Doyenne of Ads


By Mary Wells Lawrence

Knopf -- 307pp -- $26

Mary Wells Lawrence is the ad agency maverick who, from the 1960s to the '80s, taught the big-boy firms a thing or two. In addition to penning Alka-Seltzer's unforgettable "plop plop, fizz fizz," she led a glamorous life, marrying a dashing client, Braniff Airways CEO Harding Lawrence, and establishing her Côte d'Azur villa as party central for America's corporate elite. Such developments are engagingly described in Wells Lawrence's new book, A Big Life in Advertising. But the true worth of this breezy volume is its revelation about how the ad game really works: What matters is big ideas.

The author's influential agency, Wells Rich Greene, regularly demonstrated a flair for the catchy and dramatic. It got Braniff to paint its airplanes in a rainbow of colors, and was responsible for such enduring slogans as "I Love New York" and "Flick your Bic." In brisk prose, the author tells how she won and held such clients as Lufthansa and Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) while offering moving accounts of her personal life and her battles against cancer.

More important, she shows how a good advertising campaign can breathe life into a moribund product or company while backing rivals into a corner. In the late 1970s, for example, Ford Motor Co. (F ) was losing ground to smaller, well-crafted Japanese cars and had nothing to offer in the way of a credible response. Wells Lawrence details how her staff developed a branding campaign built around the slogan "Quality Is Job One." The line was intended to reassure Ford employees--as much as the American public--that the company wasn't about to turn out the lights. By her account, Ford's main agency, J. Walter Thompson, supported WRG's plan to make a stand on quality--for the Machiavellian reason that "quality was such a boring, humdrum subject that Wells Rich Greene would impale itself on it and then J. Walter Thompson could waltz along and pick up the [branding] account." The dramatic impact of the slogan, both on the public and on worker morale, ensured that this did not come to pass, and it enabled Ford to stake a claim on an issue that proved important to consumers.

Don't expect A Big Life to offer much introspection about the social or moral implications of advertising. No matter: The paradoxes of the business readily come through. Wells Lawrence may profess respect for consumers' intelligence, but she can't resist bragging about how she helped a retailer unload a railcar load of oversize jackets by persuading women that the clothes were "blown up divinely out of proportion, as only the French could do, to make you look thinner."

Fortunately, the author retains enough perspective to see such a subterfuge for what it is. Trying to reinvent a desperate Pan Am, she took a cue from luxury ocean liners and renamed the airline's coach class as cabin class, "where all the fun iswhere the young and the hip fly." Alas, she recalls, agency executives servicing the Pan Am account "reminded me of [that line] every time they returned from a 12-hour trip in cabin class."

If you're at all intrigued by the ad biz, A Big Life is where the fun is.

By Gerry Khermouch

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