The Wells Legacy

Thanks to Mary Wells Lawrence, the world of advertising took a dramatic and sorely needed turn. Picture it: A brainy blonde whose only formal education is in drama starts a career as a department store copywriter in Youngstown, Ohio. In her mid-20s, she moves to New York and quickly becomes a star. In 1966, she opens her own creative boutique, which rings up $30 million dollars in billings in just six months and shakes up the clubby male conventions that rule Madison Avenue.

At 40, she’s the youngest person ever to be inducted into The Copywriter’s Hall of Fame. She earns $225,000 a year–more than David Ogilvy, overseer and namesake of a worldwide network–and is the highest-paid, most well-known woman in American business. Accepting her Hall of Fame award in 1969, Mary Wells Lawrence purrs to the mostly male audience: ‘I’m in excellent health, and I’ve got impact you haven’t felt yet. So don’t relax.’

Wells had given them little reason to. She reeled in clients like Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Bristol Myers and Hertz. She even married one of them in the process–Braniff Airline chief executive Harding Lawrence. Using society designers like Billy Baldwin and White House decorator Keith Irwin, she created an aura her male counterparts couldn’t match.

‘When we moved into our offices at the GM building, my office was the size of a football field,’ remembers Charlie Moss, the Moss/Dragoti principal who was Wells’ founding creative director. ‘We had beautiful antiques, rooms full of paintings. One room we called the Jade Room was full of Picassos–with little bay areas between offices with handmade couches. We had these big meetings for Alka-Seltzer in Elkhart, Indiana–a horrible place–and Mary would order French dinners for all of us. We’d board the plane with shopping bags full of dinners of chicken and pate from a four-star New York City restaurant equivalent to Le Grenouille. Everything she did, she did with tremendous style.’

Not bad for Mary Georgene ‘Bunny’ Berg, who was so shy growing up that her parents enrolled her in dance, drama and elocution classes in the hopes she could escape marriage to a steelworker –the common fate of many women living in her region in the postwar Eisenhower years.

Now in retirement as Mrs. Harding Lawrence at her villa in Cap Ferrat, France, Wells’ public profile is limited to the society pages of Town & Country. She no longer gives interviews. But she has said in the past that her ambitions in business had nothing to do with testing gender barriers. In fact, as the women’s movement flourished in the early 1970s, she was criticized for surrounding herself with men and not moving women into middle management at her shop.

‘Mary didn’t care whether you were male or female, as long as you were smart,’ says Wells Rich Greene president Paula Forman, who worked at the agency with the founder in the early ’70s. ‘What was significant about Mary was she created an agency where men were comfortable working with women, and that made all the difference for people like me.’

By most accounts, men were often in awe of Wells–when they weren’t afraid of her. Former agency executives describe her as brilliant, charming, tough as nails, shrewd, manipulative and obsessed with money.

Howie Cohen remembers that as a young copywriter, he gave a quote to a reporter for an innocuous story about the Hush Puppies account. Called into Wells’ office, Cohen found her on the phone asking the client, ‘Do you want me to fire him? I’ll be glad to get rid of him.’ Cohen later learned she had stage-managed the scene. There wasn’t anyone on the phone.

Wells found her way around Wall Street a bit bumpier than Madison Avenue. She took the agency public in 1968, then private again within a decade, uncomfortable with shareholder scrutiny and the pressures of earnings targets. Along the way, she kept the agency’s status high-profile and the clients pleased with their campaigns.

Fred Lemont, a former Wells’ executive vp, used to tell a story about a cab ride he shared with Wells en route to a client. ‘She isn’t thinking about the client meeting. She’ s thinking about making a lot of money by taking her agency public,’ Lemont related.

‘Fred, you worked at Ted Bates,’ Mary says, referring to the privately held money machine. ‘They’re supposed to be rich. Who took out the big money there?’

Fred replies thoughtfully, ‘Well, several who left last year took away more than a million. Maybe two. ‘ Mary interrupts impatiently, ‘Oh, I know that. But who made the real money?’ –NO’L

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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