Wells, Rich, Greene

Published on .

Founded by Mary Wells, Richard Rich and Stewart Greene after leaving Jack Tinker & Partners, 1966; issued initial public offering, 1968; returned to private control through a bonds-for-stock exchange, 1974; Wells (now Lawrence) resigned as CEO, replaced by Ken Olshan, 1990; sold to BDDP and renamed Wells Rich Greene BDDP, 1991; sold to GGT PLC, London, 1996; renamed Wells BDDP, 1997, and subsequently acquired by Omnicom Group; closed, May 1998.

Wells, Rich, Greene—and particularly its ambitious chairman, Mary Wells—personified the glamour and excitement of advertising at the height of the "creative revolution" in the 1960s. Originally announced as Mary Wells & Associates the day Ms. Wells resigned from Jack Tinker & Partners, the new agency opened in early April 1966 as Wells, Rich, Greene when two other Tinker employees, Richard Rich and Stewart Greene, joined her as partners.

In addition to its well-remembered work for Braniff International redesigning the color schemes of its aircraft and uniforms in pastels, the New York-based agency handled Philip Morris Cos.' Benson & Hedges—in a campaign that focused on the disadvantages of smoking a 100mm cigar—and other, handpicked accounts that took billings to the $30 million level within a year.

By April 1968, WRG had billings of $59 million and was one of the U.S.' top 15 agencies. Ms. Wells boasted that she could attract the best creative talent to WRG and paid salaries so lavish she upset the prevailing wage schedules among the top agencies. In August 1968, the agency gave up its charter client, Braniff, and took on the much larger TWA business, valued at nearly $15 million. (Ms. Wells had married Braniff President Harding Lawrence in 1967.)

The trade press noted that while the brash, often ironic humor that characterized WRG's ad efforts worked for advertisers with little to lose, it could be inappropriate for market leaders. Indeed, many of WRG's clients were second-tier brands looking for attention, including Royal Crown, which inaugurated the diet cola category with its Diet-Rite brand, and American Motors Corp.

But WRG also had blue-chip clients: In 1967, it won business from General Mills, Hunt-Wesson and Bristol-Myers. The following year it won Procter & Gamble Co.'s Gleem toothpaste, from Compton Advertising; in 1971, it became agency of record for P&G. In October 1968, WRG became the ninth American agency to become a public company, with billings approaching $90 million.

Defining campaigns

Among the most defining of the WRG campaigns of the 1970s were those it created for Alka-Seltzer. WRG won the account in 1970 in a coup that astonished not only Doyle Dane Bernbach, which had won the account only a year earlier and produced the well-known "Spicy Meatball" campaign, but the entire advertising industry. WRG countered with "Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz" as well as with memorable one-shot vignettes with such taglines as "Try it, you'll like it" and "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."

The spectacular growth of the agency proved too rapid for Richard Rich, who left the agency in April 1969; Mr. Greene left in 1974. By then, the agency's growth seemed to be reaching certain limits: Although billings remained healthy, the agency's stock price leveled off, then retreated.

After WRG lost AMC in 1972, the agency began to keep a lower profile and to build its research and account management strengths. In 1974, Ms. Lawrence announced that WRG would "go private," a move that left many stockholders with capital losses.

By the end of the 1970s, WRG ranked No. 18 among U.S. agencies with billings of $378 million and offices in Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, St. Louis, Seattle, Phoenix and Newport Beach, Calif., as well as an office in London. (The St. Louis office was known as Gardner Advertising, a $60 million agency rich in Ralston-Purina business, which WRG acquired in December 1972, although Gardner continued to operate under its own name.)

Ms. Lawrence's activities continued to make news and amaze the industry. When Kenyon & Eckhardt dropped Ford Motor Co. to take on Chrysler Corp. in 1979, several pieces of important Ford business became available, one of which had narrowed its choice to a short list of three major contenders. Ms. Lawrence, whose agency was not among the finalists, flew to Detroit at the 11th hour and, after a personal meeting with Henry Ford, walked away with the $12 million Ford corporate account.

In 1982, she pulled off the remarkable act of holding two accounts in the same category. Once again, her coup involved the airline business. In January, WRG, already the agency for Continental Airlines, won the $35 million Pan American World Airways business without an agency review and without notifying Continental of its plan. The agency was able to retain both as clients when it set up a subsidiary to accommodate Continental, which, though angered, did not withdraw its business.

In 1986, WRG had billings of $650 million and settled into a long period of interesting but often routine creative work for established clients. The desire to be on the creative edge was ebbing among advertisers. Although agency mergers were the trend, WRG was determined to remain independent. Yet, it was not averse to making an opportunistic acquisition.

There had been talks with DDB, and Ms. Lawrence had even made a play for Saatchi & Saatchi before it became a major buyer itself. But by the late 1980s, she was spending more time in France than in New York and began to withdraw from active agency management.

BDDP's stake

The agency also was increasingly slipping behind in the race for global position, a fact that attracted the attention of the French agency Boulet Dru Depuy Petit. When Ms. Lawrence officially stepped down as CEO in favor of Ken Olshan, she sold 40% of WRG to BDDP in April 1990. Prior to that, she had owned 100% of the agency. Fourteen months later, BDDP raised its stake to 70% and changed the name to Wells, Rich, Greene BDDP Communications.

Following Ms. Lawrence's departure, Mr. Olshan watched as IBM, Mobil Corp. (Hefty Bags), Alka-Seltzer, Continental and Midas Muffler left the agency, a total of $150 million in billings. Then in spring 1995, an embezzlement scandal involving WRG President David Sklaver and Chief Financial Officer Tom Fagen further tarnished the agency's reputation. The following September, after months of negotiations with BDDP over management restructuring, Mr. Olshan was summarily fired a month after winning the $20 million Heineken Beer account. The reason given was "disappointing results" (widely interpreted as insufficient growth) during his five-year tenure.

After Mr. Olshan's ouster, morale in New York declined. Meanwhile, in Paris rumors about the future of BDDP were making the rounds. That September, BDDP was sold to a relatively small upstart, GGT PLC, which suddenly became the No. 13 advertising company in the world. In July 1997, WRG's name was again changed, this time to Wells BDDP.

A series of account losses in New York caused management to panic: first Bristol-Myers, then Tag Heuer and, in early 1998, Liberty Mutual Insurance. Combined with high turnover and the unexpected resignation of several key executives, major clients such as P&G, which placed a high value on stability, began to review their agency. That in turn caused the situation to unravel with alarming speed.

Late in January, P&G pulled its entire $125 million of Oil of Olay and Pringles potato chip business out of Wells BDDP and, as a result, GGT's stock plunged so steeply that it became an instant takeover target.

Sixty employees resigned (many moving to Saatchi & Saatchi and Grey Advertising along with the P&G business) and another 40 were scheduled for layoff. By the end of February, only a handful of accounts remained at the agency.

On March 13, 1998, Omnicom Group acquired Wells BDDP and closed the shop for good on May 1

Most Popular
In this article: