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When Mad. Ave. was the center of the universe

Mary Wells Lawrence recalls 'A Big Life (in Advertising)'

Mary Wells Lawrence
Mary Wells Lawrence, advertising industry trailblazer.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- In the 1960s, there were a handful of hip fields in which to be employed.

There was the music business, catching the sound waves of the Brill Building, Motown, Southern California and the British Invasion. There was the space program, so square it was smart. And there was the advertising business, home of some of the brightest creative minds in the country.

If that seems inexplicable now -- when advertising is so prevalent, so jazzed with computer graphics and zippy typefaces that it seems to retreat into sheer noise -- then you just weren't there, says Mary Wells Lawrence, author of the memoir "A Big Life (in Advertising)" (Knopf).

"You had the feeling youth was taking over the world," she says in a phone interview from New York. "They had a willingness to do things in a new way. It was very heady. ... And the advertising industry was part of the total change going on in the culture."

Mary Wells Lawrence on today's advertising 

Lawrence was at the vanguard of that change. She had worked for Bill Bernbach at Doyle Dane Bernbach, the ad agency behind Avis' "We Try Harder" effort and Volkswagen's legendary no-frills campaign, the latter which calmly positioned the utilitarian car against Detroit's big, glitzy boats.

Then, in 1966, she co-founded her own agency, Wells Rich Greene, which quickly became advertising's "hot shop" of the time.

At WRG, she was instrumental in creating such campaigns as Alka-Seltzer's "Plop plop fizz fizz," "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," and "Try it, you'll like it"; the Benson & Hedges 100s' "America's favorite cigarette break," with bent and broken cigarettes sticking out of doorways and elevators; and "I love New York," the latter still going strong 25 years later.

Through it all, Lawrence and her agency tried to maintain an iconoclastic attitude.

Mary Wells Lawrence recalls 'A Big Life (in Advertising)'

"[Advertisers] used to look at products as created by God," she says. "Cutting through tradition, like mutilating cigarettes -- that was something nobody had ever done. We learned that breaking through tradition was something new in campaign techniques, and we became the coolest agency in town."

Putting herself on the line

Lawrence got her start in the theater world before turning to copywriting, and her agency brought theatrical flair to advertising. Television was largely "print that moved" before WRG and other new-style shops brought their creativity to the medium, she says.

She also wasn't afraid to use herself to trumpet the agency. Early articles on the firm tended to focus on Lawrence, then Mary Wells; in the 1960s, a woman heading an ad agency was an anomaly. It's still uncommon almost 40 years later, though she's hopeful that will change.

"I think it's an industry that welcomes women, and I think a lot of women are doing very well in it," she told CNN in an earlier interview. "There aren't a whole lot of women running advertising agencies today. But there will be."

Once it began, Lawrence's ride to the top was swift. Within 10 years, WRG was billing in excess of $100 million a year and was known as one of New York's top agencies. But the bigness sometimes got in the way, she says.

"It was hard to sustain when we became very large," she says. "I don't believe in bigness. ... The closer your people are, the better the product can be."

Size cost WRG one of its early accounts, American Motors. In the late '60s, when WRG earned the account, AMC was a struggling company, a lame fourth lagging behind the Big Three.

WRG redid its advertising, doing head-to-head advertising comparing vehicles such as AMC's Javelin with the Ford Mustang, and sales blossomed. But the two firms grew distant, and AMC eventually took its business elsewhere.

Putting herself on the line

"We stopped working with the head man," she says. "If you're not dealing on that level, then people are not in a position to take risks. ... Ideas that make people change their ways often make companies change the way they operate."

A lot to lose

That kind of risk-taking is lacking in advertising today, she says.

"I think what's happened is that companies have gotten very, very big," she says. "So the movers and shakers ... are not paying attention to the advertising. The people who make the decisions are lower down, and they have a lot to lose by making a mistake."

So gone are the days when WRG could take a staid airline like Braniff -- and airline accounts were the ultimate in class in those pre-deregulation days -- and be given carte blanche to completely redesign the brand, not just the advertising.

WRG dressed up Braniff's staff, painted its planes bright colors, and introduced the whole thing with the line "The end of the plain plane." People would hang around airports just to look.

Within a few years, at least one competitor was dressing its flight attendants in miniskirts and using the come-on, "I'm Brandy, fly me."

The Braniff campaign was one of Lawrence's favorites. Another is the "I love New York" effort, because it came at a time when the city was down and almost out, having narrowly avoided default in the mid-1970s.

Lawrence wasn't buying the stories about the death of New York, then or now.

People would often speak of New York with fondness, she says. So all the campaign had to do was "remind businesses and people and vacationers how much they loved New York. And because they did, we were able to enroll all kinds of talent."

Dozens of Broadway casts participated in ads; so did Frank Sinatra. The campaign came back strong in the aftermath of September 11.

In the early '90s, WRG fell victim to the merger mania that took over the advertising business, like many other industries. The combined agency, according to its clients, became impersonal. It closed its doors in 1998.

Its closing was one reason Lawrence decided to write "A Big Life (in Advertising)."

"What I really regret was, when the agency was allowed to slide, that the news was about the people who bought it -- strangers," she says. "It seemed to me, when it died, I felt the least I could do was write a book about what was wonderful."


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