Mary Wells Lawrence was born Mary Georgene Berg in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1928. At 17, she moved to New York for a year to study acting with the Neighborhood Playhouse School, then switched to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh for two years. She married fellow student Burt Wells on Dec. 28, 1949, and moved to Youngstown, where Ms. Wells landed a job as a copywriter at McKelvey's department store.
In 1952, the couple moved to New York, and Ms. Wells worked for several department stores before getting a job at Macy's as fashion advertising manager. In 1953, she took a position as writer and copy group head at McCann-Erickson, working on retail-oriented accounts, including the International Silver Co. and zipper marketer Talon Inc.
Three years later, Ms. Wells moved to Lennen & Newell to join a new, 20-person "brain trust." However, the agency soon underwent a change in management; as a result, the brain trust was dismantled and its members let go with a generous payout. Ms. Wells decided to use the money for a trip to Europe while she decided whether to remain in advertising.
She returned from Europe with a renewed commitment to the advertising industry and in 1957 accepted a job as a copywriter at Doyle Dane Bernbach. There, Ms. Wells became known for her work for General Mills casserole meals and cosmetics marketer Max Factor & Co. She subsequently rose to become VP-associate copy chief at DDB.
In 1964, Jack Tinker & Partners, an Interpublic Group of Cos. shop, lured Ms. Wells with a salary of $60,000 per year and more creative freedom. There she worked with creative partners Dick Rich and Stewart Greene on Miles Laboratories' Alka-Seltzer campaign, creating the "No matter what shape your stomach's in" campaign that won a Clio Award in 1964. For Braniff International, Ms. Wells worked with Messrs. Rich and Greene to devise "The end of the plain plane" campaign, which was introduced as the airline unveiled a new look for its planes and new uniforms for its employees.
In 1966, Ms. Wells left Tinker rather than sign a long-term contract and the next day, April 4, 1966, opened her own shop with Messrs. Rich and Greene. The new agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, signed Braniff International and Miles Laboratories almost immediately as its first clients. In all, 11 people from Tinker joined WRG.
However the fledgling agency soon resigned the $7 million Braniff account to avoid potential charges of conflict of interest: On Nov. 25, 1967, Mary Wells, now divorced, and Harding Lawrence, Braniff's president and future chairman, were married, and she became Mary Wells Lawrence.
Even without Braniff, by the end of 1967 WRG was billing $30 million, with clients such as Philip Morris' Benson & Hedges 100's cigarettes, Personna razor blades and Burma Shave men's toiletries product lines.
On Oct. 21, 1968, Ms. Lawrence took the agency public. But by 1974, both the market and Ms. Lawrence had changed direction, and she announced she intended to return the agency to private ownership.
As founder, chairman, CEO and president of WRG, Ms. Lawrence was one of the most powerful women in the advertising industry. At age 40, she became the youngest person ever inducted into the Copywriters' Hall of Fame. By 1976, she was earning more than $300,000 a year, making her one of the highest-paid U.S. women executives.
That year, WRG had billings of $187 million, making it the 15th-largest ad agency in the U.S. Its client roster included Procter & Gamble Co., Trans World Airlines, Miles Laboratories, Philip Morris, Bic Pen Corp., Ralston Purina Co., Midas Inc., White-Westinghouse Electric Co. and Sun Oil Co. Under her direction, WRG created now-famous advertising slogans, including, "I love New York," to encourage New York tourism; "Quality is job 1" for Ford Motor Co.; and "Try it, you'll like it" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" for Alka-Seltzer.
Ms. Lawrence retired in 1990 at age 62, selling the agency to BDDP International, Paris. In 1997, Wells BDDP ceased operations.
In 1999, Ms. Lawrence was named to the Advertising Hall of Fame by the American Advertising Federation, which called her "the force behind one of the most creative shops in the history of advertising." In 2002, her memoir, "A Big Life," was published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Born Mary Georgene Berg in Youngstown, Ohio, 1928; became fashion advertising manager for Macy's department store, New York, 1952; named copy group head, McCann-Erickson, 1953; named copywriter, Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1957; hired as copy chief, Jack Tinker & Partners, 1964; founded Wells, Rich, Greene, 1966; took agency public, 1968; returned agency to private control through a bonds-for-stock exchange, 1974; retired and sold WRG to BDDP International, Paris, 1990.