Adventures in Feministory: Mad Woman Mary Wells

This post originally ran in October of 2009, but seeing how Mary Wells got a shout out on Mad Men last night, we thought it was worth revisiting.

black and white photo of Mary Wells at her deskRecently, some friends and I saw the film Art & Copy, a documentary about the creative minds that make up the best of the advertising business. Now, there is a lot to be said about the problems inherent in advertising, but even the most skeptical viewer in our group (me), had to admit that she was impressed by the poise, tenacity, and apparent coolness of some of the film’s subjects, especially Mary Wells.

(Oh, and before we continue, remember there is another really awesome Mary Wells, the Queen of Motown. This is not that Mary Wells. Take note: Naming your daughter [or yourself] Mary Wells could prove to be a really good idea!)

Mary Wells was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1928. As a young woman, she moved to New York City and worked in the advertising department at Macy’s and from there she was hired to write copy for the ad agency McCann-Erickson (isn’t she totally like a real-life Peggy Olson?). After spending a few years writing awesome ad copy (oh, and getting married and divorced and remarried and having children) she took a position at Doyle Dane Bernbach, which, according to Art & Copy, was pretty hot stuff indeed.

Moving forward in her career, Wells left DDB to join yet another cutting-edge ad agency, Jack Tinker & Partners, where she launched the campaign that made her famous:

With her “The End of the Plain Plane” campaign for Braniff, Wells showed her creativity and knack for knowing what people wanted in a product. Its success allowed her to start her own firm, Wells Rich Greene, and by 1969 she was the highest-paid executive in the advertising world (look out, Roger Sterling!). She was also the first female CEO of a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange (click here for a more detailed timeline of her business dealings. They were many.).

Wells’ creative mind is responsible for many ad campaigns we still recognize today, among them are “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” “I ♥ New York,” and “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” She cracked through the glass ceiling in the world of advertising during an era when women were rarely encouraged to leave the secretary pool, and she proved herself more than worthy of the money and accolades she received as a result. She is still proving herself worthy, with her contributions to wowOwow (a women’s culture web site) and her book A Big Life in Advertising (which a friend told me is excellent).

In addition, Wells’s energy level and overall classiness as it is portrayed in Art & Copy made me feel like a schlubby layabout if there ever was one. She is 81 years old and her work ethic (not to mention fashion sense) puts this 27-year old to shame. Check her out in the trailer for Art & Copy, and see the movie too!

So let’s raise a glass (hey, this is advertising after all) to Mary Wells. Her ingenuity, tenacity, savvy, and awesomeness has inspired many women over the decades, and I’m sure it will continue to do so.

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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