- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

This book is magnificent. The ostensible subject is one woman's career in advertising. The leitmotif you have to look for it, but it's there is the human potential for redemption. Mary Wells Lawrence was one of the supernovas of advertising's 1960s "Creative Revolution." More than just another pretty ad, she founded her own agency, Wells Rich Greene (WRG), and in 1971 became the first woman to head a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Flamboyant, intense, and, as she puts it, "known to exercise my dramatic abilities," she ran her agency (and her life) "as if it was a motion-picture company with a lot of productions happening at one time." She retired in 1990 and has lived since in a privacy as intense as her former life was public. Sadly, her husband of over 30 years, Harding Lawrence, died last January.
"A Big Life in Advertising" starts exactly as you'd expect a Mary Wells Lawrence memoir to start. "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."
The next 160 pages are pure fun. Sexy New York late-twentysomething, out of Ohio via Pittsburgh, in love with advertising, goes to work for the genius who launched the Revolution. Conventional wisdom held that automobile advertisements had to worship the product. Doyle, Dane Bernbach turned out the Volkswagen "Think Small" campaign. Advertising etiquette forbade direct comparisons with competitors. Bernbach did the Avis "We're Number Two/We Try Harder" campaign. Both became cultural treasures.
Bill Bernbach proved that advertising could be whimsical, sophisticated, understated, and do wonderful things for the client's bottom line. Mary Wells absorbed the lesson, then moved on to Jack Tinker & Partners. There she revitalized Alka-Seltzer by that still-delightful "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In" commercial. En passant, she discovered that, while the package recommended one tablet, it often took two to get any real relief. Plop. Plop. Fizz. Fizz. Sales doubled.
She also rescued Braniff Airlines by painting and redecorating the planes, by garbing the stewardesses (now renamed "hostesses") with layered outfits they could discard one item at a time during the flight (the "Air Strip"), and by announcing "The End of the Plain Plane." Understatement was yielding to Aquarian theatricality. Braniff CEO Harding Lawrence fell in love with more than the ads.
In 1966, Marion Harper, boss of InterPublic (Tinker's parent corporation) told her that, yes, he had promised her the presidency of the agency when she was ready. Yes, she was ready. But America wasn't. She could have the power and the salary of the CEO, not the title. She resigned on the spot. Five years later, WRG had grown faster than any new agency in history and Mrs. Lawrence's managerial style find the best people, overpay them, give them large wastebaskets, then turn them loose was churning out gem after jewel.
But WRG was no flaky creative boutique. Trendy ads were based upon extensive research and immersion in both product and company. Savvy marketing mattered.
Midas Muffler, for one example. WRG realized that the real competition was not the main competitor, Meinecke. It was all the little service stations who did mufflers as a sideline. Hence the Midas "We only do one thing, we have to do a better job" campaign. Ford, for another. Japanese imports were the competition, but the real enemy was demoralization, both at Ford and in a country that had seemingly lost faith in itself. Hence the "Quality Is Job #1" campaign.
And then there was "I Love (insert the heart symbol here) New York," undertaken to promote tourism, but also to give New Yorkers a much needed morale transfusion in an era of looming bankruptcy, long garbage strikes, rising crime, and corporate exodus.
And so it goes for the first half of the book: easy recollection, delightful, self-deprecating vignettes of self and others. Mrs. Lawrence, to her great credit, says virtually nothing negative or catty about anyone. She could have.
Then the author's persona changes. It happens on a single page. Mrs. Lawrence recounts that she and her husband were in bed, watching feminist icon Gloria Steinem on TV. Miss Steinem was asked about Mary Wells Lawrence. Miss Steinem replied: "Oh, well, Mary Wells Uncle Tommed it to the top."
Replies Mrs. Lawrence, three decades later: "I didn't preach it. I did it."
Gone now the glib, sexy, jet-setting blonde, laughing at her own success. The voice is that of wisdom, of a woman who has done important things and paid dearly for the right to do them. If the first half of the book reminded me of adman Jerry Della Femina's "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor," the second half evokes "Present at the Creation," Dean Acheson's memoir of his years as secretary of state under Harry Truman. Mary Wells Lawrence was certainly present at the creation of advertising's Creative Revolution. But now she may be participating, albeit unawares, in the creation of something more.
In 1987, during her second bout with cancer, Mrs. Lawrence had a dream in which she felt the words, "You are a Gnostic seer. You know." She'd never heard of Gnosticism before. A quick trip to the dictionary and an encounter with Hans Jonas' "The Gnostic Religion" (written before the Nag Hammadi manuscript discoveries and the subsequent explosion of gnostic scholarship) showed her that, all her life, she'd possessed a faith dormant within this civilization these last 1,500 years.
What makes this fascinating is not just that it happened to Mary Wells Lawrence. This type of experience (I confess to my own) and sensibility has, in recent years, been percolating through American culture. It's part of a larger, though still inchoate and mostly unnoticed, movement: a neo-classical revival that also includes the recovery of Stoicism and many other intellectual and spiritual aspects of late antiquity. Most readers will probably dismiss her musings, not uncharitably, as the transient desperation of a sick and aging woman. This would be wrong. There's more involved here, a cultural phenomenon, and Mrs. Lawrence made her career by an uncanny ability to spot, to experience, to speak to, and to intensify, deep cultural changes.
Here I speculate.
More and more of late, I've been pondering the possibility of a Baby Boomer "late style," a recombinance of Sixties sensibilities (now chastened and disciplined) and the wisdoms of late antiquity. In some ways, "A Big Life" seems one more piece of that puzzle. Though Mrs. Lawrence's career spanned four decades, it was the Sixties that made her. But she writes only superficially of that period, and does so in a hesitant manner, as though to say: No, that's not all there was. There's something missing. It's still unfinished and in need of … what?
Mary Wells Lawrence did her best work for a certain kind of client. "I was," she writes, "a sucker for anyone looking for a miracle." Her ads did more than make you smile and buy the goods. They redeemed both advertising and the companies she served. Maybe, just maybe, there's a bit more redemption in the Mary Wells Lawrence magic.
In 1969, at her induction ceremony into the Copywriters Hall of Fame, she told the audience: "I've got impact you haven't felt yet."
Sure hope so.

Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security affairs at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and president of Areta, a cultural affairs center. He is also the author of "From Salesmanship to Therapy: Advertising, Politics, and American Culture."

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