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An Advertising Legend Is Ready for Her Comeback


Madison Avenue may not have seen the last of Mary Wells Lawrence.

A dozen years after selling her fabled agency, Ms. Wells Lawrence is considering a second chapter to the career that made her arguably the most powerful and successful woman ever to work in advertising.

During her heyday in the 1960's and 1970's, she and her agency, Wells Rich Greene, were the architects of an approach to advertising that blended entertainment production values with old-fashioned selling techniques as never before. The campaigns she helped develop in a time before giant agency companies resulted in jingles and tag lines - "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" for Alka-Seltzer and Ford's "Quality Is Job One" - that burrowed their way into the American memory.

Ms. Wells Lawrence, now 73, is plotting a return as a consultant, either for agencies or the clients themselves. "I'm going to do something," Ms. Wells Lawrence, a stylish dynamo, said during a recent visit to New York to promote her tattletale memoir, "A Big Life in Advertising" (Knopf). "I have fabulous health, I have tremendous energy, I'm possibly better than I was 10, 15, maybe 20, years ago."

Her goal is to undo (as much as she can) the terrible damage she claims conglomerates have inflicted on the advertising business. But the radically changed Madison Avenue of 2002 may not be so welcoming of Ms. Wells Lawrence or her back-to-the-future ideas.

During an animated, 90-minute interview in a Midtown Manhattan hotel suite, Ms. Wells Lawrence railed against the "cheap, easy advertising" of today. "Now, the advertising gives you pain instead of curing your pain," she said.

The reason, she says, is that advertising agencies are "not interested in advertising." Instead, they are obsessed with offering clients "one-world marketing, one-stop shopping" rather than concentrating on developing "really well-thought-out, well-crafted ads."

In addition, the chief executives of client companies are no longer as intimately involved in the ad-making process as their predecessors were during the so-called creative revolution of the 60's and 70's.

Ms. Wells Lawrence fondly recalled the era when, as she put it, "the top people would take a big idea and create a miracle."

"Even in the years I was dealing with the C.E.O.'s, there were always people in charge of marketing who were not as talented as they should be, just as at agencies there are people not as talented as they should be," Ms. Wells Lawrence said. "But if you have people who understand the potential of advertising, there's a real opportunity."

Ms. Wells Lawrence has always understood that potential and grabbed her opportunities. Ms. Wells Lawrence's big life - it is big, it's the ads that got small, to paraphrase a line from "Sunset Boulevard" - reads like a novel. She rose from copywriter for the bargain basement of a department store in Youngstown, Ohio, to a position of influence and wealth in one of the most competitive American industries.

Ms. Wells Lawrence was the first woman to own and run a major national agency; became the first woman to be chief executive of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange; fought off cancer, twice; and knew everyone from Frank Sinatra to Princess Grace to Maurice Saatchi.

Ms. Wells Lawrence gained renown for an unusual blend of creative talent, management skills and relentless drive. She and Wells Rich Greene, which she sold in 1990 for $160 million, wowed consumers and clients with work that helped transform how ads are made. They deftly combined emotional and rational elements to produce successful campaigns for products as disparate as processed potato snacks ("I've got a fever for the flavor of a Pringles"), tourism ("I H NY") and throwaway lighters ("Flick your BIC").

The secret, she confides to her readers, was that "I began to theatricalize what I sold," drawing on her training as an actor with Sanford Meisner. As a result, the best work by Wells Rich Greene for marketers like Hertz, I.B.M. and Procter & Gamble had the trappings of theatrical entertainment - hummable music, razzle-dazzle production values, actors cast for commercials as if they were appearing in films - and smart-selling strategies derived from, and meant to reinforce, the products' benefits.

For Alka-Seltzer, Wells Rich Greene helped convince consumers to use twice as much product with the catchy "Plop, Plop" jingle that was always accompanied by shots of two tablets rather than one dissolving in water. The agency introduced a 100-millimeter cigarette, Benson & Hedges, with a tongue-in-cheek campaign devoted to the "disadvantages" of longer smokes. The cigarettes may have gotten squashed in elevator doors or set beards afire, but that "led you to understand that you got more cigarette for your money," Ms. Wells Lawrence said.

That risk-taking and rule-breaking pretty much came to an end after 1990, when Ms. Wells Lawrence sold the agency that she helped found in 1966 to the French company BDDP Worldwide. Eight years and two owners later, with almost all its clients and management talent gone, Wells Rich Greene was closed.

It was one of the fastest and most humiliating riches-to-rags reversals in Madison Avenue history. And the collapse clearly still rankles Ms. Wells Lawrence because it threatens to diminish her legacy.

In her book, and in interviews, she makes little effort to hide her withering contempt for the French executives who she thinks mismanaged her company.

"In the beginning, I thought it would work, that it would take time, but it would work," Ms. Wells Lawrence said of the sale.

But the French executives "never understood that if they were willing to go to the lengths they did to have it, they should have tried to understand what built it," Ms. Wells Lawrence said. "Their being French had a lot to do with it. The French don't like to travel. They think the birds sing better in France, the trees are better, the food is better" - and they think "the United States is primitive."

The executive who then headed BDDP was Jean-Marie Dru, now the chief executive of the TBWA Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group. Asked to respond to Ms. Wells Lawrence, he began diplomatically, describing Wells Rich Greene as "one of the most creative agencies of the century" along with Doyle Dane Bernbach and Chiat/Day.

"Having said that," Mr. Dru continued, "when we bought W.R.G., the talent and the spirit that had been the foundation of the agency had disappeared because Mary had been gone for so long. I think that Mary's book was clearly a way of revisiting and romanticizing the past."

Ms. Wells Lawrence does not agree that she is living in the past. The usually forthcoming Ms. Wells Lawrence politely but firmly declined to identify possible clients, but said she fervently believes her ideas are still relevant. What worked then, and will work again, she said, is taking a product and making people "want it, and feel nervous if they don't have it."

Some executives in the industry are not so sure. Ms. Wells Lawrence's return may prove to be as unsuccessful as that of Norma Desmond, the silent-film star in "Sunset Boulevard" who was shunned when she sought to return to the movies because she was deemed incapable of adapting to a new Hollywood.

"In any industry, the business changes," said the chief executive of a large New York agency, an admirer of Ms. Wells Lawrence's work but not a contemporary. "It's not an age issue, but it's a long time to be away."

A longtime colleague of Ms. Wells Lawrence's is more sanguine about her prospects.

"Today's world is totally, totally different," said Charlie Moss, the chief creative executive at Wells Rich Greene who is now chairman at Moss/Dragoti in New York, an agency owned by Omnicom. "But she's so smart, she could make a difference."

"Mary always kept it exciting and a lot of fun," Mr. Moss added, "and when things got too routine, she found a way to throw it all up in the air and make it exciting again."

It is that excitement which Ms. Wells Lawrence appears to crave. "I never stopped, I never stopped, I never stopped" being interested in the business, Ms. Wells Lawrence said, leaning forward in her seat. "It was my life, and I knew everybody in it. I still have the scent."

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. May 27, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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