Mary Wells Lawrence, High-Profile Advertising Pioneer, Dies at 95

She splashed jazzy colors on Braniff airliners. She put the “plop plop, fizz fizz” into Alka-Seltzer. She warned Benson & Hedges smokers that long cigarettes might pop balloons or set fire to beards. And from Niagara Falls to Broadway, she reached millions with her “I ♥ NY” campaign.

Mary Wells Lawrence, who grew up in Ohio, at 22 took her imagination and ambition to New York, where she broke through advertising’s male bastions of the 1960s, quit a prestigious job when she was denied a presidency, founded her own agency and dazzled Madison Avenue with vivid campaigns that became embedded in American culture. She died on Saturday morning in London. She was 95.

Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her daughter Katy Bryan.

Ms. Wells Lawrence was the first woman to own and run a major national advertising agency — Wells Rich Greene — and the first female chief executive of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In the 1970s, she was reputed to be the industry’s most highly paid executive, with a salary of more than $300,000 (more than a million dollars in today’s currency).

She was “arguably the most powerful and successful woman ever to work in advertising,” Stuart Elliott, who was then the advertising columnist of The New York Times, wrote in 2002 of Ms. Wells Lawrence, who sold her agency for $160 million (about $385 million today) and retired in 1990.

The world of advertising has changed dramatically since her day. Most agencies that nurtured creativity and made commercials with hummable music, talented acting, clever writing and deft strategies to reinforce brands and products have long since given way to corporate giants led by chief executives not closely involved in actual ad production, which relies heavily on market research and pictorially on digital tricks.

But in a pioneering career across four decades, including 24 years as her own boss, Ms. Wells Lawrence and her colleagues, Dick Rich and Stewart Greene, created hands-on campaigns that defied orthodoxy, took chances and, with flashes of wit and insight, often turned old-fashioned selling into entertainment. Sometimes they radically changed public perceptions.

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