David Ogilvy & Me

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

Photos Courtesy Ogilvy Estate


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.”

Continue to next page →