“Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz,”
“Quality is Job One”
“I Love New York.”
Many of us will readily recognize those ad campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Ford, and New York City. What we may not know is that the woman who was responsible for some of the most successful ads in advertising history grew up in Youngstown. She was the woman behind the end of plain planes in her Braniff airlines campaign that included the “Braniff Strip” Superbowl ads. Her team recommended painting the planes in colorful pastels. She was the first woman CEO of a major advertising agency traded on the Big Board of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2020. she was awarded the Cannes Lion Lifetime Achievement, the Lion of St. Mark–the pinnacle of advertising awards. All from a beginning in Youngstown.
This is Women’s History Month, and so it seemed fitting to recognize a famous woman from Youngstown. Mary Wells Lawrence was born Mary Georgene Berg on May 25, 1928. She grew up in Poland. Her father was a furniture maker. From an early age, her mother enrolled her in elocution, music, dance, and drama lessons leading to a lifelong love of theatre, a key element in her advertising work. After a year in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York at 17, she went on to Carnegie Institute of Technology to study merchandising. There, she met her first husband, Burt Wells, an industrial design student. They married and moved to Youngstown, Mary taking a job as a copywriter, the text part of advertising, for McKelvey’s.
A year later, she was the fashion advertising manager for Macy’s in New York. That year, she divorced Burt, who she remarried in 1954. In 1953, she joined an established firm, McCann-Erickson as copywriter and head of the copy group. In 1957, she moved to a more innovative firm, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach as a Vice President after a brief stint with Lennan and Newell. The late 50’s represented a period of prosperity and the explosion of television as a media, and her career took off with it. Then in 1964 Jack Tinker, who she had worked with at McCann-Erickson formed a new firm with Richard Rich and Stuart Greene, and recruited Mary. Their first client was Alka-Seltzer, and Mary and her team came up with the “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In” campaign, which was hugely successful.
The mid-60’s represented a time of major change in her life. She and Burt were divorced for a second time in 1965. Her firm landed the Braniff account mentioned earlier and she landed Harding Lawrence, Braniff’s CEO as her second husband, marrying him in 1967. They were married until his death in 2002. Jack Tinker and Partners made a major blunder in offering her the job of president with a significant pay increase, but without the title, believing having a woman would undermine confidence in the firm. She left to start her own agency, along with Rich and Greene, forming Wells Rich Greene with her as CEO. After she married Lawrence, they had to shed the Braniff account, but there other accounts included TWA, Benson & Hedges, Proctor and Gamble, Bic (“Flick your Bic), Miles Laboratories, Purina, and Midas (“Trust the Midas Touch”). By 1969, she was the highest paid advertising executive. In 1976, the firm had billings of $187 million.
She retired in 1990, selling the firm to a French firm, BDDP. Sadly, that firm ceased operations in 1998. They lacked Mary’s genius. In 2008, she joined Joni Evans, Lesley Stahl, Liz Smith, and Peggy Noonan in forming wowowow.com, a website for women, refocused as purewow.com, aimed at younger women in 2010. In 2020, Mansion Global reported the listing of her Park Avenue mansion for $27.95 million. She is living at the time of this writing. All in all, not bad for a woman who got her start in Youngstown.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!