September 7, 2008
 

An Open Letter to Mary Wells Lawrence

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(June 1st, 2002)

By Tim McHale

Dear Ms. Wells Lawrence: I read with great interest the exclusive announcement which ran on Memorial Day in Stuart Elliott's New York Times Advertising column about your getting back into the advertising game.

I think that's great news, for you and the business itself. As you know, this business is not for the feint of heart, so hats off to you for making such a "big" re-emergence. You're back, and better than ever. And as usual, your timing is perfect.

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As you know more than most, "Star Quality" has been and always will be what Madison Avenue is all about.

Mary, the Internet needs you, badly. The world's largest corporations, many of which are your former clients are struggling with it. If you hang a new shingle out announcing you're going to focus on cross-platform, leveraging the power of both traditional and interactive media, you could make an even bigger difference than your first time around.

My concern though is that the comments you made regarding the business has much to do with traditional media. There has never been anything traditional about you. So before you choose exactly which part of the business to engage with first, I urge you to apply your talented efforts this second time around to the interactive marketing game, something many of your contemporaries today consider unthinkable.

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To date, from a creative standpoint, interactive media has been a vast wasteland. It needs a voice, yours. As Madison Avenue's once (and potentially future) fair princess, you and only you can kiss this ugly frog of a medium and magically transform it into the prince of all media.

Go where you are needed most. Become the Mother Theresa of interactive marketing. Other than the late, great Jay Chiat, no other major force in traditional marketing has had much curiosity or chutzpah to pursue interactive media. Just look at how every agency holding company recommends it to clients. At best, interactive media gets about maybe 1% of the media spend, with 90% still going to TV.

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Ms. Wells Lawrence, you have the leadership capability to transform the Internet from the scrawny kid who gets sand kicked in his face on the beach into the Charles Atlas capability it possesses. I'd be surprised if the television business would welcome you with as much passion, warmth and sincerity. Where else do you think you will have this much opportunity to make a difference? Primetime? With interactive media, that's about 1 PM EST. You're one of the few with the talent, the imagination and the guts to turn this "at work" medium into a thriving marketplace workhorse.

Once upon a time, I was employed by Wells, Rich, Greene from the late 70's to the early 80's. I remember the suite of offices in what was then the General Motors Building. Wells Rich Greene's welcome video promised that beginning with my employment, I would be joining a team of stars. Star creatives, star account people and star brands as clients.

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I bought it hook, line and sinker. Only thing is, I was joining the Wells media department, not the creative department. So, after the HR welcome, I was shuffled off to the back of the plane, to another building down the street, back in steerage class. 660 Madison back then was more modest, clearly coach-level class as compared to the creative department, which resided in the GM Building.

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In retrospect, media was never your forte. Perhaps because back then it was largely about numbers. Things have changed. Media is somewhat more important than it used to be. In fact, some say it's an entirely different type of lever available to smart marketers. Just look at some landmark creative media deals. Surely, you're aware of BMW Films or the Revlon/All My Children deal, or the Ford/No Boundaries relationship. The old notion of Church and State has become much more like Cat & Mouse these days. This is a chance to round out your career.

Your point about ad agency holding companies not being interested in advertising is dead on. At this point, smart clients understand that "the love" agency holding company relationships offer is more like a straightjacket than a hug. What little energy there is on Madison Avenue is in the garage-like shops doing enormously productive and cutting edge interactive marketing work. It's where you should be. It's about to take off!

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One friend runs her shop like a booking agent for a stable-full of creative and production people. She's busy, profitable and has no overhead. Her teams all work freelance and out of their own apartments. In fact she brags that QA'ing their work is a breeze. She says her team does their best work when they're at home cranking in front of their computer, comfortable in their sweats, pajamas, or depending on the weather, wearing nothing more than their Skivvies. Kind of reminds me of one of the last print campaigns you were involved with on Benson & Hedges. Remember the guy in the pajamas ad?

The truth is, you're getting back into the game in order to feel the pulse of your blood race through your veins again. Adrenaline creates big memories, but only when you put your ass on the line.

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You know this. Surely it can't be for the money. Think about this, seriously. Madison Avenue is calling. At the risk of closing with one of the oldest and most insincere of all advertising bromides, let's have lunch!!!

Written by Tim McHale in 2002 for MediaPost, upon the publication of her book, "A Big Life In Advertising".

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