When you think of the Mad Men era of advertising, you probably think of men. Of course you do because the show was called “Mad Men.” But, it wasn’t just men; in fact, one of the most powerful creative forces and one of the most powerful executives was a woman. By the title of this article, you probably think her name was Mary Wells Lawrence, and you would be correct. Gold star for you!
Mary launched her storied career in 1951 as a copywriter for McKelvey’s Department Store in Youngstown, Ohio. By 1952, she had moved to New York to become Macy’s fashion advertising manager. After stints at McCann Erickson and Lennen & Newell, Mary eventually ended up at Doyle Dane Bernbach, which she credits as a major influence on her subsequent career.
She then moved on to work for Jack Tinker as one of “Tinker’s Thinkers,” where she revolutionized Braniff International Airways to cement herself as a rising star in advertising.
The end of the plain plane.
With a background in theater, Mary had a flair for the dramatic and what she did with Braniff is nothing short of remarkable. “The end of the plain plane” was a simple enough concept. Wells recognized an opportunity — and remember, this was the mid-60s — to bring the airline up to date with the times. And not just by creating a campaign. She overhauled the look and feel of Braniff’s planes and how the stewardesses (the flight attendants of the time) dressed.
She hired a renowned artist and a famous fashion designer to “redesign every aspect of Braniff International Airways.” Emilio Pucci was tasked with overhauling the uniforms, while Alexander Girard was tasked with designing more than 17,000 elements, from the airplanes to the sugar packets.
The rebrand was a huge success leading to record growth and profits for the next 14 years.
Alka-Seltzer and insight.
Among her agency’s more famous campaigns is an Alka-Seltzer spot that doubled the product’s sales. This increase was due to an insight someone at Well’s agency had. If one Alka-Seltzer is effective, wouldn’t two be more effective? Practically overnight, Wells changed consumer behavior, and instead of one Alka-Seltzer tablet, people started taking two.
After being denied a promised promotion, Lawrence formed Well Rich Greene and assumed the duties of President. By 1968, she was the first female CEO listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and by 1969, she was the highest-paid executive in advertising. Along the way, her agency was responsible for a slew of great campaigns forever etched on the brains of anyone who watched TV in the 70s and 80s. They even won the Alka-Seltzer account from her former employer DDB who had won it a year earlier from her other employer Jack Tinker.
In the next few years, the audience was treated to Clio award winner “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” and “Try it, you’ll like it.
With the flick of my Bic…
Bic lighters are ubiquitous now, but in the early 70s, they were novel. People typically used Zippo lighters back then, which would last a lifetime, but you regularly had to change the flint and fill it with lighter fluid. Bic lighters, on the other hand, were meant to be disposable and ran on butane instead of lighter fluid. There’s a rabbit hole we could go down here talking about “fun with butane,” but we might save that for another post. In the meantime, enjoy another slice of the 70s. Oh, and try to keep your mind out of the gutter.
Raise your hand if you love New York.
There are a lot more examples of Well’s brilliance, but we’ll present two final commercials from Wells Rich Greene. Raise your hand if you’re sure, which is one of the catchiest jingles, and I love New York, a campaign that brought much-needed tourism to the city when it was struggling.
What can we learn?
The biggest takeaway is that commercials and advertising used to be way more entertaining and, we’d argue, more effective (they doubled Alka-Seltzer sales!). Granted, consumers weren’t bombarded with all the ads we’re subjected to today, but there’s something to be said for entertaining people instead of treating them like pieces of data. If you see the value in creative advertising that treats people like humans, you know what to do.