David Ogilvy & Me

The Oxford dropout turned his sights on advertising—and became a legend

David Ogilvy (D.O. on his memos) died in 1999 at 88. He was born June 23, 1911 (the same year as Ronald Reagan), and would have been 100 this week. I met Ogilvy when I joined Ogilvy, Benson & Mather in 1963 as an assistant account executive. I was 32, he was 56 and already famous for his tasteful, literate campaigns as well as for his arresting epigrams (“The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife”). He was driven around New York in a Rolls-Royce and occasionally wore a kilt, before most people had seen either.

In 1964, he published Confessions of an Advertising Man. It became the best-selling advertising book of all time, the only one most people outside the business have ever read; he was on his way to becoming the most famous advertising man in the world.

When I joined the agency, it was still small enough, at 600 employees, that he could make it a point to meet most new executives (even junior account managers). Once in his presence, the visitor was subjected to an interrogation: What had he done before? Where did he live? What were his interests?

In my case, he asked me to bring the research on Prime, a dog food being introduced by General Foods, a client he had cultivated as a new business prospect. On that initial meeting, he quickly put aside the research and discovered we both liked Gilbert and Sullivan operas, then offered me a ride home.

He correctly regarded his most important talent as new business—but had little understanding of mass consumer products like dog food. Learning the client wanted a better “promise” for the introductory commercial, he worked all weekend and arrived in my office Monday morning with his entry: “The Prime Minister of dog food.”

He had a surer touch with premium brands, putting the red-bearded U.S. president of Schweppes in the “The Man From Schweppes Is Here” ads. In response to the CEO’s nervous query about whether he looked like a rabbi in one photo, Ogilvy said: “Whoever heard of a rabbi named Commander Whitehead?”

Even as he elevated to world renown, he never pontificated—he interrogated, even with dinner partners. His great secret was an inquiring mind. He learned from accomplished people and from his experiences.

His life story is implausible. He was born and raised in England, the son of a Scottish father and an Irish mother. He was an indifferent student at Oxford and dropped out without graduating. After Oxford, he found work as a sous chef at the Hotel Majestic, at the time the best kitchen in Paris. Working long hours alongside volatile chefs, he learned high standards and leadership from the impe rious head chef M. Pitard: “Ah, my dear David, what is not perfect is bad.”

1. Ogilvy as a “gentleman farmer” in Lancaster, Pa., circa 1945.
2. At work at Ogilvy, early 1950s.
3. Leading a training program.
4. On the boat to America, 1938.
5. (l. to r.) Edmund Whitehead (the “Commander” in the Schweppes ads), Ogilvy, and Baron George Wrangell, the Russian aristocrat who played the “man” in the Hathaway ads.
6. At his typewriter in 1977.
7. Sporting a top hat in 1967.
8. On the set of a Western Union ad.
9. Head shot, 1977.

Then off to Scotland to sell Aga Cookers, the Rolls-Royce of cooking stoves, door to door to Scottish housewives at the depths of the Depression. Another learning experience. “No sale, no commission. No commission, no eat. That left a mark on me.” The mark it left was a lifetime commitment to judge advertising on its ability to sell, not entertain.

It became an opportunity to demonstrate his ability to distill experience into principles. The company’s best salesman, Ogilvy was asked to tell other salesmen how he did it, in what Fortune called “the best sales manual ever.” It was the most entertaining, for sure.

Stress the fact that no cook can make her Aga burn more fuel than 4 [pounds] a year, however stupid, extravagant or careless she may be, or however much she may cook. If more fuel is being consumed, it is being stolen, and the police should be called in immediately.

Manual in hand, he talked his way into an apprenticeship in his brother’s ad agency in London and then a job with George Gallup doing research on the movie business in Hollywood. And it was Ogilvy, not Gallup, working with the moguls—choosing scripts, influencing titles, making (or killing) stars’ careers. It also led him to inject consumer research into the development of his agency’s advertising.

With the advent of World War II, Ogilvy went to work for the British Secret Service in New York under Sir William Stephenson, the model for agent 007 in the James Bond series. He engaged mainly in economic studies, but claimed to have learned tricks of the spy business—like stopping an attack dog by ripping its front legs apart. This amused colleagues who knew him as a physical coward who would lose an argument to a copywriter who took two threatening steps toward him.

Unsure what to do when the war ended, he became, of all things, a farmer in the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania. “We never thought of him as a farmer,” said a local reporter. “He was a gentleman who lived on a farm.” Amazingly, the plain and simple Amish and the flamboyant Ogilvy were a match. He adored their simple ways; they were charmed by him.

If he wasn’t going to be a farmer, he was now ambitious—for advertising. He arranged with the local library to get him new campaigns, and studied them in his room at night. He read every advertising book he could find, and soaked up knowledge.

Then, at 38, never really having worked in advertising (save for his brief stint at his brother’s firm), he opens an agency in New York to compete with the great agencies of the day, and within 10 years becomes the most talked about person on Madison Avenue. His ad campaigns set new standards in style and taste, his speeches about building brands and respecting the consumer made news, his dramatic dress and memorable sayings got him invited to parties and even to the White House.

People saved copies of his letters and memos. My first was a letter he wrote to my Gillette client, who came to us with a campaign created by their design department. After listing eight reasons why it would not be successful, he delivered his ultimate argument:

The only thing that can be said in favor of the layouts is that they are “different.” You could make a cow look different by removing the udder. But that cow would not produce results.

Despite a reputation as a creative genius, Ogilvy’s real genius was as instinctive leader. Some think the best advertisement he ever wrote was for Ogilvy & Mather itself, with the headline “How to run an advertising agency,” espousing principles that apply to many businesses.

More than setting down principles in writing, he dramatized them. At one board meeting, he gave directors sets of Russian nesting matryoshka dolls. Inside the largest doll a smaller one, then a smaller one, and so forth. Inside the smallest doll there was a slip of paper:

If we hire people who are smaller than we are, we will become a company of dwarfs. If we hire people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants.

Hire people who are better than you are. And pay them more than you if necessary.

If he had composed a memo urging that we hire better people, everyone would have saluted—and forgotten it in 10 minutes. Nobody forgot the Russian dolls.

He strived to build a corporate culture (“We hire gentlemen with brains”) and make Ogilvy & Mather a meritocracy, and succeeded to a large extent. “No nepots, no spouses,” he directed. “Pay peanuts and you get monkeys” was another favorite, although he never paid himself more than $125,000.

In 1973, he retired to Château de Touffou, a 12th century castle with 30 rooms and a dry moat, several hours south of Paris. He would pick up visitors at the railroad station and, on the 20-minute ride back, start with “Tell me all about your life.” He named himself the agency’s international creative director and reviewed ads from around the world.

But the agency had become too far-flung, with 200 offices in 52 countries, for a man who hated to travel. And the business had passed him by. He was a print man; his great successes were in magazines and newspapers, and he never grasped the TV medium or the role of music and emotion in advertising.

He continued to give speeches (his final crusade was for advertising that sells rather than entertains), accept awards, and write. When I asked him for title suggestions for my first book, he replied, “The title of my next book is How to Advertise. If you like it, you may have it and use it.” I used it. Several years later, he told me he was writing another book. “Do you have any titles left over?” he asked me. I reminded him of his earlier contribution, and offered that the title of his next book was easy: “You’re the most famous advertising man in the world. You’re the title. It should be David Ogilvy on Advertising.” Published in 1983, Ogilvy on Advertising became a bookend to that story.

In 1989, Ogilvy & Mather was the object of a hostile takeover by the British holding company WPP. After a fierce defense (he called the WPP head “an odious little shit”), he came around and accepted the token position as non-executive chairman. But his baby had been taken away. He died a decade later.

His considerable legacies, beyond his beloved agency, include the concepts of brands and branding, which he pioneered. His support of research in advertising is recognized by the Advertising Research Foundation’s ARF David Ogilvy Awards. He is the only general advertising man in the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame. He was an early consumerist, railing against billboards (“They spoil the landscape”) and misleading advertising. Starting from scratch in 1948, he built the only international agency started since World War II that is still there, with his name on the door.

Roman, a former chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, is the author of The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising. ken.roman@verizon.net.