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The Real Peggy Olsons: Three Ladies Who Paved the Way for Ad Women

Peggy Olson from Mad Men

(Photo courtesy of AMC)

As AMC’s period drama “Mad Men” comes to a close next month, viewers’ eyes will be on Peggy Olson. Since season one, Peggy has worked her way up in the office, from under-appreciated secretary to talented copy chief. She’s finally starting to earn a little respect in her male-dominated profession, but will she ever get the recognition she deserves?

Though Peggy struggles to assert herself as the only woman in the creative department, in real life, women have been involved in America’s advertising industry since its beginning. They played huge roles in its development, though they were hampered by unequal pay and limited leadership opportunities.

The advertising industry has had a presence in the U.S. since the first newspapers were published during the colonial era, but the industry quickly changed and grew after Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), requiring all food and drugs to label their ingredients, and the Federal Trade Commission Act (1914), forbidding false or dishonest advertising. Companies needed clever creative to be in compliance with these new rules and in New York City, advertising agencies began to set up shop on Madison Avenue, an ideal location that positioned them near their clientele. In time, the ad men in these jobs became known as “Mad Men.”

In honor of the real Peggy Olsons who kept pace — and, sometimes, outworked — the Don Drapers of Madison Ave., here are three of the many women who shattered glass ceilings in the advertising industry:

Mathidle C. Weil: the First American Ad Woman

Nearly 40 years before women earned the right to vote in the United States, Mathilde C. Weil became the first woman to open her own advertising agency in New York City.

A native of Germany, she came to the U.S. with her husband in the 1870s. After his sudden death, she began working as a translator — she spoke four languages — and earned additional income through newspaper and magazine writing. Through this work, she was introduced to the advertising business:

When Weil volunteered to secure advertising for a Germany society paper owned by the brother of her friend Meta Volkman, one of the accounts she first solicited was Sozodont toothpaste. Although the advertising manager could not offer any advertising for her publication, he could favor an order for another New York newspaper. Knowing nothing of the business, she offered the Sozodont order to the New York paper with the question “How will you recompense me for the same?” (source)

Weil quickly learned there was more money to be made in buying and selling media space than in writing for publications. Through her work, she made connections with other firms and gathered clients, and in 1880, she founded the M.C. Weil Agency and became the first ad woman in America. She worked at the agency until her death in 1903.

Helen Lansdowne Resor

(Photo courtesy of compkarma)

Helen Lansdowne Resor: The Suffragist Who Used Sex Appeal to Sell Ads

Some might decry the blatant objectification of women in advertising today, but in the early 1900s, it was a suffragist who created the first ad to use sex appeal to sell products.

In 1911, Helen Lansdowne Resor, of J. Walter Thompson Co., launched the famous Woodbury Soap campaign (“A Skin You Love To Touch”). This sensational ad didn’t focus directly on the product. Instead, it hinted at the promise of what might happen if the consumer were to buy and use the soap. The ad created a woman that other women aspired to be, and many similar ads followed in its wake.

An ad for Woodbury Facial Soap

The Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1916

This idea wasn’t Resor’s only contribution to the world of advertising. She was one of the first women to successfully write and plan national ads. She recognized that women had buying power as the managers of their households, and she increased the number of ads targeted to their needs. These included products such as Crisco, cleaning supplies, and clothing. She also harnessed the power of endorsement advertising when she persuaded well-known women — including socialites and European royalty — to back products.

During the 1920s, JWT had a reputation of being the “women’s agency” because it was where “bright, young women would have the chance to succeed,” according to Denise Sutton, author of “Globalizing Ideal Beauty.” As Helen moved rose in prominence at the agency — she started as their first female copywriter and ended her career as vice-president — she created the Women’s Editorial Department. These female copywriters wrote ads targeted at women, based on the idea that women had a better idea of what women wanted than men did. That department accounted for more than half the agency’s billings.

Resor was a staunch supporter of the suffragist movement, and she and her employees marched in a celebration parade after women were given the right to vote. She died on Jan. 2, 1964 and was posthumously inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1916.

Mary Wells Lawrence

(Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail)

Mary Wells Lawrence: Breaker of Glass Ceilings

In 1966, a promising executive vice-president at Jack Tinker and Partners was told she could have the authority of a president, but not the title. She was a woman, and if a woman was president of the agency, “no [clients] would come,” according to her boss.

Mary Wells Lawrence already had a reputation as a force to be reckoned with on Madison Avenue. She had begun her career as a copywriter for a department store and at age 23, she joined the advertising department at Macy’s. She had climbed the corporate ladder at several agencies and being denied the presidency at one company wasn’t going to stop her from leading another.

Lawrence left JTP to create her own agency, and two years later, she was CEO of Wells Rich Greene, a company with a staff of 100 and billings approaching $31 million. The agency quickly built a reputation for innovative creative work and had a client list that included American Motors, IBM, Pan American World Airways, Proctor & Gamble and Sheraton Hotels and Resorts — none of whom seemed to care that the president of the agency was a woman.

Perhaps one of the biggest ideas generated by WRG was the “I  New York” campaign that revived tourism in the city after a series of troubling events in the 1970s. Today that campaign continues to generate millions in revenue through the sale of official merchandise. WRG is also responsible for several well-known Alka-Seltzer campaigns, including “Try it, you’ll like it!” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

At the company’s peak, Lawrence was reported to be the highest-paid female executive in America and in 1968, she would be the first woman to take a company public and on to the New York Stock Exchange. (The company returned to private ownership in 1977.)

In 1990, Lawrence announced her intention to step down as CEO. Her autobiography, “A Big Life (in Advertising),” was published in 2002, and she continues to give talks to women in business.

“There were and are so many talented women in the advertising business, and the real wonder is why they aren’t all running worldwide agencies of their own,” she told The New York Times in 2012. “I’m looking into that.”

This Week in New York City:

Missing “Mad Men”? Check out these events before the final episodes premiere in April:


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