Mary Wells Lawrence, High-Profile Advertising Pioneer, Dies at 95

She was the first woman to own and run a major national advertising agency. Her company, Wells Rich Greene, was best known for the “I ♥ NY” campaign.

A black and white photo of two men and a woman posing for the camera against an entirely white background. Ms. Wells had collar-length blond hair and wore a round-necked business dress. The men, both with dark hair, wore dark suits and ties. One man, with dark-framed eyeglasses, who was sitting in the foreground, held up a lit cigarette.
Mary Wells Lawrence in 1966 with Dick Rich (seated) and Stewart Greene, her associates at Wells Rich Greene. Together they created advertising campaigns that defied orthodoxy, often turning old-fashioned selling into entertainment.

Robert D. McFadden

She splashed jazzy colors on Braniff airliners. She put the “plop plop, fizz fizz” into Alka-Seltzer. 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 ♥ 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 on 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 chief executive 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 a million dollars 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.

The world of advertising has changed dramatically since her day. Most agencies that nurtured creativity and made commercials with hummable music, talented acting, clever writing and deft strategies to reinforce brands and products have long since given way to corporate giants led by chief executives not closely involved in actual ad production, which relies heavily on market research and pictorially on digital tricks.

But 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 ♥ 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 the 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 Mr. 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 Gov. Hugh L. Carey in 1980, and the Glaser logo, a staple of television ads, still appears on millions of T-shirts, buttons, caps and posters.

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Wells Rich Greene’s “I ♥ NY” campaign, which began in 1977, went on for years and became one of the most successful in history.Credit…no credit

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 both the city and the state.

Even before forming their own agency, Ms. Wells Lawrence, Mr. Rich and Mr. 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 “Alka-Seltzer 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-in-cheek 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 L. 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.

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For Braniff International Airways, Ms. Wells came up with the idea to transform the airline’s drab planes and uniforms. “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. (Mr. Rich died in 2014, Mr. 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 salesman.

Mary was shy, and her mother enrolled her in acting, dancing and music classes. She first performed at the Youngstown Playhouse when she was 5, and at 17 she began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

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 Mr. Lawrence, Braniff’s president. Mr. Lawrence died in 2002.

In addition to Ms. 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 $60,000-a-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 Mr. Rich and Mr. 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 high-profile 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 chairman 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.”

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Ms. Wells Lawrence at her home in Manhattan in 2012. The New York Times once described her as “arguably the most powerful and successful woman ever to work in advertising.”Credit…Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

Mr. Rich and Mr. Greene quit, too. Mr. Rich joined her as treasurer and copy chief of the new agency, Mr. 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.

She took her agency public in 1968. In 1977, she profited handsomely by reverting to private ownership. Annual billings eventually reached $885 million, with clients including IBM, Procter & Gamble, Ford, American Motors, Cadbury Schweppes, MCI Communications, Hertz, Philip Morris, and Pan American and Trans World Airlines.

Her friends became a who’s who of American politics, entertainment, communications and corporate life. She was named Woman of the Year by the American Advertising Federation in 1971 and inducted into the American Advertising Hall of Fame in 1999.

In the 1980s, she survived uterine and breast cancer.

Ms. Wells Lawrence had homes in New York and the south of France, but spent most months in later years aboard her yacht in the Mediterranean. In 2020, she relocated to London. Since 2008 she had worked on wowOwow, a website for women, with her friends the book publisher Joni Evans, the columnists Peggy Noonan and Liz Smith, and the broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl. It was merged in 2010 with PureWow, a site aimed at a younger audience.

Michael S. Rosenwald contributed reporting.

Roy Walsh

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