THE QUEEN OF MADISON AVENUE
Byline: James Reginato
Mustique — “I was working at McCann Erickson for the money, for little black dance dresses that showed off my Norwegian legs, for my baby daughters’ smocked dresses from Saks and for an apartment larger than I could afford,” writes Mary Wells Lawrence in the breezy opening of her memoir, “A Big Life (In Advertising).” “But then I met Bill Bernbach, and he made a serious woman out of me.”
Published by Knopf, “A Big Life,” which hits bookstores in May, is arguably the first great personal history of the ad world’s golden years, from the Fifties through the Eighties. Of course, those decades were dynamic in no small part because of Lawrence. As president of Wells Rich Greene, the agency she founded in 1966, she revolutionized Madison Avenue.
And, while it offers a fascinating inside look at her agency and the blue-chip corporations it served, it also tells the author’s own, riveting story: how an only child from a modest family in Poland, Ohio, shattered every glass ceiling (first female president of an agency, first female ceo with a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, etc.) and became a Madison Avenue legend.
Lawrence, 73, retired from WRG in 1990 at the peak of her powers. Along with her second husband, Harding Lawrence, the former ceo of Braniff Airlines who died in January, she began to divide her time between palatial homes on the remote Caribbean island Mustique and in Cap Ferrat. At the time, WRG was the country’s 15th-largest agency, billing $885 million annually. But in order for it to continue growing, Lawrence knew that WRG had to merge with one of the conglomerates, which were taking over the field, and she engineered what she thought was a perfect marriage, to a French group, BDDP, which paid $160 million for the company. She then resigned, and what happened next is a textbook example of the dangers of globalization. The French were absentee bosses, hundreds of millions in billings spiraled out the door and, in 1996, BDDP was bought by the English company GGT, which was soon swallowed by Omnicom. In 1998, WRG closed its doors.
Sitting in the morning room of her 20,000-square-foot palace, The Terraces, in Mustique, Lawrence admits that she was heartbroken. “The people there were so talented, and in the end, the glory of WRG was so decimated. For the people left, some aspect of themselves was diminished,” she says. “So I thought, ‘This is the perfect time to bring back the wonder of WRG.’ “
Lawrence also thought it would be fun to write “a book that really tells you what it’s like to be in an agency,” she explains. “A Big Life” manages to portray the changing cultures of Madison Avenue and corporate America, where in the Fifties, few executives were not male WASPs. For most ambitious people in advertising at the time, Doyle Dane Bernbach, run by Bill Bernbach, was the place to be, and naturally, the young Mary Wells was going to get there. After attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she moved to New York along with her first husband, Bert Wells, an industrial designer, and rapidly worked her way up the ranks as a copywriter in the department-store world, jumping from Bamberger’s to Macy’s. Next, it was on to Madison Avenue, which is where she begins her book.
After getting her foot in the door at DDB, Lawrence studied at the feet of Bernbach, the master. “Bill had tremendous faith in himself, and you need that if you’re going to revolutionize something,” says Lawrence.
She quickly proved herself with spectacular TV spots for such products as Betty Crocker casserole dinners. Then, riding high after only five years at the firm, she did the inconceivable: She left DDB. Marion Harper, who was beginning to build the world’s first advertising agency conglomerate, had offered her a job at his Jack Tinker & Partners, where he promised her the moon: complete creative freedom and the chance to be the boss.
With Lawrence on board, the agency set Madison Avenue on its ear. She made Alka-Seltzer chic, she saved Nelson Rockefeller’s career with her commercials for his first postdivorce election campaign for New York governor, and then she transformed the aviation industry. A fledgling regional airline, Braniff, had come to her, hoping for a miracle. In search of an idea, Lawrence walked literally miles of airline terminals and became seriously depressed. “Everything was just so ugly,” she remembers. The stewardesses dressed like either nurses or pilots (to give the reassuring illusion that they could fly the plane if the pilot had a heart attack, Lawrence believes).
Thinking about the sunny places Braniff would be flying to, Lawrence had her epiphany. “I saw Braniff in a wash of beautiful color,” she writes. One of the great marketing success stories, she hired some of the world’s great designers to revamp the airline’s terminals, lounges and planes, the exteriors of which were painted in one of seven brilliant hues. For the hostesses, as they were now called, she got Emilio Pucci to design a chic wardrobe, the pieces of which were shed in flight in what came to be known as “the air strip.”
So, when Harper called to tell her he was coming by to talk to her about something important, she thought he was finally going to make good on his promise to make her the agency’s president. Instead, he offered to give her all the authority of the office — and a 10-year, $1 million contract — but not the title. “It’s not my fault, Mary; the world is not ready for women presidents,” he pleaded as he saw the blazing fury in her eyes.
Nearly 40 years later, sitting in her West Indies palace, Lawrence easily conjures the rage she felt then. “I could have killed him,” she snaps. “He thought he was giving me the world on a platter and was sure that when he offered me that staggering sum of money I would fall down on my knees.
Lawrence, 37 at the time, stormed out to ponder her situation. She could think of only one person to talk to: Harding Lawrence, who had hired her for the Braniff account and with whom she had been sensing a bond. “He said, ‘If you want it that much, open up your own agency, and be the president and the chairman. What’s wrong with you?”‘ she recalls.
Chemical Bank lent her operating money, but it was one plum account that got the company going: Braniff, which Harding pulled away from Tinker. WRG opened its doors in April 1966, occupying eight rooms of the Gotham Hotel. Lawrence’s mother answered the telephones. Clients began banging on the door immediately, and five years later, the agency was billing $100 million, an unprecedented rate of growth, having landed such clients as Philip Morris’ Benson & Hedges account and American Motors.
Lawrence enjoyed nothing more than turning around a struggling brand, but even she was hesitant to take on bankrupt New York City. “I was never comfortable when clients were poor, and New York was broke,” she writes. But at the request of Gov. Hugh Carey, she and her team at WRG came up with the immortal “I (TM) NY” campaign. Lawrence is bemused by the numerous people who have subsequently claimed authorship, including Bobby Zarem, whom she hired to publicize the campaign. “For reasons none of us can fathom, he is another one who claims to have created the line,” she writes. “I don’t know what to say to such poor souls except, ‘Get a life.’ “
Lawrence’s unwillingness to play by the rules made colleagues suspicious. She was known in male-dominated Madison Avenue circles as the “Queen of the Black Widow Spiders.” But she wasn’t so popular among some leaders of the budding feminist movement, either. Lawrence was stunned one evening to hear Gloria Steinem dismiss her success on the news: “Oh well, Mary Wells Lawrence Uncle Tommed it to the top.”
Lawrence still managed to develop intimate yet platonic friendships with many of America’s leading executives. She allows that her 1967 marriage to Harding, a well-respected member of the corporate world, helped her earn the trust of the nation’s business leaders.
“I think one of the reasons that these top men trusted me is that there weren’t any flirtations, and, in some way, because I was a woman,” she adds. “They didn’t think for a second I was a threat to their positions. Most of these men felt tremendous competition from everyone around them. But they often told me things they would never tell anyone else.”
In any endeavor, however, here is Lawrence’s cardinal rule: Focus. “Bring everything you have to spare to what you really want to accomplish, and cut out everything else,” she says. “You don’t have to be a genius. People can do almost anything they want to do, and they don’t realize that. A lot of people don’t know how talented they are, because they don’t try.”
Lawrence is not so keen on the state of advertising today — at least the creative side, which she feels is demoralized by the ascendency of the business side, due to the increasingly vast size of the globalized agencies and the corporations they serve.
“When I started out, I always dealt directly with the ceo’s and the people at the very top of a company,” she says. “Then they started relieving themselves and turning over authority to midlevel people. Those people tend to play very safe. They want to make it to the top, so they’re not going to make mistakes, and thus they’re not going to be very daring.”
“If there is anything I could say to young people, it is, ‘Don’t settle,’ because you live a long life now,” she concludes. “So why not keep trying, why not keep stretching, why not keep learning? Why not have a big life?”