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Lifetime Achievement: Mary Wells

Legendary for her risk-taking and originality, Mary Wells became an ad industry inspiration
  • May 20 2011

No fictional book, movie, or even critically acclaimed cable TV show on the advertising business could create a character who broke ground quite like the real-life Mary Wells. Wells was the first woman CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and was once the highest-paid executive in the industry. She brought an image of substance and flash to the business, motivating a generation of young men and women to go into advertising and say, “I want to be like Mary.”

She’s being presented with AEF’s lifetime achievement award for forging a career that transformed the industry— as well as planes, deodorant, cars, mufflers, and antacid tablets—along the way. “Plop plop, fizz, fizz,” “I love New York,” “Quality is job one,” are just a few of the phrases penned for her campaigns that immediately evoke images and emotions to anyone who hears them, and have long been embedded in American culture.

“For women in the industry, she has been an inspiration to us,” says Paula Alex, CEO of the AEF. “She took the right chances. She wanted to be different in the
work that she created, and she did that.”

After studying at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Wells began her advertising career in the early 1950s as a copywriter working in the basement of McKelvey’s Department Store in her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. She then moved to New York City, where she took a job in the advertising department at Macy’s. In 1957, she joined Doyle Dane Bernbach, where she created her first iconic advertising image for the French Tourist Office. It was a photo of a gray-haired main and a young child on a bicycle, riding down an ancient country road. The caption read: “Think you’ve seen France? Think again.”

In the mid-1960s, Wells moved to Jack Tinker & Partners, where her creative talents generated the phrase, “Plop plop, fizz fizz” for Alka-Seltzer, and ended the “plain plane” for Braniff Airways. She convinced the company to splash its planes with bright colors and outfit flight attendants with uniforms by Italian designer Emilio Pucci that allowed the women to remove layers as the flight went on, which was called “The Air Strip” in one commercial. “I saw the opportunity in color the way Flo Ziegfeld must have seen an empty stage,” Wells said in her 2002 autobiography, A Big Life in Advertising, describing her vision for the Braniff campaign. “I saw Braniff in a wash of beautiful color.”

By 1967 she opened her own agency, Wells Rich Greene, where her legend would be cemented for bringing cinematic flair to small screen commercials—and in the process, helping save American Motors Corporation from bankruptcy (she not only created a successful ad campaign for the company, she helped redesign its cars) and giving the world the phrases “I love New York,” “Flick your Bic,” “Raise your hand if you’re Sure,” and even “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

“Mary really influenced how promotion and product changes were part of the role of an advertising agency,” says Charlie Moss, who worked with her on the Braniff campaign and served as the chief creative officer at Wells Rich Greene for 25 years. He attributed her success to her emphasis on creativity—which was rare among agencies in the early days of her career—and for her unique understanding of others. “She always had a feel for people she worked with—a terrific insight.”

In 1990 she sold the company, and three years ago co-founded the website for women, wowOwow.com, The Women on the Web (the site’s other creators and contributors include Lesley Stahl, Liz Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Candice Bergen, Marlo Thomas, and more). Wells now spends much of her time in Mustique, but her legacy and lasting imprint on the advertising industry still flourishes, on Madison Avenue and in households across the country. And she knows it.

“Of course, I’m a legend,” Wells told a reporter in 2002. “But it’s not because of any great gift I have. It’s because I’m a risk taker.” And, she shared one more secret to her success in her book. “I simply acted as I saw others in the business act,” she wrote. “At the time, they happened to be, primarily, men.”