PW met Mary Wells Lawrence at her suite at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. Nestled among animal-print pillows and sipping espresso, the wide-eyed, lively doyenne of advertising spoke about her book, A Big Life in Advertising.
PW: What was writing the book like?
MWL: I loved that I was totally in charge. There was nothing collaborative about it. When you run an advertising agency, you spend a great deal of your time getting the best out of other people. Writing the book, I got to enjoy my own mind, instead of directing somebody else's. The book industry is new to me. I've been reading about it a lot, and I love the people I've met in it. If you're looking for intelligent, even intellectual people who have very high standards—not only of your craftsmanship and abilities, but also of your qualities as a human being—you're going to find it there.
PW: Why did you write it?
MWL: Mainly, because I felt badly and guilty about the way that the talented people at the agency [Wells Rich Greene] had been mistreated and the way they had been left, sort of, like ghosts. When I sold my interest in the company, I left feeling like a mother who had produced children, brought them all up, and at 21 they were all geniuses. Then it went down in the hands of strangers. It was a series of mergers and purchases and chief executive officers who had nothing at all to do with the 20 or 30 years of Wells Rich Greene. The only thing I could do that would restore what those people were and what the agency was about was to write a book.
PW: Who do you think is going to read it?
MWL: Anybody who is or would like to be in advertising, or is studying marketing and advertising, or anyone who is employing advertising agencies. There has never been a book written about building an advertising agency that is not only a philosophic, intellectualized explanation about it, but is also full of the stories that bring it to life.
PW: What do you make of the current advertising economy?
MWL: I think it will come back, because advertising works. It is an essential, effective industry. The attention has been taken away from the most important person of all, which is the person who buys the product or service advertised. Right now, we're in a nihilist period where nobody wants to be sold to, and to sell is somehow degrading. But it doesn't work not to want to sell. After the war, people were dying to buy, and they found advertising thrilling. I think that will return.
PW: You say that in the late '50s, advertising was a glamorous business. Why?
MWL: It was glamorous in the sense that nobody really took it seriously. The ladies wore hats, everybody smoked cigarettes, people worked 9:30 to 5 and everybody had long drink lunches. People felt they were in a glamorous world because it was new and fresh. When I would be taken to a dinner party, I was glamorous because I was in advertising. People would say, "This is Mary Wells. She's in advertising," and everybody would say, "Ooh!"
PW: What do you think of book advertisements?
MWL: They're like wallpaper. There's a tradition in them. Publishers want their books to sell, but obviously, selling them is not a high priority. There's a gap there. They certainly love it when a good book sells, but they're thrilled because they love the idea that a lot of people have read the book. In this industry, it's not about the money. That's why the advertising is the way it is.