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Life After Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz

In her book, an advertising lion reflects on making it in a man's world

June 11, 2002|IRENE LACHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The woman who persuaded America to flick its Bic and love New York is marveling at how much Los Angeles has changed over the last decade. "I expected Century City," Mary Wells Lawrence says as her pearl-gray Manolos click briskly down the path to her suite at the Hotel Bel-Air. "That was pretty much ordained. But Wilshire Boulevard, I can't get over Wilshire Boulevard. It's a canyon of glass."

Voila. A quick snapshot of a prettified Los Angeles courtesy of one of America's premier image makers, the woman who envisioned and touted the pink beaches of Peru--even if she had to send her creative director there twice to find them because they were that evanescent, glimmering pink only in the briefest shard of light.

It's been more than a decade since Lawrence has had reason to come here as the peripatetic chief executive of the advertising powerhouse that bore her name, Wells Rich Greene. Before the firm was sold in 1990 to a French agency that eventually sank it, the agency was a virtual factory of pop icons, or plop icons, as the case may be.

Her agency urged America to seek relief in Alka-Seltzer's plop, plop, fizz, fizz, and to Midasize its cars. It helped save American Motors from bankruptcy with its campaign launching the Javelin and lifted up the sagging Ford Motor Co. with bootstraps that asserted "Quality Is Job One." Earlier in her career, when commercial air travel of the mid-'60s hadn't progressed much beyond its military roots in offering creature comforts, Lawrence and her team declared "the end of the plain plane" at Braniff Airways, directing their client to paint its aircraft bright colors and dress its stewardesses in Pucci. (She later married Braniff's dashing CEO, Harding Lawrence, who died in January.)

Along the way, Mary Wells Lawrence, now 73, helped transform the advertising industry by updating the unadorned sales pitch with production values borrowed from Hollywood. Dubbed "the gray flannel gal" by the media, she made business history twice--as the first woman to head an advertising agency and the first woman CEO of a company on the New York Stock Exchange. Her relentless drive earned her a place in the Advertising Hall of Fame as well as vacation homes in the Caribbean island of Mustique and St. Jean Cap Ferrat in the south of France where she partied with Princess Grace. Her drive also engendered a less savory badge of distinction on Madison Avenue--the nickname Queen of the Black Widow Spiders.

"Some of Madison Avenue's old guard decided women were dangerous to the advertising community," she writes in her new memoir, "A Big Life (in Advertising)" (Knopf). The Wall Street Journal has called the book "charming," and the New York Times said, "That era of 60-second spots and lunches at La Cote Basque is evocatively and compellingly brought back to life" in Lawrence's reminiscences.

In "A Big Life," the queen glowingly recounts her more-than-three-decade reign, which she abdicated when the agency was sold. The book is filled with the sort of superlatives you might expect from someone whose job it was to turn stumbling blocks into steppingstones--or at least the public's perceptions of them. In a typical burst of enthusiasm for her own work, Lawrence likens her leadership style to a veritable galaxy of A-list movie directors:

"I was the director, sometimes the star," she writes. "The people I hired were the cast of characters and I was Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola or Robert Altman--whatever it took to make them as good as they could possibly be."

In person, Lawrence is far more circumspect and introspective than she appears in print. That's partly the result of her second battle against cancer 15 years ago. The experience of beating breast cancer forced her to shift her sights beyond her career, which had long laid claim to her talent for focusing intensely. "Surviving cancer intensifies your awareness of other people's problems and makes you want to help everyone in the world who needs help," she writes.

At this point in her life, she questions some decisions she made when she treated doubt as a luxury. Lawrence says that now she wouldn't do cigarette advertising, which her agency did for longtime client Philip Morris. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life," she says. "I'd be more critical today about almost anything. That's age. But at the time, people were concerned about drugs, not cigarettes."

Lawrence is petite and stylish, with huge blue eyes the color of Delft china, high cheekbones and a patrician nose. As she speaks, her eyes sweep the room like searchlights, occasionally resting on her interviewer. As a high-profile woman in the '70s when feminism was still finding its way, she was once castigated by Gloria Steinem as an Uncle Tom for buying into the male power structure. But Lawrence has no apologies for taking on men at their own game.

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