HISTORY’s Moments in Media: Celebrating Advertising Pioneer Mary Wells

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The world’s first advertising agency headed by a woman was launched 54 years ago this month, when groundbreaking copywriter Mary Wells joined with creative partners Dick Rich and Stewart Greene to launch Wells, Rich, Greene.  By the end of its first year, the agency, with Wells at its helm, had 100 employees and $39 million in annual billings.  Two and a half years after its founding, WRG went public, making Wells — by then Mary Wells Lawrence — the first female CEO of a New York Stock Exchange–traded company.  Around the same time, she became the youngest person inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame.

Wells was born in Youngstown, Ohio, at the start of the Great Depression.  After college in New York (for acting) and then in Pittsburgh (at the Carnegie Institute of Technology), she started her advertising career back in Youngstown, as a copywriter for a local department store.  When she and her husband moved to New York in 1952, she landed an advertising job at Macy’s.  A year later she was at McCann-Erickson, working on retail accounts.

Her career trajectory changed in 1957 when she joined Doyle Dane Bernbach as a copywriter. At the legendary creative-revolution shop, she rose to associate copy chief and was recognized for innovative work on accounts such as General Mills and Max Factor.  In 1964, she joined an IPG agency called Jack Tinker & Partners, where she was partnered with Rich and Greene.  Together, they began their legendary work for Alka-Seltzer, starting with the “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In” campaign, and they remade Braniff Airlines, with the famous Pucci-designed uniforms for flights attendants and the “End of the Plain Plane” campaign (see video at top).

She wanted to become president of the agency.  Marion Harper, the IPG chief, told her she could have the power but not the title, because, he said, with a woman as president they’d lose their clients.

Together with Rich and Greene, she left and started the new agency.  Alka-Seltzer and Braniff came along as founding clients.  The next year, Wells, by then divorced, married Braniff’s chairman, Harding Lawrence, and WRG resigned the business to avoid potential conflicts.  But by then, the agency’s business was flying high.

Wells’ gift, and the agency’s, was for emotion and dramatic flair.  They didn’t just sell a product; they sold a dream.  They recognized that television advertising, unlike print work in the past, could let consumers experience a product and its world.  They attracted blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor Company, Procter & Gamble and Ralston Purina.  They devised unforgettable taglines, including “Plop plop, fizz fizz” (which also suggested that two Alka-Seltzer tablets were more effective than one, and therefore doubled sales), “Quality is job 1,” “Try it, you’ll like it,” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

Wells, Rich, Greene also created the “I ♥ New York” campaign (with an assist from Milton Glaser).

As much as the agency was famous for its creativity, it was a thriving business, as well.  After taking the company public in 1968, Wells took it private again in 1974.  In 1969, she earned what was then a whopping $225,000 annually — more than David Ogilvy, who ran a global network bearing his name.  In 1976, she earned $300,000.  When she retired in 1990, at age 62, the agency had $835 million in annual billings.

The agency was sold that year to the French network BDDP International.  Wells never heard from them again, she said.  Wells BDDP was shuttered in 1999.  But Wells, now 91, is going strong.  She splits her time, The New York Times reported a few years ago, between a duplex on Park Avenue and a yacht she keeps in the Mediterranean.

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