Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mary Wells Lawrence

By Wells Rich Greene – From my own personal collection called Braniff Flying Colors Collection., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“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. 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!

6 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mary Wells Lawrence

  1. Since we are celebrating Women’s History Month here, we should also note that Vera Friedman, who was head of advertising at McKelvey’s at the time is an amazing Youngstown woman herself. She not only hired Mary Wells Lawrence (known back then as “Bunny”) at McKelvey’s, but also was an outstanding actress at The Youngstown Playhouse, winning many awards for her performances. Vera was my client when I worked at (then 1970) Thomas Farragher and Associates ad agency on Belmont Avenue. Mary Wells Lawrence also owned Gardner Advertising is St. Louis, and I worked there for 8-1/2 years after leaving Youngstown. Best job ever. Both Mary and Vera deserve to be in the “Youngstown Women Hall of Fame,” Too bad there isn’t one.

    • Sallie, I would love to write about Vera. I can find little besides that she worked at McKelvey’s, was associated with the Playhouse, and was an early mentor of Mary Wells Lawrence. Would love to fill that out but cannot find info online. She died after the Google News Archives ended and before the old Vindy went online so I cannot readily find an obituary. Any thoughts?

      • Hi Bob,
        Yes, I can help you. I was close friends with Vera from 1970 (and knew her before that) until she died. Did you know she was married to Fred Friedman, City Editor of The Vindicator? Also, Mary Wells Lawrence acknowledged Vera’s contribution to her career in Mary’s book, “My BIG Life.” Another person who can help is former Youngstowner Ernie Pysher, who is an educator in NYC now. He played opposite her in Edward Albee’s “An American Dream” at The Playhouse. Here’s my phone number: ***-***-7310. Also, I will be in Columbus in June and also going to Youngstown on that trip. Perhaps we can grab coffee of something. Whatever works for you. Also, I assume you know that Elizabeth “Biff” Hartman, who was nominated for an Academy Award for “A Patch of Blue” with Sidney Poitier, was also from Youngstown and got her start at The Playhouse. Add to her, Maureen McGovern, from Boardman, who had an impressive musical career, singing “The Morning After” in The Poseidon Adventure, as well as other film and TV credits. And these are just a few women I knew. Happy to help.
        Best,
        Sallie

      • Sallie,

        I blanked out part of your number since this is on the internet. Could you re-send it to me at bob@bobonbooks.com? Would there be a time the week after next we might talk? And definitely let me know when you will be in town. Bob

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