Commentary

Ad Critics Are From Mars, Ad Women Are From Venus

In an unlikely confluence of long plane rides and professional diligence, I have actually finished three books on advertising in the last three months: Bob Garfield's "And Now a Word From Me," Mary Wells Lawrence's "A Big Life," and Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval's "Bang!". Now, I'd rather visit the proctologist than read business books, but a personal connection to all three authors compelled me (I worked for Mary, although I never met her; worked with Linda and still do on occasion; and worked over Bob, albeit briefly in a poker game). Each of these books reflects the distinct personalities of the authors and their respective careers in the business. But as I started thinking about them collectively, I realized that the similarities between Mary's and Linda's books, when juxtaposed with Bob's, led me to conclude that ad critics are from Mars and ad women are from Venus.

Bob Garfield's book is a critic's rant, which focuses on the "colossal shortcomings" of most advertising. He is indeed an outsider looking in, marveling at the occasional big idea while focusing on what he believes is the cause of so much bad work. It is so like the Martians of John Gray's book to offer solutions when Garfield himself has never experienced the joy of creating a breakthrough campaign. When he devotes an entire chapter to the "preposterous cult of rule breaking," you know this is a man working hard to find something new to say. Bob's recommendation is that you play it safe, because breaking the rules "is the road to extreme suckiness." Yikes! Now, Bob's always been a great raconteur, and the speech he does stumping for the book is a side-splitter. But--good advice? Well, not according to the "Scheherazade of advertising" and her heir apparent.

Without the benefit of Mr. Garfield's counsel to do otherwise, Mary Wells Lawrence ignored the rules of the day, painting planes, breaking cigarettes, comparing cars, and popping Alka Seltzers. From her humble beginnings in Youngstown, Ohio, Mary became the first female CEO in the business, and built her agency, Wells Rich Greene, into a genuine powerhouse that nearly acquired DDB. And although her book is less a how to than a howdy do, it is not too hard to glean the secrets of her success. She hired brilliant talent that she knew how to inspire, cajole, and reward. She built enduring relationships with top CEOs, including Henry Ford, through a calculated blend of social and professional attentiveness. And she broke the rules whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Having wrangled the Aflac duck, inspired Herbal Essence orgasms, and penned the "I don't want to grow up" jingle for Toys R Us, Linda Kaplan Thaler's whole career counters most of Mr. Garfield's points. Noting that "creativity is not about safety; it is dramatically opposed to it," Linda makes a strong case for breaking the rules just as Mary did before her. In an almost comical stab at traditional industry practice, Linda tells of "eliminating everyone on the team who had worked on shampoo advertising" in an ultimately successful run at the Herbal Essence businesses. (As an ironic side note, it was the decline of Wells Rich Greene that led Linda Kaplan Thaler to leave that agency and start the Kaplan Thaler Group with her co-author, Robin Koval.)

Despite their remarkably different personalities, Mary and Linda share a common love of big ideas, hard work, and the camaraderie that only comes from being in the trenches when the account is on the line. Both emphasize the importance of show business, each having trained in theater before entering ad land. Both rely heavily on "female intuition," with Linda going so far as to suggest that "perhaps the reason we at KTG are so successful at tapping into the consumer's psyche is that we are [a] firm run by women." And while their books are as different as these two women, both remind us that greatness is achieved not by avoiding failure, as Mr. Garfield suggests, but by having the cajones to take big risks.

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