VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Mary Wells Lawrence isn't done yet.
By all rights, she should be. At 73, the most successful woman to ever walk - make that strut - down Madison Avenue has written a tell-all book about her larger-than-life world of advertising and celebrity elbow-rubbing. A Big Life (in advertising) hits bookstores Tuesday.
That's just for starters.
The book might need a sequel. The Grande Dame of advertising tells USA TODAY that she is pondering what she would once have thought unfathomable: a return to Madison Avenue - possibly as a consultant. It would be like Lee Iacocca climbing back into the car world.
While Wells Lawrence isn't a household name, her work is legendary. She was the driving force behind such hummable campaigns from the 1960s through the 1980s as New York City's "I Love New York," Alka-Seltzer's "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" and Ford's "Quality is Job One." She ran the hottest agency amid an explosion of creativity on Madison Avenue. Then she, soon followed by her shop, vanished into the ad world ether.
Here, where she was visiting friends last week, Wells Lawrence discussed her future, and her storied past, in a five-hour interview. She says it's her first in-depth newspaper interview since founding Wells Rich Greene in 1966.
She has been a veritable recluse from her industry, a la Greta Garbo, since she sold her ad agency for $160 million in 1990. She took up a family-focused life split between an estate in the south of France and a grand home in the West Indies celebrity haven of Mustique.
"Of course, I'm a legend," Wells Lawrence responds without hesitation to a reporter's question. "But it's not because of any great gift I have. It's because I'm a risk taker."
And Wells Lawrence is again embracing the spotlight after more than a decade in the shadows. A nationwide book tour begins next week. Next month, she's the keynote speaker for the American Advertising Federation's national conference in Miami. And Hollywood has come calling to put her book on the big screen. She won't name the studio, but she envisions Michelle Pfeiffer playing her.
With good reason: Business savvy aside, Wells Lawrence also was regarded as Madison Avenue's CEO beauty queen. With calendar art legs, penetrating eyes and bottle-blond hair, she could eclipse the starlets in her agency's TV spots. (She still dyes her hair blond. "Ashen gray may look better in New York. But blond looks better on Mustique," she says.)
Wells Lawrence was the first woman to found, own and run a major ad agency. The New York Stock Exchange says she was the first female CEO of a company traded on the Big Board.
Why - decades after she founded Wells Rich Greene - aren't more women running major ad agencies? "This will probably get me in hot water, but maybe women are too smart," she says, without blinking. "Maybe women have quietly decided to let the men do all that. Women want more meaningful lives that are richer, with more feeling, more variety and more possibilities." This from the woman who ran one of Madison Avenue's hottest ad agencies for 23 years.
The power on the throne
Just how powerful was Wells Lawrence in her heyday? Maurice Saatchi, the kingpin of British advertising who founded the world's largest ad conglomerate, puts it this way: "If Mary had decided to go into politics instead of advertising, she'd have been America's first female president."
Wells Lawrence laughs at this. But Saatchi insists his biggest "mistake" was failing to persuade Wells Lawrence to let him buy her agency a dozen years ago. Saatchi was even willing to name her CEO of his holding company.
That's one decision she wishes she could take back. "We would have set the world on fire," she says. "But advertising changed. It got big and boring," she says of the mega-agencies that began to form in the 1980s. "Otherwise, I'd probably still be in advertising."
A Big Life (in advertising) will make her, at least temporarily, the talk of Madison Avenue again. The book is rife with gossip. Like the time it took a weepy chorus girl to coax Frank Sinatra to do a second take for his famous "I Love New York" TV commercial. Or how only professional jealousy persuaded Broadway icon Yul Brynner to appear in the same campaign.
Or why Peter Sellers would only appear in TWA ads under the guarantee that no one on the set would wear purple clothing (his mother hated purple). Or how Wells Lawrence got her personal friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, to break bread with her best clients in Mustique.
Why write the book? It was no easy task - she did 10 rewrites. Wells Lawrence says she wanted to set the record straight.
Her agency no longer exists - a victim of the mega-merger mania in the 1980s and 1990s. At one point, it was purchased by the French, then the English. What little was left went to U.S. conglomerate Omnicom. Then, without enough clients to survive, the agency shut its doors in 1998.
"The agency was once about miracles, talent and a love for the advertising business," says Wells Lawrence, who says she seriously considered buying back her agency in the late 1990s. "Then, a 30-year love affair suddenly ended."
And another. Recently, her husband of 35 years, Harding Lawrence, former head of Braniff Airways, died after a long illness. Wells Lawrence, who rarely left his side, says she's seeking a new challenge. "If you're not satisfied with your life, it's time to invent a new one."
More than a decade after kissing advertising good-bye, she's having high-powered discussions about putting her trademark creative spark back on Madison Avenue in a consulting role. She won't say to whom she's talking.
But, she says - her half-dollar-size hazel eyes widening: "Imagine a company that specializes in waking up global marketers to their boring idiocy."
She doesn't want to resurrect the old agency. She just wants to remind the world that if Madison Avenue ever had its own Camelot, it might have been the agency that had her name on the door.
She also wants to remind Madison Avenue that in her view, only one type of advertising works: theatrical. Not just cute. Not just funny. Dramatic.
"The best advertising should make you nervous about what you're not buying," she says. "There's too much smart-ass advertising today - and not enough that emotionally moves consumers to go out and buy something."
Nobody knows that better than Charlie Moss. For decades, he was the creative director who labored under what he calls the "charismatic spell" of Wells Lawrence. "Mary was to Madison Avenue what Muhammad Ali was to boxing," he says. She won by intimidation and by street smarts. "If she ever sensed things were going too smoothly at the agency, she'd turn things upside down," Moss says.
Wells Lawrence says it was intentional.
"If people weren't crying, screaming and yelling, we rarely got big ideas," she says. "There's an atmosphere of tyranny that is required for people to stretch. I expected - demanded - a small miracle from each employee daily."
But she paid them well, and herself, too. In the mid-1970s, when she was earning a then-astronomical $300,000-plus annual salary, she was the highest-paid woman in advertising. She'd come a long way from the one-time painfully shy only child who spent much of her childhood in Poland, Ohio, at the library.
Wells Lawrence still turns heads. But, she insists, "I'm not fancy." On this day, she wears a simple tan sweater and slacks. But the interview takes place in her two-story suite at the Four Seasons. And when an eye infection acts up, her New York ophthalmologist returns the call faster than a broker sensing a buy order.
A life worth savoring
Clearly, she adores the good life. There's her $40 million home in Mustique, which towers above neighbor Mick Jagger's. There's the palatial home in southern France that she sold for $60 million. And there's the flat in London, which she plans to move into in June.
"I knew our life wasn't exactly normal," recalls her daughter, Katy Bryan, a vice president at J.P. Morgan. "Our friends would go to the lake in their station wagons for the weekend, while we boarded planes for Acapulco."
Wells Lawrence pampered her staff nearly as well as she pampered herself.
Moss savors one plane ride to client Alka-Seltzer's offices in Elkhart, Ind. No airline food on this ride: Wells Lawrence had one of New York's top French bistros cater bag lunches. "The guy at the desk said we couldn't take (the food) on, but Mary talked him into it," he says.
Wells Lawrence has spent a lifetime talking a lot of people into a lot of things.
She talked Braniff Airlines into letting artist Alexander Calder paint its planes every color short of pink and dressing its flight attendants in sexy outfits by designer Emilio Pucci.
She talked American Motors into running the first-ever car comparison ads that compared Javelins with Mustangs.
She talked Benson & Hedges into letting its then-unusual 100-millimeter-long cigarettes be made fun of by unintentionally setting beards on fire, popping balloons and getting crushed by closing elevators.
The two-time cancer survivor (who never smoked, but whose husband, a heavy smoker, died of emphysema and lung cancer) regrets doing cigarette ads. "I wouldn't do it now," she says. "Based on the knowledge (of cigarette health hazards) we have today, we'd make a different decision." But, she says, "I don't feel I owe anyone an apology."
As for her cancers, first of the uterus, then the breast, she doesn't believe it was fate. "I think you get cancer from stress," she says. "I was akin to every single thing that went on at that agency. You can't live that intensely and not get something."
Even then, she says, she'd do it all again, in a New York minute.
"I defy you to find someone who's had a better life than
me," she almost shouts, for a moment sounding more like Madison Avenue's imperious
queen than its sweet-voiced Snow White. "I'll eat