Advertising Woman of the Year in 1971, Mary Georgene Berg Wells (born 1928) was an advertising executive who rose from a department store copy-writer to the chief executive officer of one of the largest advertising firms in the world.
Born Mary Georgene Berg on May 25, 1928, she was the only child of Waldemar, a furniture-maker, and Violet in Youngstown, Ohio. When Mary was five years old, her mother enrolled her in elocution classes to help the child overcome shyness. Subsequently, she took music, drama, and dance lessons and participated in amateur and semiprofessional theater productions. Upon finishing high school, Mary moved to New York City to enroll in the Neighborhood School of the Theater. After one year she left to pursue a career in merchandising at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where she met and married Burt Wells, an industrial design student. The couple moved back to Youngstown where she worked as an advertising writer for Mckelvey's department store bargain basement.
When she and her husband settled in New York City in 1952, Wells was promptly hired by Macy's as a copywriter. There she learned to write convincing copy that was well received by customers. At 23 years of age, she was promoted to the position of fashion advertising manager for Macy's. Then she was approached by several Madison Avenue advertising agencies that were impressed with her effective advertisements.
Her introduction to Madison Avenue, the heart of the advertising industry, came with a job offer from McCann-Erickson. There she learned to create ads using a variety of media, including television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and billboards, for many different businesses. But it was not until she accepted a job with Doyle, Dane, Bernbach that Wells was truly challenged. DDB was one of the most innovative agencies at that time; it took a low-key approach to advertising and had created humorous and successful campaigns for Avis Rent-A-Car and Volkswagen, among others. The climate at DDB was most stimulating, and she garnered respect as a creative, insightful writer, advancing her career by designing original campaigns. By 1963 Wells was vice-president and copy chief with an annual salary of $40, 000. Over the years her elocution lessons paid off, and she became a dynamic speaker and communicator. These skills were further honed and perfected during her employment with DDB.
Feeling the need for more independence, Wells elected to move to Jack Tinker and Partners. This agency encouraged employees to participate in a cooperative, freethinking, and loosely-organized setting. At a salary of $60, 000, Wells was given virtually free rein. For her first account, she was teamed up with Richard Rich and Stuart Greene to handle Alka-Seltzer. The campaign produced wryly humorous commercials that won several industry awards. She then landed the Braniff International Airline account. Harding Lawrence, the president of Braniff, wanted the agency to create a new image for the airline, one which would result in increased revenues. Wells, Rich, and Greene created an avant-garde campaign that was an overwhelming success. The slogan, "The End of the Plain Plane, " was substantiated by painting each of the planes one of several bright colors. In addition, Emilio Pucci was hired to design new uniforms for the flight attendants, and Alexander Girard was commissioned to restyle the airplane interiors. Despite being dubbed "the Easter-egg airline" by industry critics, sales increased 41 percent and profits rose 114 percent.
Wells' career also took off. By 1966 she was making almost $80, 000 a year, but when Jack Tinker and Partners requested that she sign a long-term contract she opted to leave the company. Rich and Greene resigned at the same time. Ultimately, the three colleagues decided to start their own agency. With an investment of $30, 000 each and a $100, 000 bank loan, they created Wells, Rich and Greene, Incorporated. They were immediately flooded with calls both from potential employees and from clients eager to sign a contract. Their first client was Braniff, a $6.5 million account. WRG proved their ability and gained momentum without ever soliciting business. Within six months they had billings of $30 million, landing such accounts as Benson and Hedges cigarettes and Personna razor blades.
After the first year they signed Hunt-Wesson Foods, General Mills, and American Motors and had reached annual billings of $70 million. Wells soon advanced up the corporate ladder, assuming the roles of chairman of the board, chief executive officer, chief administrator, and chief "presenter." In 1965 she divorced her first husband and married Harding Lawrence of Braniff in 1967. WRG resigned the Braniff account, whose parent company feared a conflict of interest. To replace it, WRG signed on the TWA account, which had an advertising budget of $22 million.
WRG's dynamic growth can be directly credited to Wells. She was considered the best conceptualizer in the advertising industry, and in 1971 she was honored as Advertising Woman of the Year by the American Advertising Federation. She was also awarded the Clio Award for TV spots with recurring taglines, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" and "Try it— you'll like it." The philosophy of WRG was "to create tasteful, respectful, attention-getting advertising capable of increasing sales and market share promptly." By staying with this credo, WRG grew to be one of the top advertising agencies in the United States.
Wells' skills as a creator and planner of advertising were matched by her executive abilities. She was a hard-driving, ambitious, and particularly demanding boss. Wells' astute financial sense benefited both the company and Wells personally. The company's billing increased from $36.7 million in 1967 to $767 million in 1988. During that same time, Wells' salary increased to over $300, 000, and she was one of the best-paid women executives in the world. In 1968 WRG went public, at which time Wells took out $1, 208, 000 in cash and retained shares valued at more than $4 million. When she returned the company to private ownership in 1974, through a bonds-for-stock exchange, she again profited handsomely.
Wells' impact on the advertising industry was enormous. Her awards included Marketing Stateswoman of the Year, the Clio Award, and Advertising Woman of the Year. She was inducted into the Copywriter's Hall Fame as its youngest member in 1969. In the 1980s Wells continued to hold the position of WRG chief executive officer, although she was less involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. In 1990 she announced her retirement as president of WRG at the age of 62. The advertising giant she created reported annual billings of $850, 348, 000 with a staff of more than 300 employees in 1995.
Further Reading on Mary Georgene Berg Wells
The most comprehensive account of Mary Wells' career appears in Possible Dream by Marthe Gross (1970). A shorter account appears in Enterprising Women (1976) by Caroline Bird. There is also a full biography in Ingham, editor, Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders (1978). She is also included in standard reference works such as Biography Almanac, 3rd edition, Who's Who in Business and Finance (1974), and Who's Who in the East (1974). There are a number of good magazine articles on Mary Wells and her agency. Among the best are: Journal of Marketing (January 1972), Vogue (February 1978), Fortune (August 1966), and Newsweek (October 3, 1966). Later information on Mary Wells and her agency appears in Advertising Age (August 1, 1988) and Business Week (October 3, 1988). Stewart Fox, The Mirror Makers (1985), provides information on Wells and other advertising industry figures. After retirement in 1990 Wells was reported to not accept interviews.