The Boston Globe

Mary Wells Lawrence, 95; ad executive behind ‘I (heart) NY’ campaign

- By Robert D. McFadden

She splashed jazzy colors on braniff airliners. She put the “plop plop, fizz fizz” into AlkaSeltze­r. She warned benson & Hedges smokers that long cigarettes might pop balloons or set fire to beards. And from niagara Falls to broadway, she reached millions with her “I (heart) nY” campaign.

mary Wells lawrence, who grew up in Ohio, at 22 took her imaginatio­n and ambition to new York, where she broke through advertisin­g’s male bastions of the 1960s, quit a prestigiou­s job when she was denied a presidency, founded her own agency, and dazzled madison Avenue with vivid campaigns that became embedded in American culture. She died Saturday morning in london. She was 95.

Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her daughter Katy bryan.

ms. Wells lawrence was the first woman to own and run a major national advertisin­g agency — Wells Rich greene — and the first female cEO of a company listed on the new York Stock Exchange. In the 1970s, she was reputed to be the industry’s most highly paid executive, with a salary of more than $300,000 (more than $1 million in today’s currency).

She was “arguably the most powerful and successful woman ever to work in advertisin­g,” Stuart Elliott, who was then the advertisin­g columnist of the new York times, wrote in 2002 of ms. Wells lawrence, who sold her agency for $160 million (about $385 million today) and retired in 1990.

In a pioneering career across four decades, including 24 years as her own boss, ms. Wells lawrence and her colleagues, Dick Rich and Stewart greene, created hands-on campaigns that defied orthodoxy, took chances, and, with flashes of wit and insight, often turned old-fashioned selling into entertainm­ent. Sometimes they radically changed public perception­s.

Her agency’s best-known campaign was “I (heart) nY,” which began in 1977, when new York city’s social fabric seemed to be fraying, with dangerous streets littered with garbage and graffiti, a serial killer at large, and racial strife. to resurrect tourism in the city and around new York state, the state hired Wells Rich greene and graphic designer milton glaser, who devised the heart logo to go with the campaign’s catchphras­e.

“the first commercial we made ended with Frank langella as Dracula,” ms. Wells lawrence recalled in a memoir, “A big life (in Advertisin­g)” (2002). It was shot with machine-generated fog outside the martin beck theater on 45th Street in midtown, where langella was starring as that famous vampire. “Swirling in his Dracula cape, he looks into your eyes and says thrillingl­y, ‘I love new York — especially in the evening.’”

Stars of broadway, Hollywood, and the metropolit­an Opera, political leaders and hosts of celebritie­s appeared in the ads. the “I love new York” song, composed by Steve Karmen, was declared the state anthem by governor Hugh carey in 1980, and the glaser logo, a staple of television ads, still appears on millions of t-shirts, buttons, caps, and posters.

Originally meant to last only a few months, the campaign went on for years, growing into one of the most successful and imitated in history. It instilled pride in new Yorkers and brought tourism roaring back as a key industry of the city and the state.

Even before forming their own agency, ms. Wells lawrence, Rich, and greene made memorable commercial­s in the 1960s for Jack tinker & Partners, a subsidiary of the advertisin­g giant Interpubli­c.

For Alka-Seltzer, they shot two tablets dissolving in water as a catchy voice-over declared, “Plop-plop, fizz-fizz. Oh, what a relief it is!” they called it “AlkaSeltze­r on the Rocks.” Sales nearly doubled as consumers got into the habit of taking two tablets instead of one.

the agency introduced the 100-millimeter benson & Hedges cigarette with a tongue-incheek campaign that focused on the “disadvanta­ges” of smokes so lengthy that they set men’s beards afire or were squashed in the closing doors of a crowded elevator.

the campaign for braniff Internatio­nal Airways took another novel approach. A little-known airline that flew to mexico and South America, it had invested in new planes, and its new president, Harding lawrence, was desperate for recognitio­n.

“listen, mary,” he said, as she recalled in her memoir, “I need a very big idea for this airline, something so big it will make braniff important news overnight.”

She toured braniff ’s terminals, examined its planes and staff, and came away dismayed. the terminals “looked like a prison camp,” she said; the planes were drab “metallic or white”; flight attendants were “dressed to look like nurses.”

then it hit her — an idea to exploit the 1960s culture of rebel freedom, eccentrici­ty, and vitality. “I saw braniff in a wash of beautiful color,” she said.

the result was a fleet of airliners, each painted from nose to tail in one of seven bright hues: ocher, orange, turquoise, beige, yellow, and two other shades of blue. Interiors were decorated with Herman miller fabrics. terminal lounges were redesigned by Alexander girard with art from mexico and South America. Flight attendants were attired in Emilio Pucci fashions worn, and removed, in layers during flights, an idea called “the air strip.”

“the End of the Plain Plane,” advertisem­ents boasted, and “When you’ve got it — flaunt it!” braniff, suddenly the airline of the youthful jet set, reported an 80 percent leap in business.

ms. Wells lawrence sold Wells Rich greene to a French company in 1990. Eight years later, with most of its clients and management talent gone, the agency closed. (Rich died in 2014, greene in 2019.)

mary Wells lawrence was born mary georgene berg in Youngstown, Ohio, on may 25, 1928, the only child of Waldemar and Violet (meltz) berg. Her father was a furniture salesperso­n.

When she was 18, she enrolled in the carnegie Institute of technology in Pittsburgh, where she met bert Wells. they were married in 1949, divorced in 1952, remarried in 1954, and divorced again in 1965. In 1967, she married lawrence, braniff ’s president. lawrence died in 2002.

In addition to bryan, ms. Wells lawrence is survived by another daughter, Pamela lombard; a stepson, State lawrence; a stepdaught­er, Deborah lawrence; and several grandchild­ren and great-grandchild­ren.

ms. Wells lawrence wrote ad copy for a Youngstown department store and was an ad manager for macy’s in new York in the early 1950s before joining the mccann-Erickson agency in 1953. She rose rapidly, but she felt undervalue­d. She joined Doyle Dane bernbach in 1957 and became a $40,000-a-year vice president in 1963. Her first memorable ad was for French tourism — a photo of an old man and a child, behind him, riding a bicycle on a country road.

“think you’ve seen France?” the caption read. “think again.”

In 1964, she took a $60,000a-year senior partnershi­p with Jack tinker & Partners, one of many agencies in the Interpubli­c group. the job, she told Fortune magazine, held “the promise of eventual command.” She and a small group, including Rich and greene, known as “tinker’s thinkers,” rented an office away from madison Avenue’s bustle and devised the Alka-Seltzer and braniff campaigns.

In 1966, having several highprofil­e campaigns under her belt and feeling entitled, ms. Wells lawrence asked for the presidency of tinker & Partners. Her boss, marion Harper Jr., the president and chair of Interpubli­c, told her that he would give her presidenti­al authority but not the title; a woman, he said, could not win acceptance as president.

It was her moment of truth. “He could see that I was feeling a red rage,” she told the times in 2012. “And he said, ‘You wouldn’t want to ruin something you built.’ And at that point I just walked out the door. It wasn’t as though I wanted to be betty Friedan. I just wanted my own agency.”

Rich and greene quit, too. Rich joined her as treasurer and copy chief of the new agency, greene as secretary and art director. they set up shop in a hotel suite, signed braniff as their first client, and soon won benson & Hedges, burma toiletries, and Utica club beer. Within months, ms. Wells lawrence was a national celebrity.

 ?? CASEY KElbAUgH/tHE nEW YORK tImES ?? Ms. Wells Lawrence was the first woman to own and run a major national advertisin­g agency — Wells Rich Greene.
CASEY KElbAUgH/tHE nEW YORK tImES Ms. Wells Lawrence was the first woman to own and run a major national advertisin­g agency — Wells Rich Greene.

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