Mary Wells Lawrence, Ad Legend

by | Jun 19, 2020

Mary Wells Lawrence, 92, is about to be named the new “Lion of St. Mark” by Cannes International Festival of Creativity. She will be honored through the LIONS Live platform on Friday 26 June.

Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, founders of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, were honored with the Lion of St. Mark Award at the 2019 Festival. For what it’s worth, the advertising lifetime award has nada to do with Mark the Evangelist. But it is an esteemed honor and one Mary Wells Lawrence well deserves for her legendary accomplishments and monumental achievements.

In 1971 Lawrence was named Advertising Woman of the Year by the American Advertising Federation, and in 1999 she was inducted into the American Advertising Hall of Fame. Her autobiography, A Big Life (in Advertising), was published in 2002.

Mary said, “Awareness of the time you are in is at the core of any business of persuasion, but I think my particular strength is my belief in passion – caring obviously and emotionally about how IMPORTANT what I am selling is.” In other words, to create believers you must first be a believer.

Mary was also an emotionalist. “I want to leave you FEELING about it – nervous if you are doing something else. Like falling in love,” she said.

The Lady from Youngstown Took No Prisoners

Mary is one of nine Ad Legends featured in my Ad Legends Workshop, which I first delivered at Signal Theory in Kansas City last December, and again the next day at the agency’s Wichita office.

Illustration by Jason Walton

Mary started working in advertising at McKelvey’s department store in Youngstown, Ohio—her hometown, and a city known for producing tough-minded people (and football coaches). She wanted to move to Manhattan and join the big leagues, which she did. She became the advertising manager at Macy’s. Like Leo Burnett, Mary started as an in-house creative.

She then jumped over to McCann before joining DDB, where Phyllis Robinson was the copy chief.

She was a powerful and sometimes controversial woman. Mary admits to using her looks to open doors to new accounts and using her charm to sell. She also has received criticism for failing to promote women or socialize with women. I can’t speak to the accuracy of those claims. I’m not sure anyone but Mary can do that, at this point. What we do know is she was the youngest person ever inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame at the age of 40. Many of us also know through experience and observation that strong, successful women are often targeted on the job by both men and women.

Fifty Years Ago, Braniff Was Flying High (Largely, Because of Mary)

Mary knew how to make relatable advertising or advertising that people can easily relate to. She also knew how to appeal to the customer in a way that could not be ignored.

The following ad would never be made today. It’s blatantly sexist by today’s standards. Nevertheless, 50 years ago when airplanes were full of men on business jaunts, this campaign lifted the client from its doldrums.

The client at Braniff, Harding Lawrence, credited “the end of the plain plane” and its “air strip” philosophy—where flight attendants changed their Pucci-designed uniforms in flight—for the airline’s revitalization. He also married a recently divorced Mary Wells.

With the Braniff account in tow, Mary left Tinker, the creative boutique where she worked to open Rich Wells Greene on April 4th, 1966 in New York City. Within six months the new agency had $30M in billings and its glamorous female creative head was considered the highest-paid woman in the world.

When Legendary Campaigns Flowed Like Wine…

Mary and her team made legendary ads for many companies and her lines continue to resonate in today’s culture.

“Flick your Bic” is Mary. “Trust the Midas Touch” is Mary. “I love NY” is Mary. So is, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

Mary’s advertising career was truly incredible. Like Helen Lansdowne Resor before her, Mary worked her way to the top of a man’s world, on her terms.

I think today’s ad makers can learn to appreciate her ambition and drive. Her need to love the product is also hugely instructive. When a brand blows smoke, the ads stink. And a brand will blow smoke when the people who make their ads care more about their next trip to Cannes than they do about seeing the client succeed.

Mary rocked many boats. There’s a fearlessness in this woman that I admire and a fierceness. Getting clients on board with a difficult idea that might make them famous is tricky business. It’s a business for magicians who can hold a room of powerful execs spellbound.

How did Mary do it? She got her clients to imagine more, and to dream bigger. When we do this today, everyone wins.