Wells: The Final Hours

Buffet, String Quartet and Few Tears Mark the End
NEW YORK – In its 32 years of existence, the former Wells Rich Greene saw glory and turbulence befitting Shakespeare. But last Friday, the curtain came down on nothing more than a genteel, and surprisingly upbeat, brunch for the remaining staffers.
On the same day, Omnicom Group chief executive John Wren announced the long-awaited merger of Wells parent BDDP Worldwide and TBWA International.
Wells BDDP chief executive Steve Davis, standing in the same spot where he informed his staff two months ago of Omnicom’s intentions to close the floundering agency, addressed the 100 or so employees.
“The closing of this fine old lady of advertising has nothing to do with you,” Davis told the assembled staff. “You didn’t fail the institution. The institution failed a great group of people who made the best damn ads in the business.” Davis’ comments were references to the management strife at Wells during the past few years that led to the unraveling of the agency.
A generous buffet spread and a string quartet created a light, upbeat atmosphere in “The Well,” the agency’s gathering place in the center of its offices in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood. A blast of warm spring weather also lightened the final proceedings. In fact, the mood was more akin to the “last day of school” than to the funeral one might have expected.
The event did not pass without its share of gallows humor, however: “If this agency really had a sense of humor, the string quartet would be playing with life preservers around their necks,” quipped one managing partner. The musicians stayed away from dirges.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of youth and experience. A large contingent of 20-somethings in shorts and Doc Martens, many of them probably too young to appreciate the historical context of the day, schmoozed with the likes of Charlie Moss and Stan Dragoti, who ran the Hertz business at Wells for years and will continue to do so as a subunit of DDB Needham. Moss was with Mary Wells Lawrence right from the start of the agency in 1966.
Conversations were peppered with talk of new jobs, vacations and reflections on the past. No tears were shed, but a few longtime employees did get nostalgic. Some attendees mentioned Omnicom’s generous severance plans as one reason for the positive mood.
Davis also passed along the good wishes of Michael Greenlees, the London-based GGT Group chief executive who purchased BDDP, Wells’ parent company, a year ago. Greenlees sold GGT to Omnicom in January after the crushing loss of Wells’ $125 million linchpin Procter & Gamble advertising account.
Davis also read a statement from Jean-Marie Dru, the chairman of the Paris-based BDDP who apologized for not being present. “I would never have imagined Wells’ final day would happen without me there.” Dru was detained in Paris with his new duties as head of the international operations for the reconstituted TBWA Worldwide.
As the gathering wound down, people exchanged hugs and phone numbers and said their goodbyes.
Their final memory of the agency will have been a lone television set, which played a reel of the commercials from the 1970s that put Wells Rich Greene on the map. Among them, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” and “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz – oh what a relief it is” for Alka-Seltzer, and “Raise your hand if you’re Sure” for Sure anti perspirant.
After the crowd dispersed, the band packed up its instruments and went home.