the future, not creative hijinks.”

The struggle between SC&P’s partners for the control and direction of the agency, as epitomised by the computer, is one of the most interesting themes of the season, as is the contrast between what’s seen by some as the unreliable, creative past and a predictable, computerised, data-driven future.

It’s a contrast that I feel’s being paralleled in our web industry right now. A contrast between implementation-led, digital product design and ideas-driven web design. It couldn’t be more starkly illustrated than by Cennydd Bowles and I and our recent, respective letters to junior designers.

Pragmatists will no doubt say that both approaches are essential to success and that research and testing driven processes validate and therefore improve a creative idea. They’re right of course, each role should play an appropriate part. I worry though, that as an industry we’ve become so heavily focussed on conversations about data-led design and subsequent implementation issues, that we’ve stopped talking about the aspects of design that give our work soul.

I feel a tremendous sense of melancholy when I think about our industry and my feelings can be summed up by an exchange between Lloyd, an excited computer engineer, extolling the virtues of his machine and Mad Men’s Don Draper. When Lloyd says:

“The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a lifetime.”

Don asks:

“But what man laid on his back counting stars ever thought about a number?”

Please, before we’re consumed by counting stars on the web, let’s remember that we wouldn’t care how many stars there are if they weren’t beautiful to look at.


I’m fully booked until January 2021.

Talk soon

For work enquiries email

Or call us on +44 (0)1745 851848


Stuff & Nonsense Ltd.
Eversleigh, Lon Capel,
Flintshire, North Wales,
LL18 6EJ, UK