Mary Wells Lawrence

Mary Wells Lawrence was an advertising executive that pushed past the barriers of gender roles and achieved more than what people thought was possible. She was born in Youngstown, Ohio on May, 25th of 1928. She was the only child in the family. Her father was a furniture maker in the area and her mother, Violet Berg, spent most of her time taking care of Mary. Violet saw her daughter as a shy and introverted girl. Having high hopes for her daughter, Violet sent Mary to elocution classes to overcome her shyness. At the early age of 5, Mary was enrolled in music, dance, and drama lessons. Violet didn’t want Mary becoming one of those girls that waited around to be swept off their feet into marriages and having to live a life dependent on men. All throughout her childhood, Mary participated in a lot of theatre productions and fully indulged in the creatives.

When Mary was only 17, she left for New York to attend the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. After attending the school for a year she decided her passion lied in something else. In 1946, Mary transferred to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg to pursue a career in merchandising. While she attended the college, she met her first husband, Burt Wells, and industrial design major. In 1951, the married couple moved back to Youngstown, Ohio. Mary Wells landed a job as a copywriter for the Mckelvey’s department store. There she began to observe and pick up on things about advertising that would aid her throughout the rest of her career.

Mary’s trip back to New York set her on a path to success. In 1952, the couple moved to New York to continue their careers. However, in a short amount of time the couple divorced. Mary went off and became a copywriter for the Macy’s department stores. She worked her way up the corporate ladder and became fashion advertising manager at the young age of 23. There, she learned more about advertising and how accurate and perfect it needed to be. Her work at Macy’s attracted the attention of Margot Sherman who appointed her to be the writer and copy group head of McCann-Erickson. Mary worked at McCann-Erickson’s for about three years. She claims she worked there for the money, the clothes, and to provide for her family. She still wasn’t serious about her advertising career as she moved to work with Lennen and Newell as a brain trust. Eventually, the company couldn’t afford to have her for long, so Mary ended up taking a break from her work. She flew to Europe for a year to figure out her life and to decide if she wanted to continue on the path of advertising.

When Mary returned from her trip to Europe the year was 1957. America was still recovering from World War II and the Great Depression. Advertising in America was greatly affected by the mindset of the people. In the 1950s, America catered to its consumers, manufacturing clothes and automobiles that were not readily available during the war. America wanted to catch up to the life they had put on hiatus during the war and businesses latched onto that lust for luxury. Advertisements flooded all forms of media especially television. Once the 60s hit, advertising had already grown to be largely integrated in American culture. However, it had to shift its tactics to accommodate the new American consumerists. The larger part of the American population were baby bloomers, teenagers who grew up angry and ready to rebel against the norms and the authorities. The societal change demanded a new advertisement approach, a more creative approach. In the midst of this shift, Mary Well Lawrence achieved so much and set a new standard for advertising.

In 1957, Mary met Bill Bernarch. Bernbach hired her as Vice President Associate Copy Chief for DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach). Joining DDB was her first major step onto her road to phenomenal success. At DDB she picked up on a lot of skills. She also was in charge of most of the advertisements about products that were made for women. Being one of the few successful women in the advertising business she had a significant advantage to the men that dominated the company. Mary was so successful as a woman she made $40,000 salary with DDB which is pretty high for women at that time.

Seven years with Doyle Dane Bernbach gave Mary Wells a strong standing in the business. In 1964, she was approached by Marion Harper of the Interpublic Agency. He wanted to create a “think tank” that was centered around Jack Tinker who Mary worked for at McCann-Erickson. The team that made up the advertising think tank would provide never-ending creative ideas for his larger agencies. It was an offer that Mary Wells couldn’t pass up. Mary was offered a salary of $60,000 and it was such a refreshing approach to advertising that gave her the creative liberation to achieve the dream of creating an agency based on theatrical television advertising that she had envisioned for the future.

Jack Tinker & Partners formed in 1964, the other members included: Richard Rich and Stuart Greene. The very first account they had to tackle was the Alka-Seltzer campaign, which was a product that was very hard to sell. Mary and the team came up with the slogan “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In”, winning them the Clio Award in 1964.

The Brancliff International Airlines account was the most life changing advertising for Mary Wells, Jack Tinker & Partners, and the entire advertising industry. Jack Tinker & Partners were approached by Harding Lawrence, the president of the small airlines. This was the moment for Mary to shine. She saw opportunity in color and aided in redesigning the entire concept for Brancliff. She colored 7 planes different colors, hired Emilio Pucci to redesign the outfits for the air stewardesses, and hired Alexander Girard to redesign the interior of planes. The new approach to flying with color was such a creative and refreshing approach that it satisfied pa large majority of the American people. The advertising slogan “”the end of the plain plane” spread rapidly across the country. Working with Brancliff also inserted a new flair in Mary’s life and that was Harding Lawrence. The two were in love but Mary put the life-altering romance to the side because she was set on her mission to create her dream agency. Her mother taught her not to change her life for men.

Jack Tinkers & Partners was growing so big, one day Marion approached Mary with the offer of paying her as the president and giving her the authority of the president just not the title. He didn’t believe that the agency would do well with a female president and her gender would drag it down. Mary was furious, she left Jack Tinkers & Partners to start her own agency in 1966. Her two colleagues Rich and Greene also resigned from Jack Tinkers & Partners to join her agency. The agency became known as Wells, Rich, and Greene (WRG). The company immediately attracted clients. Brancliff was the first to sign on followed by many others  such as Benson and Hedges cigarettes and Personna razor blades. The agency was making $70million a year from all of its clients. It was prime time for Mary Wells. In 1967 she finally married Harding Lawrence. Due to possible conflict of interest, WRG has to cancel Brancliff’s account but it didn’t put a dent in their profits. WRG continued on to create many popular ads that were highly impactful to American society such as the Alka-Seltzer ads, “Flick your Bic” and “I ♥ NY”.

In 1976, Mary Wells Lawrence was making over $300,000 a year making her one of the highest paid women executives. WRG became the 15th largest ad company in the US. Mary eventually retired in 1990 at the age of 62. She sold the company to BDDP International Paris but they didn’t approach advertising with the same passion and zest that she did and was never as grand as its glory days in the 60s and 70s.

Mary Wells Lawrence is a power figure. She defied the gender roles of her time and reached the stars, achieving more than anyone thought she could. She was a demanding and powerful boss who wanted perfection. Mary’s confidence shone through how she approached her advertising and her dreams as well as how she handled her authority around others. She was a dreamer and an achiever, creating her dream agency and making an impact on the advertising industry.


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