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.