Well before the post-WW2 “mad men” of advertising, there were pioneering women who made their mark in the marketing world. In honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate women leaders who were ahead of their time and helped pave the way for future generations of creative women.
Mathilde C. Weil, America’s first ad woman
Mathilde C. Weil, an immigrant from Germany in the 1870s, went to work as a translator following the death of her husband, then became a writer for newspapers and magazines. She found, however, that buying and selling ad space was a more lucrative career. In 1880, 40 years before the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote in the U.S., she opened the M.C. Weil Agency in New York. Her firm functioned as the middleman between advertisers and publications, with a strong focus on medicine ads. She had two female partners, Mary Compton and Meta Volkman, making it a solely female run firm. Mathilde ran the agency for over 20 years, until her death in 1903.
Queen of the copywriters, Bernice Fitz-Gibbon
Bernice Fitz-Gibbon began her career in the early 1920s in Macy’s advertising department. From there, she became Publicity Director at John Wanamaker, then moved to Gimbels as Publicity Director and a member of the executive board. In 1954, she left to start her own advertising agency and, in the 1950s, was “reported to be the highest paid woman in advertising.” Along the way, she came up with some of the most enduring retail ad slogans of all time, including Macy’s wartime “It’s smart to be thrifty,” and Gimbels’ “Nobody, but nobody, undersells Gimbels.” She was also a mentor and shared her knowledge, and, as a result, “Fitz-trained” copywriters were in hot demand throughout the advertising industry.
Mary Wells Lawrence, first female CEO of a NYSE-listed company
Mary Wells Lawrence began her advertising career working as a copywriter for a department store in Ohio. After working for Macy’s and several agencies, she joined Jack Tinker & Partners, a revolutionary “think tank” of creatives known as “Tinker’s Thinkers.” She was responsible for such innovative campaigns as the Braniff Airlines painted planes and Pucci-designed uniforms. According to Mary’s book, A Big Life in Advertising, when Jack Tinker failed to make Mary president as promised, because “It’s not my fault, Mary, the world is not ready for women presidents,” she left and founded Wells Rich Greene in 1966. Clients included well-known names such as American Motors, Cadbury Schweppes, IBM, Pan Am, TWA, P&G, Ralston Purina and others, and her firm created such iconic campaigns as Alka Seltzer’s “plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is,” “Flick your Bic,” and “Raise your hand if you’re Sure.” Mary continues to inspire and is one of the founders of wowOwow, which was a website (now merged into PureWow) started by and written solely for women.
March is Women’s History Month
“Women’s History Month is a dedicated month to reflect on the often-overlooked contributions of women to United States history.”1