There's Something About Mary

Published on .

Title: A Big Life in Advertising

Author: Mary Wells Lawrence

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Release date: May

I was working at mccann-erickson for the money, for little black dance dresses that showed off my Norwegian legs, for my baby daughters' smocked dresses from Saks and for an apartment larger than I could afford-but then I met Bill Bernbach and he made a serious woman out of me.

In the fifties in New York if you talked about "Bill" you meant Bill Bernbach. He was the talk of the town because he was creating a revolution in the advertising business, which was a glamorous business at the time. He challenged all the big advertising agencies that had become important since World War II, saying they had killed advertising, ads had become dishonest, boring, insulting, even insane. Worse, they didn't sell anything to anybody. The big agencies defended themselves, they said they made advertising scientifically with sophisticated research. But Bill said they were either liars or they were stupid, their pitiful research reduced advertising to, basically, one poor tired ad that was repeated over and over again. When he really got going he would say things like, "The big agencies are turning their creative people into mimeograph machines!" and all the frustrated creative people in town would stamp their feet and cheer, "Yea, Bill!"

The advertising business, like America itself after the war, had built up the fiction of safety with its hierarchies and army-like respect for the boss. In the big agencies, the boss was a group of executives called the Creative Review Board. Their research told them that America hungered for happiness and peace so they produced advertising that was happy and peaceful. Children were always clean and smiling. Dogs were clean and smiling. Firemen, police, farmers and coal miners were clean and smiling. Everybody waved to each other in the ads. Beautiful women stretched out on the roofs of cars in their gowns and jewels and furs to make the cars look prettier. Bottles of whiskey wore crowns and stood proudly on red velvet columns pretending they were the Duke of Windsor. Bill was right, advertising was the land of the insane. There was never any direct personal communication, never any tension or drama or interesting information in them, but those ads, based on spurious research, had been touted so long as scientific that Bill was seditious criticizing them.

He had galloped out of the Grey agency to set advertising free with a little gold mine of people, Ned Doyle, Mac Dane, Bob Gage and Phyllis Robinson. They opened an agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and set about changing the way advertising looked, what it said, how it sounded, they even felt free to change the product or the company that made the product if that was what it took to have a success. Bill gave lectures to the press. Radiating moral gravity, he would tell them that the big agencies had it all wrong: "Advertising is not a science, it is persuasion and persuasion is an art, it is intuition that leads to discovery, to inspiration, it is the artist who is capable of making the consumer feel desire."

He utterly bewildered the big agencies. They asked each other, "Why is this guy making a ruckus and disturbing the peace? Who is this Bill Bernbach?" Pretty soon everybody knew who Bill was. It was as if he had cordoned off Madison Avenue and set up a stage where he called for advertising to be honest and candid, smarter and more interesting. He demanded bolder language, humor, wit and stylish design. He said, "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize society or we can help lift it to a higher level." When Doyle Dane Bernbach's first ads began to appear, they were as effective as Bill promised they would be and after that, in the advertising business, there was no turning back and Bill was the star.

Phyllis Robinson was his copy chief and when I went to my interview for a job with her I was not optimistic. I knew how the work I had done at the large, traditional McCann-Erickson agency would look to Doyle Dane Bernbach. I was dying to work there, partly because everybody was dying to work there; it was the hot spot, the place to be, but also, although my mind was still a young and silly place, I thought Bill's revolution was the most important event of my life. If he had been John the Baptist I could not have been more enraptured. I spent days creating pretend ads to suggest that I was more talented than what my portfolio of real samples had to show. I arrived much too early. When Phyllis finally came out to the waiting room to collect me I had become frail. I could have fallen to my knees. She, on the other hand, was like the lead angel in an opera, tall, handsome, strong, brimming with energy and humor and purpose, an honest to goodness adult. She swept me into her office and turned her intelligence on me like a beam from outer space. Seeing how over-impressed I was, she eased down into the role of a friend and did all she could to help me with the interview. "Oh, this is interesting," she said, "Yes, mmmm, good, tell me all about this," and I melted into adoration.

A week later she hired me. She said she persuaded Bill to go along by showing him a campaign I had created for International Silver for its silverplate flatware, knives, forks and spoons. They had inserted a bit of sterling at the places where flatware gets the most wear, but they never told anybody about it. I decided to call that reinforced silverplate "DeepSilver" and persuaded a lot of brides that it was as good as sterling and a lot better than ordinary silverplate. Phyllis liked my thinking. Bill wasn't sure but he said yes. When I met him he took my hand, looked soulfully into my eyes and baptized me, saying, "McCann-Erickson is a terrible agency, so you are a big gamble from my point of view but Phyllis sees something in you." I have never forgotten those exact words of his because it took me a few years to get over them. He was full of himself at the time and I wasn't, yet. Then he lit up as though he had thought of a great practical joke to play on me and said, "Now you have to meet Ned Doyle, he handles the Max Factor account and you will be working on it with him. Let's see what he thinks of you!" And he led me next door to the man who was the head of account services.

Ned Doyle, as Irish as he could be, watched me cross his office without expression but then I saw him think "huzza!" and I knew he was going to be a fan. He was a slender, older man with white and grey hair, cool eyes and a carved face. He was wildly flirtatious but in that safe, careful, old-fashioned way, and he liked everything about me except my nickname. "Where did you get the name 'Bunny'? You can't work at Doyle Dane Bernbach with a name like 'Bunny.' Get rid of it before you come here. Mary is a good name, I like Mary, from now on you're Mary." For a couple of hours we bantered, he wanted to see if I was tough enough to be any fun, and I learned a lot about the agency right away. Ned loved Bill, he said. Bill would not admit he loved-and needed-Ned. Bill was the genius but Ned was the businessman and Ned was also the gladiator in any fight for Bill's ideas.

'not bad for a dame'

In 1964, Mary Wells left Doyle Dane Bernbach to join Jack Tinker & Partners, an Interpublic Group of Cos. think tank that she transformed into a full-service advertising agency. In March 1966, after Interpublic Chairman Marion Harper declined to name her president of Tinker, Ms. Wells resigned to found her own agency, Wells Rich Greene. Its first client was Braniff Airways, whose president, Harding Lawrence, soon became Ms. Wells' second husband. Several years later, Mary Wells Lawrence got a phone call that could have changed the course of advertising history.

I had just begun a meeting with the Gardner acquisition group I had assembled when Ned Doyle called. I hadn't talked to Ned Doyle in years. He sounded a little forced, maybe he was calling on the sly from an outdoor pay phone. "It's been a long time, kid. Are you still beautiful or have you got a big head now?" It was Ned Doyle all right. "Well, Ned, love of my life, you left me, you disappeared and you promised to take me to lunch every month, do you remember that?" We picked up easily, we had parted good friends. "Listen, I have an idea, kid, I don't know if it's any good or not but it's worth your time. Bernbach is having problems. He wants an easier, lighter role at the agency but there is nobody he trusts to run it. Time hasn't made anybody shine any brighter, he's fed up with the whole bunch there. Now he wants to get his money out of the place and he's worried that he won't. He doesn't say so but I think he's mad that I did so well selling early and now, with the stock price down and those damn boats, there's a good chance he won't make what I made. He can't stand that." Long pause. I knew what he was going to say and my heart skipped a beat.

He went on. "You're not as smart as you think you are but you're not bad for a dame. Do you think you can come up with a good idea for Bill? He knows I'm calling. He says you're the only one he thinks can handle the place now-you're just willful enough, he says, to deal with all the people who've stuck with him so long. Every one of them expects to be his successor. We talked about you for a long time the other day and you will be surprised to learn that you were always one of his favorites. Don't laugh," he laughed. "The point is that he's ready. Do you think you can manage something? Do you want to? Here's how it could go. We think Wells Rich Greene should buy Doyle Dane Bernbach. Bill will be chairman and chief creative officer and he will do only what he wants to do, he can oversee creative work but he doesn't have to unless he wants to. He and Evelyn want to travel. There are a lot of places they want to see. You can be CEO and pull it all together. The trick is that Bill has to come out as good as I did. You've got to use that devious mind of yours to come up with a plan that makes it possible. He has to come out a lot better than he could with just a stock sale."

I don't recall what I said. There weren't any words for that moment. "Well," he said after a while, "Are you still there? Are you going to call him? Ask him to lunch. He's expecting you to call him to ask him to lunch."

"Yes, I'll call him in the morning, Ned." Another long pause. I said, for no reason, "I've missed you, Ned." I wanted to cry.

"I'll see you, kid", he said. And then, very kindly, "You can do this, Mary." He hung up. He really did talk like Humphrey Bogart most of the time. I pulled myself together and returned to the meeting room where the Gardner acquisition group was laboriously estimating Gardner's sources of income.

Only a few months before Ned Doyle's call I had spent an afternoon with Frank Lowe of Collett Dickenson Pierce exploring the possibility of Wells Rich Greene acquiring that agency, a particularly fine creative agency in England. They were going through a troubled patch and thought merging with us would be a good idea. It was an expensive proposition but I had not put it down yet. I was taken with Frank Lowe, I thought we'd do well together and Wells Rich Greene needed to be in England and Europe in a more important way. Most of our clients were international although nobody was using the word global yet. The devil started dancing a sexy little rumba in my head. Acquiring Doyle Dane Bernbach and Collett Dickenson Pierce were possibilities that promised us months of thrills and chills. Merging Gardner into Wells Rich Greene was a smart move to make but that day the idea just made me sleepy.

Bill was so charming when we met, almost like equals, at Cote Basque. He looked barbered and massaged, well tailored and cologned and his eyes were amused, not wary as I remembered them, signaling that he was in a good mood. He was optimistic, he knew about the success at Wells Rich Greene, our profits, our growth, the high quality of our clients, he even admired some of our work. "I never doubted your good mind and your relentless determination, Mary," he said, "or your marvelous ability to talk anyone into anything. I admired that more than you knew." I was just giddy enough at that lunch to be flattered. Little by little, we began dreaming of a new agency composed of our two agencies. As we inched along, we had so many laughs, so much fun imagining what a surprise we would give the advertising world and the fabulous possibilities, that we sat there, blissfully intimate, two minds utterly absorbed with one idea, until the restaurant began setting up for dinner.

I invited a small trusted group of consultants to help me strategize a way to acquire control of Doyle Dane Bernbach and pay Bill what he wanted. To meet his requirements at a time when Doyle Dane's stock was at a low we needed a formula, some combination of very high salary, multi-bonuses, profit sharing, options, insurance, deferred income, retirement income. The cost of paying Bill what he wanted over and above the sale of his stock had to be added to Doyle Dane's cost of operation at a time when their profits were nil for a variety of reasons, one being some bad investments that would probably have to be written off. Whether or not Wells Rich Greene could afford the total final cost was the issue.

Harding thought I would be certifiably crazy to jeopardize Wells Rich Greene, when we were in such strong financial shape and growing by leaps and bounds, to take on an agency that was in a difficult financial condition, particularly as the merger would have conflicts to deal with. He kept reminding me that the actual melding of the two groups of executives could only be a pain in the neck, mine. "What is this, some leftover parental complex?" he asked me. "Why do you have to be the one to make Bill Bernbach's dreams come true?" A good question but I was in a state of thrall and, anyway, Harding was too busy taking Braniff to cities throughout the world, negotiating with presidents, senators, governors and city council members to think much about it. I knew that, in the end, if I believed in the idea, he would be supportive.

LIMOUSINE LUNCHES

Once a week, for a little while, Bill and I had a picnic lunch in a limousine and drove around and around and around Central Park discussing the status of the formula, drawing organization charts on yellow pads, conceiving ways to hold accounts that were conflicts as well as ways to hold executives we thought essential who might feel betrayed by the idea of a new company. We talked about accounts at other agencies we were certain we could shake loose. We would be powerful together. He was like a man falling in love; he had persuaded himself that I could and would find a way to put the right financial offer together giving him all that he deserved and he was certain I would be able to manage any hysterics during the first year of the merger itself. But what moved me, killed me, was that little by little he became so enamoured of the new merged agency we were creating in our inds that he felt a renewed vigor for the entire advertising business and for himself as the dominant creative force in it. He smiled all the time.

It was February, and in those limousines, as the bare trees and the cold lakes of Central Park passed by, he told me his thoughts about the people at his agency. So many years with the same executives around him-so many feuds and political games and bad decisions-he said he was tired of carrying Doyle Dane Bernbach and everyone around him, except for Max Dane and Bob Gage who were perfect. He was infuriated that everybody else was so expectant. When Bill was feeling easy and confident his eyes turned silky. "We'll take care of each other," he said looking at me with those silky eyes, "we'll fly to some higher ground with this agency." During those weeks I would have followed him if he jumped off a bridge.

As both of our agencies were publicly owned, any serious negotiation would have to be reported. We had to be very careful because we had conflicting accounts-most of our package-goods accounts were conflicts. If the press discovered our talks, we would have to reveal them to the public and then our conflicting accounts would see themselves as pawns, they could rebel and fire us. No account wants to be put in that position.

At first Bill was cautious, he told only a handful of people, including Josh Levine, perhaps the best agency lawyer in the business. But as our plans developed and his enthusiasm grew, he thought I should talk to his most important executives, he wanted me to understand their individual positions so that I would be informed enough to put together the best possible organization. He shouldn't have, but before we were ready, he told all those executives about our talks, asked them to call me and make a date to visit me at Wells Rich Greene. He told me that Bob Gage would do whatever was good for him, Bill, so he didn't need to call, I could count on Bob. He was certain Max felt the same way. And Phyllis was gone, she was with her husband someplace in Italy. But I would hear from the others. God. If he had dropped a bomb on them it would have had less impact. Some of them, like Ted Factor and Ed Russell, had been pals of mine and although they were shocked, to put it gently, they came right up to see me and talk. Joe Daly was outraged and made it clear he thought the idea was a terrible one and wanted no part of it. No way! When I told Ned about Joe he said he knew Joe would be troublesome. "But the bets will be on you and Bernbach." he said. "Not Joe."

MAKING HISTORY

In 1971 I had become the first woman CEO to have a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. We had moved to it from the American Exchange. The day Wells Rich Greene was listed, Robert Haack, the president of the Exchange, gave a jaunty toast and there were pleasant little jokes about the ERA and The Feminine Mystique and NOW, but when Bill and I were talking, the women's movement was becoming powerful and I was no longer an oddity to the financial community. I had met and talked with almost every financial powerbroker who ate lunch or dinner, so Wells Rich Greene's performance was well known. Paul Hallingby's view was that, although the combined agency numbers we were seeing weren't pretty, we stood an excellent chance of raising the necessary funds for the deal on the basis of Wells Rich Greene's strong performance and Bill's great stature. We had talked to our own banks, without revealing everything, and we came away confident. We had a lot of work to do, not only to complete the deal but also to be absolutely certain we would be comfortable living with it and that we would all be safe. I believed the two agencies would do well together, even with the obvious problems. But it was a complicated and expensive deal. I intended to dot every i and cross every t, to take the time we needed before making a final, irrevocable decision.

So it shook me up when I got a tense call from Bill and Josh Levine asking me to set up a telephone meeting with all who were working, in confidence, on the concept. They told us, then, that The New York Times had called and said that the Times had reliable information about our talks. They planned to release the story the following morning and wanted to know-well, what about it? Bill needed to know, before he returned that call, if we were in a position to rush things and say, yes, we were negotiating? Did we have the necessary funds behind us and were they firm enough to allow both agencies to make such an announcement? They supposed that we were still a distance from a firm, final commitment but they were trying to determine, from a legal point of view, what position they should take.

I had to say, "Bill, it is too soon. We do not have solid commitments yet. We are close and we are working very quickly but we need more time." Josh Levine said, in his kind voice, "Mary, I'm sorry but in that case we are going to have to deny that you and Bill are talking seriously and that means the two of you will, in fact, have to stop talking altogether for a while."

"Mary"-Bill did not want to lose our momentum-"Mary, somebody must have talked, why don't we go ahead and merge on an ordinary basis and you and I can work everything out afterwards?"

But I had come too far, worked too hard and too many others at Wells Rich Greene had come too far, worked too hard to gamble on a merger without having control of the final agency. "We can't do that, Bill." I felt ice stream down my spine. It would all fall apart now. I knew it. Both agencies would have to get busy denying the story as, "Stupid, are you kidding? That's insane!" to reassure our big clients who were conflicts. Our dream would go poof! And I was sure that all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put it back together again. In a fast moving business like advertising, things change in a couple of months whether you want them to or not. That night, Bill called me at home. "I am counting on you to put it together, Mary. I will wait for you." Then Ned called. "Too bad. Maybe it can still happen. Take it easy for a couple of months. I'll call you, kid."

Then Harding called from Mexico. "Congratulations, darling. You were saved."

Excerpted from "A Big Life in Advertising," by Mary Wells Lawrence, to be published in May by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 2002 by Mary L Book Corp.

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