Real life Mad Men! I just finished reading her memoir, A Big Life (In Advertising). Apparently, Mary was the one who inspired the Peggy Olson character in Mad Men. What a fantastic, inspiring woman! Reading her book reminded me of why I fell in love with advertising in the first place. I remember my first day in an agency, being bewildered by all the shenanigans. I honestly couldn’t believe that was a job and that people got paid to do it! But underneath all the play was something important… that gave way to insights that helped build brands and create positioning. In Mary’s words, “The best advertising should make you nervous about what you’re not buying.”

A little history lesson: her agency, Wells Rich & Greene, was responsible for iconic campaigns and brands like AlkaSeltzer, Braniff Airlines, American Motors, and B&H. Their work was smart and always had a point of view. It was unexpected and they really knew how to use the then-new medium, TV. Mary Wells Lawrence was the first female CEO of a company listed on the NYSE! And she seems to have been a master at networking and creating deep relationships with her clients.

Mary was glamorous! She had homes in NYC, in Dallas… a ranch in Arizona, a place in Mustique, and the most amazing villa on the French Riviera. She became best friends with Henry Ford. Grace Kelly was a guest at dinner parties, and Mary mentions how people would fall in love with her. But I wonder if that wasn’t also Mary’s power – her ability to make people fall in love with her.

More than anything, her reign was marked by access to the boardrooms. She tells stories of smoky rooms where the C-levels looked to her and her team for the ideas that would save their businesses and light the way forward. Well, that’s certainly not the norm today! Ad execs aren’t exactly commonplace in board rooms anymore. In fact, advertisers are one of the most hated types of professionals in the US… at least people hate car salesmen more than us!

Towards the end of her career, Mary realized that being global was no longer enough. Brands needed to become universal. And in order to do that, the agencies needed to be everywhere and do everything. Hence, the domination of acronyms in the ad world. We created an agency ecosystem where, in order to reach everywhere, everyone was connected and part of the same holding company. 

She also points to the fact that when she started, there was less hierarchy… less levels. But by the 80’s, the CEOs were surrounded by so many levels of people that they could no longer feel their fingers and toes. Agencies no longer had direct access, and the CEOs no longer looked to the agency for salvation. 

Which begs the question: How do we, as agencies, get back with the CEOs and into the boardrooms now that McKinsey has taken our places? How do we get back to advertising being a competitive advantage? We need to make everyone in the C-suite fall in love with advertising again. We need to advocate for our results and our work. It’s time to make advertising and marketing a competitive advantage again! It’s time to rebrand our industry!

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