Five-minute memoir: Jane Maas recalls a close shave on Madison Avenue


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The Independent Culture

In 1976, the legendary advertising woman Mary Wells Lawrence enticed me to leave the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, where I had been happily working for 12 years, and join her. Ogilvy had promoted me from a junior copywriter to Creative Group Head, given me a small but steady raise every year, and made me a vice-president. I felt treasured.

My career was terribly important to me, not because of the income (I was married to an up-and-coming young architect), but because it was essential for my own self-worth. When I joined Ogilvy in 1964, I had two young daughters, one four, the other only one. In those days, it simply was not acceptable for a woman with children under 12 to work full-time unless she desperately needed the money. Other women looked down on us: we obviously were awful mothers. Men pitied us: we must be married to ne'er-do-wells, or why did we have to work? I ignored the criticism and arranged my priorities as: job first, husband second, children third. My extraordinary husband, Michael, understood and applauded.

Enter Mary Wells. Her agency, Wells Rich Greene, was without question the biggest creative force on Madison Avenue. Mary convinced Braniff Airlines to paint their planes all the colours of the rainbow, put the stewardesses in sexy Pucci outfits, and rename them 'hostesses'. Every copywriter on Madison Avenue wanted to be at Wells Rich Greene. And they wanted me.

What's more, they offered me a Creative Director title, a senior vice-presidency, and $20,000 more a year – an unheard-of jump in salary for that era. But on top of all that was the chance to work on Procter & Gamble accounts. Procter & Gamble knew more about successful marketing than any company in the world. I knew I would learn a lot. And be even more treasured. I accepted Mary's offer immediately.

What I soon learnt was that Mary had recently been scolded by P&G because her copywriters were not following the almost sacred 'brand strategy' that the client directed. The agency insisted on doing breakthrough creative work, even though it was for mundane products like underarm deodorants, soaps, and potato chips. They had hired me for my careful David Ogilvy training in following a strategic direction.

After months and months we finally filmed our first commercial, for the now defunct Prell shampoo, and Procter & Gamble immediately sent it out to be scored by consumers before putting it on air. My commercial – a good old-fashioned problem-solution spot – got the highest score Prell had achieved in years! More than ever before in my career, I felt I was the Golden Girl. I had, single-handed, saved the Procter & Gamble account for my agency!

The creatives all attended the big monthly agency screening, where the top management of the agency looked at all the recent advertising. My commercial came on. "That is the most Procter & Gamble commercial this agency has ever created," said Mary Wells Lawrence. I thought it was high praise. It wasn't.

The next day, Mary's Chief of Staff came into my office. It's a big raise, I figured. Or an executive vice-presidency. With an air of noblesse oblige, I invited him to sit down. "We are taking you off the P&G business," he said. I just stared at him. All of a sudden, I was having trouble breathing, so I panted out my question. "What am I going to work on?" He averted his eyes. "I don't know," he said. Then it hit me. They were probably going to fire me.

But the axe did not drop. For weeks I cried myself to sleep every night. And I woke up every morning with a heavy weight on my chest and a feeling of dread; I could barely drag myself to the office every morning. My fellow copywriters avoided me, as if being demoted were contagious.

Finally, I woke up. The only person who could save me was me. I volunteered for every chore in the agency: wrote brochures, filled in for writers on vacation, worked all night on new business pitches; I would have scrubbed floors. One day, Mary Lawrence called me into her office, and asked me to take a tiny new account under my wing. It was an assignment from the state of New York. Standing there, I realised it was Mary who had been protecting me all along.

That little account blossomed into 'I Love New York', one of the most storied campaigns in history. It has many fathers, but I am its only mother. It took me all over the world, led me to the presidency of a New York ad agency and election as Advertising Woman of the Year. In short, it made me famous. Today, nobody remembers the humiliation of my demotion. But I do. And when I think of it, I still cry.

Jane Maas is the author of 'Mad Women: the Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond' (Bantam Press)