A Big Life (in Advertising)
Mary Wells Lawrence
Fall, it seems, exists so I can renew myself. I know, the light is dying, the sky is more likely to be gray than blue and the nip in the air will soon turn to unwelcome arctic blasts. Why that seems to turn me back to the literature of my trade will have to remain a mystery.
Enough about me, let’s talk about Mary.
Mary is Mary Wells Lawrence, the Wells in Wells Rich Greene. If you’re not a student of advertising history, WRG was one of the hot creative shops that emerged during the 1960s. Its point of difference (we live for a point of difference in advertising and marketing) was that it was led by a woman.
Shocking, as Captain Renault might say. And yet it was.
Back in the 1950s and 60s advertising, like other businesses, was a man’s game. Mad Men got it mostly correct, at least as I understand the history and the plot, with the whole Peggy Olson character wending her way from secretary to copywriter.
WRG went into business in 1965. It was a little more than ten years since Shirley Polykoff had startled the entire business by giving Clairol it’s signature tag line (and a 50% market share): “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Women, it seems, could create effective advertising, at least for other women.
By the time Polykoff struck gold Mary Wells was already working as a copywriter. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Wells cut her teeth on retail advertising, learning the trade first at a local department store, after dropping out of Carnegie Tech, and then at Bamberger’s in Newark, NJ and Macy’s in New York. There are any number of ways into the business and on a retail account you’ll learn how to endure a pace that can kill lesser mortals and how a few choice words can clinch a sale.
Mary, though, had a bug. She was, you see, a theatre type, having studied with Lee Strasberg and gone to Carnegie for the drama program. She was smitten with the then novel medium of television and when the chance came to work on an account with a TV budget she jumped to McCann Erickson then, as now, one of the bigger shops on the street, set up to service large accounts on a national and even global basis. That’s where she met Jack Tinker and came to the attention of Marion Harper.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because first Mary met Bill. That would be Bill Bernbach the man at the center of advertising’s creative revolution. “In the fifties in New York, if you talked about “Bill” you meant Bill Bernbach” Wells tells us on page one. Wells leapt at the chance to move from big, staid McCann to hot, edgy Doyle Dane Bernbach.
It was at DDB, where she worked on the television and women’s accounts, that Mary cemented her love affair with television. There’s no way around the fact that television advertising changed the economics of the advertising business.
It also changed perceptions within the business. DDB’s most famous work remains print. By contrast, WRG was a television shop. As with many things, you have to be multi-faceted while having one particular strength. WRG’s was TV spots.
Most creatives (the term of art for copywriters and art directors) would kill to work at DDB. Mary, though, had ambition and so she was wooable. Marion Harper (him again), who was busy building the Interpublic Group using McCann Erikson as a base, personally recruited Mary to help turn an experimental boutique–Jack Tinker & Partners–into a hot shop. Jack would remain in place and work with Mary, his former employee. Advertising can be Darwinian that way.
You’ll notice, though, the studied ambiguity in the paragraph above. Mary believed that, if succesful, she would run the agency. Jack must not have believed that and Marion may not have meant it and when the time came she was offered beaucoup bucks without the title or authority. The business, it seems, was not ready for an agency run by a woman.
Yes, sexism. And not the kind you need a statistical analysis to ferret out. It was a simple statement: she wasn’t getting the job because she was a woman. So she did what many a man has done, she went and started her own business.
Though such silliness never stopped–Rich and Greene were only around long enough to be partners at the launch and more than one senior male executive quit because he couldn’t work for a woman–Mary Wells built a half-billion dollar agency and sold it at almost the height of the market. There’s plenty of men, mad, ad or otherwise, who have done less.
Now, there are demurrers. WRG launched, as many an agency has, with an account in its pocket. And not just any account, an airline–the now long-defunct Braniff International Airways. Airlines spend lots of money. They want to be your first choice so they advertise their brand. But they want to fill seats so they run a lot of promotions. It’s good bread-and-butter-cash flow generating work.
Then, very quickly, true love intervened and Mary Wells became Mary Wells Lawrence, the spouse of Harding Lawrence, President of the airline and her former client as EVP of Continental Airlines. Most men running agencies–then and now–didn’t and won’t find a similarly fortuitous set of circumstances. “I seen my opportunities and I took them” is an old bit of Irish political wisdom but that didn’t stop Gloria Steinem from claiming Mary “Uncle Tommed her way to the top.”
That’s the outline of the story. The focus–actually much of the book –is on the advertising itself. Here’s what I needed to be reminded of at this point in time: Advertising is the last great, craft-based business. There’s no way to learn it other than to do it.
Other things go along with that. For example, people. At its height, WRG was a big shop with hundreds of employees in the New York office alone. In the heroic tales of creative development told by Mary, the same names appear again and again. That’s as it should be; a craft is not an industrial process, it can only be scaled so far.
The other is commitment. The late nights, shortened vacations and cold pizza aren’t props. It’s a cliché rooted in truth–your work is going to be seen and so you make extraordinary efforts to ensure it’s the best it can be. The best part of this book was all those late nights with Mary in the studio or on the creative floors. That doesn’t happen in most businesses and explains a lot.
Eventually, after some bouts with illness and an awareness of how the business had changed, Mary Wells sold WRG to a French shop, BDDP. Here, after acknowledging the cult of Mary, is what she said about her decision to not take an active role in the new entity, ” …I could take Wells Rich Greene to the summit if need be but, unfortunately, my heart was in palpable advertising creation, the immediacy of it, the theatre in it, and I was lapidarian about every two-bit ad that came out of Wells Rich Greene…let the people who love to globalize, globalize…”
Wells Rich Greene closed its doors in 1998.