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A Big Life in Advertising Hardcover – May 7, 2002

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 307 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (May 7, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375409122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375409127
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #979,363 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

A colorful mix of historical narrative, revealing personal memoir, and sassy industry tell-all, A Big Life in Advertising offers up Mary Wells Lawrence's bubbling take on life, love, and plugging products. Well, spills it into your lap, actually. Spanning four decades in the world of advertising and the life of one of its star players, A Big Life oozes with juicy details and insider revelations.

After an inspiring stint as one of the infamous Bill Bernbach's protégés, Lawrence really began her career at Jack Tinker & Partners, revolutionizing the images of such brands as Alka-Seltzer and Braniff Airways. But when denied the title of president, Lawrence "let loose the bear," as she puts it, and with the creative team of Stewart Greene and Dick Rich, set up shop as Wells Rich Greene. Over the course of the next quarter century, Lawrence and her cast of characters "made theatre out of the advertising business," giving brands like Benson & Hedges, American Motors, TWA, Midas, and Procter & Gamble's Gleem toothpaste their turn on the stage of stardom. While Lawrence's story is less about her agency's creative work and more about her impressions of and interactions with virtually everyone who was anyone in the advertising world of the '70s and '80s, she does include glimpses into her own childhood, life as a mother, and battles with cancer, adding a touch of reality to an otherwise glittering world. Some readers may feel Lawrence's opinion of her own beauty and charm plays too prominent a role in her reminiscing, but she was, after all, an adventurous queen bee in a glamorous world. Her chatty style of writing, and her ebullient enthusiasm for all she has experienced and accomplished, make this book read more like a novel than a memoir. It's an entertaining, fast-paced tale of a big star's big life. --S. Ketchum

From Publishers Weekly

When an autobiography's first sentence pays tribute to a memory of little black dance dresses that showed off the author's Norwegian legs, you know you're in for something grand. Lawrence doesn't disappoint, with this memoir about her rise in the advertising world of the 1960s, when a Volkswagen ad that cried "Think Small" was considered revolutionary. She writes first about working with the legendary Bill Bernbach at his agency, where she crafted well-regarded, theatrical Betty Crocker ads to sell the first instant casserole mixes, then describes starting her own agency with her mother as receptionist. One of the visionaries of 20th-century advertising, Lawrence was also a woman in a man's business world, and a youngster pitching bold ideas to fusty older corporate types. But her robust approach got noticed, and taglines like "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz: oh, what a relief it is!" and especially "I love New York" still loom large in the public's memory. Her candor in describing her agency's failures and her own problems during the heady, mostly successful run of the company give the book weight and humanity, imparting some cautionary tales for those in the biz. However, it's Lawrence's generally upbeat tone that lingers past the last page. She delivers a beguiling look inside 30 years of the zippy, fast-moving ad culture and does so with the kind of witty, charming self-deprecation often seen in the ads she created. Photos.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

If you're in advertising, this is a must read.
Jill Ross
To those of us who encounter frustration during our own quest for happiness, she would probably recommend "Plop plop, fizz fizz...."
Robert Morris
I remember as I was getting to the end of this book an overwhelming feeling of uselessness and trivia.
Tom Field

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By frumiousb VINE VOICE on October 22, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was not expecting a lot from this book. It was recommended to me, and I picked it up in a half-hearted way. I thought it was something that I would breeze through and forget about. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. I found it a book that I both enjoyed reading and would recommend. At least, I would recommend it with some reservations.

The good sides of the book appear in her instructive stories about the advertising business. Lawrence brings the message across very clearly that advertising is relationship driven. A successful agency must focus on relationships both with the client and with the intended audience. Lawrence gives an example of success achieved by taking that focus to its limits.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect (and one that should appeal to students of business history) is advertising reception at a time that was much less marketing saturated than we are today. She had an opportunity to be a giant with emerging technology and in an emerging field. It makes for terrific reading.

My reservation about the book has to do with the writing quality. Her tone is extremely chatty. At the beginning, I tripped over the awkwardness of the prose. The organisational principle of the book was vague. Timeframes shift without warning or explanation. Finally, while the mix of personal and business anecdotes was entertaining, there were times that it moved far too swiftly from one to another. Still, she gets points for writing this book on her own and not with a ghost writer. I have the feeling that the reader was better off with its flaws than with a more inauthentic voice.

I am not in the advertising field, and I really enjoyed the book. People interested in one of the following areas should find something here: media, advertising, entrepeneurship, women in industry, business history, or pop culture. It also has a great can-do view of the world, inspiring to anyone who needs a push towards success.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By middlemoo on May 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in business in general, and advertising specifically. Mary Wells Lawrence relates the "facts" of her professional life story well, and even delves a little bit into her personal life. The keys/reminders of how the best business relationships are forged are peppered among tales of how she WON the business, almost LOST clients and then miraculously redeemed the situation, and this adds drama and sometimes makes for compelling reading. She never goes beneath the surface, however, and ultimately this wasn't as satisfying a read as I'd hoped for. She might have revealed some of her worst FLUBS, as well - disasters tend to be even more revealing than successes, and we certainly learn more from failure! She also rarely tells her own emotional "take" on the events of her life - After reading this, I have no doubt that she's had A BIG LIFE - but she's holding back so much, the reader is never "clued in" as to what REALLY matters in this BIG LIFE of hers!?
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Narcissism never had it so good. The personal pronoun is overdone even though this is an autobiography. This book lacks context in almost every instance. Years from now, many readers will remember that Mary Wells and Harding Lawrence had a grand time living on the French Riviera and the Caribbean. They won't have more than a clue how the couple worked together on Braniff (which went bankrupt), or how Mary came to claim and reclaim the Continental Airlines account (bankrupt a couple of times) or felt about a client with little chances for long-term success, American Motors (bought-out before it could go bankrupt). (See the pattern here?) The writing is sometimes a twisted jumble -- one can almost envision the author speaking into a tape recorder as she "wrote" this book. If you're inclined to get this volume, a used paperback will suffice.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I was especially interested in reading this memoir after having recently read Byron's study of Martha Stewart, curious to learn what Lawrence and Stewart seem to share in common (both professionally and personally) and to learn, also, to what extent they differ. Predictably, "that depends" at which point in time correlations are drawn Both have exceptional intelligence and energy, a flare for drama, uncommon business acumen, and a passion to succeed...especially in a business world (then and now) dominated by men. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this book is a memoir from Lawrence's perspective whereas Byron's book (which apparently has infuriated Stewart) offers his perspective (not hers) on arguably the world's most successful businesswoman. Presumably at some point, Stewart will tell her own story just as others such as Bob Knight, Vernon Jordan, Jack Welch, and Sumner Redstone have in their own recently published memoirs.
Lawrence did indeed have a :"big life in advertising," founding and then heading her own firm (Wells Rich Greene) for more than 30 years. Of special interest to me is what she has to say about the corporate leadership and management principles which guided and informed her during her three decades as a CEO. I agree with Ruth Shalit's characterization of that style as being "the CEO as It Girl, a jingle-writing, brand-building, Holly Golightly" but as Shalit then observes, "Ms. Wells Lawrence's blend of female emotionalism and careerist cunning is unlikely to delight management theorists or university synmposiasts." In this instance, Lawrence really does seem to be "one of a kind," as is Herb Kelleher, but surely there is much more to their success (in two of the most ferociously competitive marketplaces) than having a powerful personality.
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