A pioneer in a Mad Men’s world

In the world of advertising in 1966,when the current Mad Men season began,the most talked-about figure on Madison Avenue was Mary Wells

Written by New York Times | Published: June 17, 2012 2:57 am

Since Mad Men arrived five years ago,immediately ascending to the status of compulsion,we’ve been spared few reminiscences from survivors of corporate debauchery in mid-20th-century Manhattan.

Coinciding with the start of the series’ fifth season in March came Jane Maas’ memoir,Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ‘60s and Beyond,for which the author,former Ogilvy & Mather creative director,gave numerous interviews,one of them containing a distinctly prescient bit of analysis. In a conversation with the Los Angeles Times,Maas argued that female copywriters were far more populous in advertising agencies in the 1960s than Mad Men suggests. If the character of Peggy Olson weren’t soon surrounded by female peers or given a significant promotion,Maas predicted,she would leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for a rival agency or start her own.

The end of this season has delivered us precisely to this point. Peggy,having accumulated the indignities patriarchy reflexively bestowed on her,decided to take a $19,000-a-year job as copy chief in the offices of a glamorous competitor. In the actual world of advertising in 1966,when the current season began,the most talked-about figure on Madison Avenue was the trim and determined Mary Wells,who hopscotched over the era’s endemic prejudices to develop Wells Rich Greene,the iconic agency she would run for more than two decades. Not long after,in 1967,as a single mother of two children,she married Harding Lawrence,president of Braniff International Airways and her most significant client,to embark on a life of chic entrepreneurial power coupledom that has been virtually unmatched since.

Mary Wells Lawrence,who is now 83 and divides her time between New York and a yacht she keeps in the Mediterranean,has led the fan-fiction version of Peggy Olson’s life. From the initial glimmers of Peggy’s ambition,observers have speculated that she served,at least in part,as the character’s inspiration,but Lawrence’s drive was something unsurpassed.

As one of the most powerful advertising figures of the ‘60s,Lawrence created campaigns for Alka-Seltzer,TWA and Procter & Gamble,among many other companies,and branded Braniff as the airline of the jet set. It was her idea to outfit stewardesses in Pucci and to paint planes in pastel colors in order to exploit the cultural mood of excitement and vitality,the sense of a world opening up,that she thought the dull aesthetic of airports decidedly lacked.

By the end of its first year,Wells Rich Greene had 100 employees and $39 million in billings. Later,it was responsible for helping resurrect the city’s deteriorating image with song,slogan and ethos: I (HEART) New York.

She has been relatively silent on the subject of Mad Men since the series began. “It was a clever time,” she said. “It was about becoming a star,about wearing a hat in a peculiar way. There was a great value placed on eccentricity. I think the leading advertising talents of that time—men or women—would tell you that Mad Men is a terrific show and great fun but really not about the ad world of the ‘60s.”

After college and a stint writing copy in a department store,Lawrence found work at McCann Erickson in Manhattan. Widely celebrated for her work at Jack Tinker and Partners later on,she felt entitled to ask for the presidency in 1966. Her boss,told her that he could give her the authority to do whatever she wanted but couldn’t offer the title because if he did,‘No one would come,’ Lawrence recounted.

“He could see I was feeling a red rage,and at that point I just walked out the door,” she said. “It wasn’t as though I wanted to be Betty Friedan. I just wanted my own agency.”

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