Something About Mary

The 18 months Mary Wells Lawrence spent writing A Big Life in Advertising was a bittersweet period for the founder of one of advertising’s greatest creative shops. There was much to reflect upon in a life of glorious self-invention, a journey that took her from a Depression-era childhood in Youngstown, Ohio, to the chief executive’s role at Wells Rich Greene, the first New York Stock Exchange company run by a woman. Along the way she held her own in close working relationships with powerful clients, while creating a sumptuous life in homes in Acapulco, Cap-Ferrat in the south of France and Mustique.

Now 73, Wells Lawrence sifted through those Big Life memories in a room next to her longtime partner during those golden times, husband Harding Law rence, who was struggling with terminal pancreatic cancer. He lost that battle in January, and Wells Lawrence, drawing on her husband’s encouragement to move on without him, is resolute about forging a new chapter in a life with all the rich turns of a jet-setting novel.

Wells Lawrence set up her agency in 1967, attracting clients such as TWA, Alka-Seltzer, Benson & Hedges, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble and American Motors. She had already grabbed attention, while still at Jack Tinker & Partners, with her audacious marketing ideas for Braniff airlines: She asked Emilio Pucci to redesign the stewardesses’ outfits and had the fleet painted in high-octane colors. Known for her stylish flair, she tapped society decorators like Billy Baldwin to tailor her agency offices, and she developed close friendships with personalities like Hubert de Given chy. By 1968, at age 40, she became the youngest person inducted into the Copywriter’s Hall of Fame, and by 1969 she was earning $225,000 a year—more than David Ogilvy, who was running a worldwide network—making Wells Lawrence one of the best-known, highest-paid women in business. She took WRG public in 1968 and then private again within a decade after she became uncomfortable with the scrutiny and financial pressures accompanying public ownership. Paris-based BDDP Group acquired the agency in 1991.

She sat down with Adweek during a recent trip to Manhattan. Seated in the Christian Dior suite at the St. Regis Hotel, with its carved crown moldings, crystal chandeliers and spring bouquets, Wells Law rence conjured up a more glamorous era in advertising.

Adweek: Why did you write the book?

Wells Lawrence: I felt incredibly frustrated that in the last two or three years of Wells Rich Greene and its collapse, the names mentioned in the press were all names of strangers. It would have left you with the idea that it was an agency run by people who didn’t know what they were doing there and had no connection with its culture, history or why it was successful. The real WRG was an agency built by people who were immensely talented and madly in love with it and with me—and me with them. It’s as though they had become ghosts. I didn’t want the memory of the real WRG being replaced by the disinterested, intellectual, financial dissolution that its end represented.

All the clients said it as well, like at Procter & Gamble when they said, “Who are these [new WRG] people?” because they never saw them, they never talked to them. Those [new agency owners and managers] never made the effort to come down and really crawl into clients’ business, their hearts and in their life. It is absolutely beyond my comprehension, even today, how anybody could be in the advertising business and have acted in the way that everybody acted in those last three or four years.

Adweek: Did the executives at BDDP ever seek your advice when they ran into problems?

Wells Lawrence: They never called me. They never spent time at the agency in New York. I think it was just the wrong marriage. First of all, I know the French; I’ve lived there. And I loved the French, and I loved [BDDP]. I think [BDDP partner] Jean-Marie [Dru] has great talent and is marvelous. But I forgot they were French. That’s an odd thing to say, but in all the meetings we had, I set aside what we knew about the French and saw them as advertising people. I didn’t allow that kind of ironic, cool thing in the back of the head to come forward to say they are not English, they are French. If I had allowed that to happen, I would have been much more careful.

Adweek: What did you think of BDDP’s search for a new identity for WRG, aligning the agency with proprietary marketing strategies like “Disruption”?

Wells Lawrence: Part of that reflected the fact that right from the start, the merger didn’t work. The approach BDDP had from the beginning, when they actually started to work and were not just being charming to one another and intellectual, was so different from the approach that had always been WRG.

WRG was about genuinely working 24 hours because you were geniuses; you were a second Hollywood. Hollywood is not a 9-to-5 business; WRG was not a 9-to-5 business. It was a 24-hour business, and we were thrilled it was. We were each other’s friends. My clients were my friends at the time. I didn’t have time for other friends. Our whole lives were encapsulated in the drama of advertising. The French didn’t get that at all, so right from the start there was this inability to communicate.

Adweek: GGT, the U.K. company that ultimately took over BDDP, is reduced to a one-line mention in your book.

Wells Lawrence: It was too late. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t as though it was Maurice Saatchi or Frank Lowe. Many years before, I had been interested in acquiring Lowe’s agency. If we had done a deal with somebody with his particular mentality, it wouldn’t have been a problem. It would have been a blast, because he is willing to come over on the Concorde every day. He would be here, and he would have understood. Ken [Olshan, then-chief of WRG] and Charlie [Moss, its chief creative officer] wouldn’t have known what hit them. The three of them would have become this force. BDDP was an unfortunate choice, because we just bought their act and it wasn’t right.

Adweek: Could you have done a better job institutionalizing WRG’s culture beyond your day-to-day involvement?

Wells Lawrence: Everybody makes lots of mistakes—and, sure, I made lots of mistakes—but I think my biggest one was that I thought we [at WRG] would be together forever because we were having so much fun. I was recoiling from the whole issue of size being better—which I didn’t believe—and the whole globalization concept—which I didn’t believe. But the minute I saw what was happening, I should have immediately started to nurture a close-knit managerial style among the top five or six people at the agency, and I didn’t do that. [BDDP] happened to us much earlier than when I thought I would leave the agency. But it just seemed too perfect. I didn’t want to stand in the way, even though we weren’t ready because I had not nurtured that managerial style. I had started that and I was trying, I was pulling back. But it wasn’t an issue of pulling back; it was an issue of actually pulling together a group that would work as well without me as with me.

Adweek: You started out, in college, as a drama student, and it’s clear from your book that a love of theatricality influenced your approach to advertising. Can you explain?

Wells Lawrence: One of the things that intrigued us most about what we could bring to a new agency would be to bring theater to television advertising. Charlie and I wanted to take an advertising idea and wrap it into little movies, so that the person watching the commercial lived it. We thought that the dimension of printed advertising, with just mood, was a dispassionate role for the consumer. You sell more effectively if you can bring a person into the reality through experiencing the idea you are trying to communicate, not just hearing it or watching it. They live it. They walk away with the memory of the way they felt.

A lot of advertising seems theatrical on the surface, but doesn’t really do that. It’s entertaining, but it’s what I call cheap advertising. It may be brilliant, it may be stunning, and you may love to watch it. But it doesn’t have a purpose. Somewhere deep in your psyche, there is some kind of feeling that you should try [the product], and that’s what theatrical advertising is supposed to do. It takes you in and makes you experience the product—it’s not just presentational.

Adweek: You believe that success is as much a matter of luck and timing as it is talent and intelligence. How important were luck and timing in WRG’s success, given your recognition of powerful cultural changes in the ’70s?

Wells Lawrence: There was no luck involved in what we wanted the agency to be. We certainly knew that. There was no luck involved in those of us who got together to do it, or in our determination and our talents, because we chose each other for those reasons.

The luck involved was when [Braniff chief and future husband] Harding [Lawrence] came along. If you were to ask, “Out of all of the campaigns that you did, which was the most satisfying?” Charlie and I would tell you it would be Braniff because we had a chance to do it all. Harding had nobody at the time; he hadn’t yet hired people. It had been this little bitty airline, and suddenly it was this big airline flying all over the world. We had the opportunity to influence every part of that airline.

The timing of my being a woman was right, because women at that time were talking a lot but they weren’t doing much. They hadn’t had the opportunity. There was a lot of talk and a lot of speeches and a lot of books, but there weren’t a whole lot of women running large companies or building them from scratch. But the world was ready, and the advertising business was ready for somebody to do that. Advertising is a business where women buy a tremendous number of the products. Men were reasonable enough at the time to presume the women who were buying all of this stuff might know enough [to run their own agencies], so they were open-minded. There had been so much talk about women’s lib that many of them were at least willing to let me come in, present WRG, and they’d deal with me and see how that went. So we were the first ones in the door.

Adweek: In the past, you’ve been criticized for not using your high profile in business to become a more vocal proponent of women’s rights. What’s your response?

Wells Lawrence: In any war, there are all kinds of soldiers. There are soldiers who get out and march; there are soldiers who do a lot of organization and substructures. Others could talk about [women’s rights]; people could go on television and make speeches and burn their bras, but I was supposed to go out and do it. I think you have to have as many of those people as you have others [preaching] the philosophy. I never felt I was an active part of the women’s movement. I just felt that I was one of the soldiers who were doing it.

Adweek: What began the disillusionment that led to your departure from advertising? Did you want to spend more time with your family? As a cancer survivor, did confronting your own mortality change the priorities in your life?

Wells Lawrence: It had nothing to do with children. My personal life went like a breeze. I was very lucky in that my children, my daughters, are amazing. That’s proof that motherhood doesn’t necessarily have to be a hands-on situation. The three of us lived together astonishingly well all of our lives. We just had a real beautiful, rich family relationship. The same was true with my husband. The family was never a problem.

What happened is that [my feelings about advertising changed] at about the time people were going around and talking about becoming international. We had gotten quite big, and trying to assimilate the idea of getting bigger into all of what I was doing at that moment—which was executive work as opposed to creative work—was difficult. I wasn’t having fun. I was trying very hard to face up to finding my own way to take WRG into a much stronger international position. I didn’t believe in bigness, and I still don’t—I don’t believe the benefits for the ultimate buyer are better.

I had to motivate myself by some artificial means to become enthusiastic, and I found that very tiring. I had had the cancer, and I was a bit tired, because I was traveling all the time. I was spending more time trying to build this company, and that was all I would continue to do. I’d just be this executive, [while others] came up with the ideas and sat with the client and made the major difference.

Adweek: Were you disillusioned after getting fired by American Motors in 1972? WRG, after all, had helped revive the ailing car maker—only to be told it would be replaced by a larger, more traditional agency.

Wells Lawrence: No, because that occurred way early. It was a thrilling relationship. [American Motors chairman] Roy Chapin and I really understood each other, and we were a high-wire act. We had to hang on to the dealers. We had to hang on to the [company] executives; we had to hang on to more of the buyers. Everybody was leaving. We had to come up with [advertising] magic until we could get new cars out there. We understood each other so well and were on the same wavelength, so when they came in to fire us, he was very upset about it. The people around him who wanted to take over had put the pressure on him pretty hard. They didn’t want Mary Wells and WRG telling them what to do anymore. They had our genius, but they wanted to take back control. [Chapin] gave in. And I considered that total betrayal. We were a high-wire act, and my partner let me fall.

Adweek: In the book, you talk about your fondness for Maurice Saatchi, whom you’re still in touch with socially. Any regrets you never teamed up with him?

Wells Lawrence: Maurice is about as smart as they come. He’s an actor, and he can go in and out of periods genuinely believing and saying a lot of stuff at the moment, things that seem to be a hot button and a hot thing to say. But he is a profoundly intelligent, imaginative, inventive man. We were talking at one time when Martin Sorrell was still at Saatchi [as finance director]. WRG’s potential at that time was terrific, because the Saatchis were perfectly willing to let me lead. They said that WRG’s American passion, focus, drive and determination to create miracles combined with the strength they had—because they had such enormous strength—would have been amazing. But that was a fleeting moment that didn’t work for a lot of compli cated financial reasons.

Maurice and I both know we came very close to the edge of something wonderful, and that hangs over us at all times. It’s as if you met some man you almost married. The rest of your life you know you should have done so. I think Sorrell is really smart, and I like him a lot. But, at that time, he was probably the least interested. He probably sensed he wanted to do something himself, so he didn’t respond to the idea we were going to have this married power, because I think he wanted to have more power. Maurice, on the other hand, has the ability to swing [with change] and still have plenty of power without worrying about that.

Adweek: Your book talks about your recent quest for spiritual enlightenment and your growing interest in India. Can you elaborate?

Wells Lawrence: I have to be careful when I talk about this, because people will think I’m funny or nuts, but I know I am not a schizophrenic, and I know I am not a nut—I’ve done too many successful things to be a schizo. I don’t have what you call “peak” experiences, but I’ve become much more psychic, and I do have extraordinarily vivid dreams from time to time. They are visions, and they are always extremely helpful. They are very important to me.

They’ve left me with the feeling that I’m on some energy, some vibrancy level. I use the word “universe,” which I don’t have a substitute word for, but I feel as though I am in contact and in touch with something that is in touch with all of us. It’s very loving, very funny, very aware and so intelligent beyond my simple comprehension that it’s absolutely wonderful. I feel profoundly safe. I don’t mean every day is going to go well, and I am not saying that things are not going to happen. I have profound faith, and I couldn’t tell you any more.

Adweek: Was it difficult to share such personal details in the book, particularly your experiences with cancer?

Wells Lawrence: One of the things I talk about is the psychic reaction to the stress of having lived through things like cancer. I am convinced that it was intended to be—that there is something in my mind, in my psyche, in my development that had to have those things happen. They had to happen, if only to level me out, because those experiences taught me to think—almost totally—intuitively. Because of that, I found I was right more often and on my feet more often. I was fearless. So it had a profound impact on me and balanced me out. I felt I should talk about it because I know a lot of people who are terrified to mention these things. I feel so lucky that it happened, and it made all the difference in my life.

Adweek: Any plans for more books?

Wells Lawrence: I have all the research pulled together for one, and I will very soon pull it out. It’s a novel, but also informational. I won’t say anything more about it. Researching [A Big Life in Advertising] was huge. To put it together, we got about 30 people from WRG. We all sat around, and everybody told their stories. We laughed and cried, and it was very therapeutic. It reminded me of how, at times, I wanted to kill them all. It reminded me of the times when I was so frustrated. But it also reminded me of the love, the joy and how in awe I was of the place. And how together we all were and how wonderful that was. So now I am doing a completely different kind of book, but the research is a very important part to get you into the emotions of it, not just the facts.

Adweek: You’ve sold your homes in France and New York. How do you now see your life going forward?

Wells Lawrence: I have an apartment in London, which I am going to finish remodeling. We were supposed to move in last October—if I get in by June, I’ll feel fortunate. It’s a very pretty apartment, which Harding found and I am crazy about. It’s in Belgravia. We would have a London city life, and then we would go off to travel in India and Pakistan. We would find new passions in new areas, not to just observe but to learn from. I’ll keep Mustique. It’s safe, beautiful and filled with all the children and grandchildren. Then, I am going to have adventures.