Q&A: Mary's quite contrary on ads' stature

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The silk-covered walls of the suite in the St. Regis are gray, as is the rain-drizzled sky over Manhattan. Mary Wells Lawrence, the woman famous for ending the plain plane with a saturation of color, is clad in exquisitely tailored black. She begins by apologizing for her voice, raspy, she says, from stress.

It's been less than three months since her husband, former Braniff President-CEO Harding Lawrence, passed away, and it is clear she mourns him deeply. Theirs was a storied romance of nearly 40 years.

But when Mary Wells Lawrence starts speaking, it's evident she has not lost her passion for advertising, and life, which are not necessarily separable in her experience. At 73, the founder of Wells Rich Greene, member of the Advertising Hall of Fame and the Copywriters Hall of Fame, who was named by this publication as one of the 20 most influential people in advertising in the 20th Century, is brimming with plans. The title of her book, to be released next month, is "A Big Life in Advertising," and even after leaving advertising and beating cancer-twice-it's still a big life for the woman once called the Greta Garbo of Madison Avenue.

In a wide-ranging interview with Advertising Age Editor Scott Donaton and Managing Editor Judann Pollack, Ms. Wells Lawrence discusses her views on advertising today (she believes CEOs have lost touch with the process, but predicts a pendulum swing within five years) as well as detailing the rise of the hot shop that revolutionized advertising with campaigns for Alka-Seltzer ("Plop, plop, fizz, fizz"), Benson & Hedges ("The disadvantages") and Ford Motor Co. ("Quality is Job 1"). She also gives an honest assessment of the agency's decline and fall following its sale, first to BDDP, then GGT and finally Omnicom, before shuttering in 1998-all as the phone in her suite rings, a photographer prepares for a shoot and a fax machine spits out the itinerary for an upcoming trip to Portugal.

"I feel ageless," she says, breathlessly. "I want to eat everything and try everything. I am profoundly interested in everything. I do not want to die without having tried everything."

What made you decide to write the book?

I felt that the press about Wells Rich Greene, at the end, was really about strangers. It was about people who really had nothing at all to do with Wells Rich Greene. ... There were so many people at Wells Rich Greene that were so incredibly talented and loved the business so much and they sort of became ghosts and they kind of disappeared and that broke my heart because we were a really, really strong family.

It must have been really frustrating at the end to be on the outside.

I was in a curious position. ... In finding this combination of the French agency [BDDP] and ours it seemed perfect. It just seemed made in heaven ... they were young and aggressive and did very good work and in our first love affair got along sublimely. And I though it was going to be a crackling, new younger version of Wells Rich Greene ... so I left feeling very smug and very, very happy. But I also left having sold my stock and I think if you sell your stock and you've done a good job of investigating everything that you really should shut up and I don't think you ought to hang around. ... I did think when they started having various problems that they might have come to me and asked `What do you think we're doing wrong here?' and I would have loved to have had that opportunity. But they didn't.

In your book you quote Procter & Gamble's ad chief Bob Wehling, after he fired Wells Rich, saying clients have to have relationships with human beings.

[BDDP] made two colossal mistakes. The first is they didn't think to come over and hug [Chairman-CEO] Ken Olshan and [Creative Director] Charlie Moss and make family with them. They didn't join. They sat back and said `O.K., now you run it and send back the money.' If Charlie and Ken had been ideally suited psychically for each other, I never would have allowed the merger to happen. ...Ken and Charlie, if you could get them to work together, were like magic. ...But they have two totally different ways of approaching life and totally different ways of handling themselves. So you kind of had to keep them together. But together they were phenomenal. ... I made that very clear to all the French but I don't think they understood me. ... It was inevitable Ken and Charlie were going to resent the idea of the merger sooner or later. Ken was put on the hot seat of constantly having to come up with more and more money. Which puts pressure on clients, and clients don't like being sold, naturally.

How do you want people to remember Wells Rich Greene and its contributions to advertising?

We really wanted to create miracles. We were interested in the miracle business. We wanted to be shamans and we really thought we could be. ... We wanted an agency that was geared to doing very big things... We very much thought that the obvious direction for TV was motion pictures, that you take an idea and wind it into a small motion picture so that the person who left the commercial understood it in great depth, they experienced it. Primarily, I'd like Wells Rich Greene to be remembered as an agency that genuinely believed that advertising worked, that it really worked, and if you handled it right it can be a miracle. But I also want it to be remembered as the agency that changed television advertising maybe more than anybody else.

WRG came of age at a time of revolution in the ad business. What do you think of the evolution of the ad business since then?

Agencies got bigger and bigger and bigger in order to handle the requirements of companies that were merging and getting bigger and bigger and bigger and globalization as a whole. ... Business was so good that the focus on what you were actually getting out of what you were building was less important than the fact people were doing well. In that process, the CEOs of most of the large companies were focused on other things. It wasn't like Roy [Chapin, chairman-CEO] at American Motors and me creating a new automobile together. Or Harding and me creating a new airline together. People were not looking at their advertising agency. ... Most of their marketing was delegated down to perfectly talented people but not those who were necessarily in those jobs because they were crazy about advertising or necessarily believed in advertising. They were professionals who were in those jobs to finally get to the top where what you deal with is money. ... I think people forgot that advertising works.

What was the impact of that?

Advertising became far less glamorous, far less exciting. Nobody was looking to it to perform miracles ... therefore the people who were in it felt less talented, less and less important ... [creative people] started being ashamed of what they were doing. I used to go to a dinner party and the host would take me and say `I want you to meet Mary Wells, she's in advertising,' and everybody would say `Oh!' They'd be so excited. ...In the last 10 years a lot of people in advertising had to sneak in with their tails between their legs. ... There's a kind of sick feeling it's not important.

Do you see that changing?

Now that those at the tops of large companies can't feel their fingers and their toes, there's hope that some of them will. There are already a few. I think [Lou] Gerstner, for example, when he changed the total advertising climate at IBM. ...You can almost pick out the people like Gerstner that through this enlargement era have been obviously aware of the magic in marketing. ... There will be people who are smart enough who will come back to realizing advertising works, and they will then take an interest in what is going on in advertising. ... You will see a shift. It's going to come from the client.

There's a debate about whether public ownership of ad agencies lets agencies understand the pressure on their clients or whether it makes them too focused on short-term results.

As far as making you understand your clients better, it's a forced method of being more efficient financially. ... It was a colossal, time-consuming hindrance to us. ... There's no question that public ownership helps you get resources to add to your spectrum of marketing services. But I never found public ownership to be attractive enough to employees five days after. I never found that they ever made one single decision on the basis of whether or not it would make the company more profitable.

If agencies have lost a strategic role, is there any way of getting it back?

Yes, when people start facing up to the fact that they have been ignoring a major tool in advertising and they start looking down and trying to feel their fingers. ... Agencies must have a really good relationship with their companies. Take beers, for example. Heineken and Lee Garfinkel. He's a staggering talent, certainly one of the great talents in the industry. If you take the Heineken and Budweiser accounts ... there's something about the Budweiser and Heineken advertising that is so well thought out for that industry. And that industry is so aware of advertising. It is one of the markets that is extremely aware of how competitive their business is and how much advertising plays a role in that.

Bill Bernbach topped Ad Age's list of the most influential people in advertising in last century. Do you have a sense of who his creative successors are today?

Bill changed an era. And Charlie [Moss] and I changed the TV advertising world. The `60s helped. We were much more ambitious and audacious and we were able to persuade and clients were looking for that. Right now, how would you do a thing like that? If a client doesn't believe in advertising, how in the world do you take an audacious idea to him? You can't even get on his schedule. He doesn't want you to give him an idea to change his company. He wants to merge with Barry Diller or something. But that can be changed. I'm convinced that can be changed. ... When they need advertising to work it'll be back...and then you'll know whether a Lee Garfinkel or Lee Clow is a Bill Bernbach.

You were the highest paid woman in advertising in your day. Is there a level playing field for women in advertising today?

It's there. But you know there are not a lot of women running a lot of companies. ... Maybe what it takes to build a company is so consuming that it cuts off so many interests that women have. ... Maybe women don't want to [run agencies] because it cuts off so much of their life. It may be that women are smart enough to say, `Why should I do that? What's so terrific about that? What's so wonderful about that?'

You also ranked high in Ad Age's Ad Century list. Is there a responsibility that comes with being an advertising icon?

I don't think about whether I had a big success. I'm really about learning. First of all, you learn by your mistakes. They by far are what has strengthened me. I'm very strong. Much stronger now than I ever was... I have a lot left to do. I'm not an icon yet. Maybe I will be in another 20 years.

What mistake would you say is the biggest one?

If I made a mistake at Wells Rich Greene, it was that I should have been more conscious and started earlier on nurturing people to replace me. I should have created that climate. Almost up to the end the climate was a Mary-ology. And I didn't do that partly because I didn't think I was ever going to leave. ...We were a close knit group, we were like a tank force and we operated together swinging through the trees...we all made it possible for each other to do what we all did. And I was so happy. I was so happy.

How did your cancer affect your life?

The first cancer I just forgot about. The second cancer I had all these psychic experiences and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. It opened up a whole aspect of myself that had been dormant.... I got much stronger and I got much more careful and more thoughtful. And it enormously enriched my life. That cancer I look back on as one of the few blessings in my life.

Giving your experience with cancer, do you have any regrets having worked for Philip Morris?

Sure. Of course. At the time that we were advertising them, we all felt quite indignant because we believed this was a kind of an attack on the cigarette industry that wasn't fair, that wasn't right.... Of course today we know so much more.

You mention in your book that retirement is death to a lot of CEOs. What has it been to you?

I haven't retired. The advertising business is one aspect of my life. There are all kinds of things in my life I am doing. I have two books going now. ... I'm still going to go to India and [although] I would never work for anyone again, I've been [entertaining] a couple of things, one with a very large company and another an advertising situation. ...I'm not going to get on a leash for anybody. But then I have a couple of other ideas. I've just started.

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