Review: A Big Life (in advertising)

A Big Life (in advertising), Mary Wells Lawrence. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Summary: A memoir of the first woman to head up a Madison Avenue advertising firm, producing some of the most memorable advertising campaigns of the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

From childhood on, she loved drama and story and envisioned her own life as one. At the end of this memoir she writes:

“I believe that whether you are a woman or a man you are supposed to stretch everything that you are, you are supposed to love with all your might, you are supposed to have a big life, so that when all is said and done you can say to yourself, with feeling, ‘I loved my life so much.’ “

Mary Wells Lawrence, p. 290.

This memoir tells the story of how she rose from a copywriter for advertising in the bargain basement of McKelvey’s department store in Youngstown, Ohio to become the first woman to lead a Madison Avenue advertising firm, and eventually the highest paid CEO in the business. Within a couple years of McKelvey’s, she was the fashion advertising manager at Macy’s. During this time she divorced and remarried her first husband, Bert Wells, only to divorce him again in 1965. What was apparent in the memoir is that he did not want the big life Mary did.

She moved over to working with advertising agencies, eventually going to Doyle Dane Bernbach, a major formative influence in her career. After a brief stint with Jack Tinker, during which she developed a campaign for Braniff Airlines featuring brightly pastel painted planes (“the end of the plain plane”), she left to form her own agency. Tinker reneged on a promotion he’d promised, and with two people on her team, Richard Rich and Stewart Greene she formed Wells Rich Greene.

The memoir tells the behind the scenes stories of ad campaigns from Benson & Hedges “cigarette breaks,” American Motors Javelin vs. Mustang comparisons, Alka Seltzer’s “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” and the “I love New York” campaign. Her agency taught us to “trust the Midas touch,” that at Ford “Quality is Job One,” and to “Flick your Bic.” She describes the lengths she went to to understand the interests of the mostly male clients she dealt with. She kept marginal products like Gleem toothpaste and Pringles alive for P & G.

Harding Lawrence, the CEO of Braniff was really the husband she should have married all along. He understood her world because he lived in one like it. One senses in reading the memoir that while she was a genius at understanding the needs of clients and creating television ads that told a story that engaged consumers, while he understood the ins and outs of business and organizational life. They made a great team.

Lawrence recounts numerous stretches of night and day creative efforts to meet deadlines and create these iconic ads. She describes the lengths she went to to understand the interests of the mostly male clients she dealt with, how difficult clients could be, and the day she resigned the lucrative account her firm had with TWA. As we read on, we sense the increasing exhaustion over years of chasing, catering to, and having clients drop her. Then came two cancer surgeries and the realization of neglected dimensions, including the spiritual in her life. In 1990, she sold her interest as the agency merged with a French firm BDDP. Sadly, by 1998, the combined agency was out of business. She accepts it philosophically with a sense that creative endeavors have their season.

One thing about the organization of the book is that it begins with her time in New York and the early efforts to build the agency. Then it reverts to her childhood in Poland, Ohio, her introduction to drama at the Youngstown Playhouse, and her initial entry into the advertising world working for Vera Friedman at McKelvey’s, learning to tell stories about clothing with a few words for the working people who purchased in the bargain basement. Then she returns to Wells Rich Green and the challenges of leading the big agency she built.

This is a fast-paced read, as fast-paced as one can imagine her life (she is still living at this writing). It does leave me wondering what the idea of a big life has come to mean in the intervening years. On May 25, Mary Wells Lawrence will be 92 years old. She has lived both a big and long life. Not bad for a woman who grew up in Poland, Ohio.

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, a website for women, refocused as, 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!