There’s a scene in Season Five of “Mad Men” when Pete Campbell, in an effort to drum up some publicity for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, gets a reporter interested in including the agency in a “New York Times Magazine” piece about hot new shops. When the article comes out, however, SCDP doesn’t make the cut. But if you look quickly you’ll see that Wells Rich & Greene does, making the fictional Pete about as furious as his real-life counterparts were at the time. “Why do they get all the attention?” he fumes.
Or put another way – just how did a girl from Poland, Ohio became the queen of the advertising world, leading an agency that would create some of the most famous advertising campaigns of its time – like Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz”, Bic Lighters (remember those?) “Flic your Bic” and New York’s “I Love New York” to name only a few – marry a millionaire and retire to a villa on the Mediterranean?
“A Big Life (in Advertising)”, the 2002 memoir of Mary Wells Lawrence, answers those questions. Well, sort of.
Now, part of the challenge in reviewing a memoir is that you have to be clear – both to the reader and yourself – that you’re reviewing the work and not the person. Even though the two are inextricably interconnected. And this is especially true of this memoir. For Ms. Lawrence was perhaps the most famous female advertising executive of her generation – perhaps of any generation – almost from the moment she started writing for McCann, and the resurgence of interest in the “Mad Men” era has done nothing to diminish her fame.
But that notoriety came with a lot of heat. Gloria Steinem, for example, famously said that Wells had “Uncle Tommed her way to the top” (a claim that clearly still annoys her, and serves as a launching pad for a multi-page screed about women in positions of authority in the middle of the book.) And when Don Draper sees a picture of her and Dick Rich and Stewart Greene, he remarks “they look like Peter Paul and Mary”.
But there was a reason for that. If DDB fired the opening shots of the creative revolution, Wells Rich & Green carpetbombed Madison Avenue on a level that would have made General Westmoreland wet himself. “We are the agency of today” she would tell Newsweek in 1966. And they were.
As a result, the stories from the old days, the hey-day of Wells Rich & Greene, that make up the bulk of the text, are, of course, fascinating and we are fortunate to have them documented here. That they feel a bit polished from the kind of careful retelling that would help build her brand is probably to be expected. For one of the things that comes through in “A Big Life” is that Ms. Lawrence is a woman who has always known the value of things – and that is especially true of her own personal history. Indeed, while she never worked for David Ogilvy, if anyone inherited the mantle of using personal history to create public myth from that master, it was her.
The later stories, however, devolve into the kind of shadowplay and spreadsheets that are probably inevitable in the kind of highstakes business world that WRG and Ms. Lawrence rose to, but which nonetheless make for less compelling reading. It’s far easier, it would seem, to make the winning of Braniff and the revolutionizing of airplane marketing exciting. But the story of the principals of your agency losing interest in advertising and losing patience with each other is more difficult to write about without looking petty. In some cases, Ms. Wells just avoids it altogether. In others, you rather wish she had.
But that’s the way it is with memoirs – the early story is clear, and the closer you get to the present, the harder it becomes to keep the narrative straight because you don’t know how it’s going to end. Parts of our lives may be seen to have arcs, but who among us can see the arc of our whole life, honestly, truthfully, clearly, and without personal bias?
Thus, that one wishes for more from Ms. Lawrence is perhaps asking too much (though an interesting perspective can be found in Stephen Fox’s “The Mirror Makers” which we reviewed here).
Then again, as “A Big Life” makes clear, Ms. Lawrence never met a challenge she didn’t like. So perhaps it’s time for a second edition.