David Ogilvy: The Adweek Feature

'All the others have gone, and I'm the lone survivor'

For a half-century, David Ogilvy has blazed across the advertising skies. The tail of his comet stretches from the pre-television era and Madison Avenue in its gray-flanneled heyday on through the creative revolution and into the world of global mega-mergers. All the while, Ogilvy's sharp, iconoclastic personality has illuminated the industry like no other adman's. Now "retired" to his chateau in France, Ogilvy still has strong, informed views about the state of advertising and the fate of agencies. Here are his latest, and perhaps last, confessions. 

Autumn in the Loire Valley is not David Ogilvy's favorite time of year. Too wet, too cold, too lonely after all of summer's visitors leave Touffou. Storm clouds smudge the November sky, Ogilvy's beloved gardens wilt under the first frost and afternoons are so quiet you can hear leaves drop. Still, on a long twilight walk to show visitors his river views and fiery countryside, he is more puzzled by the passage of time than saddened by it.

"It's a curious thing about age, something I'm terribly conscious of these days," says Ogilvy. "Can a man of 81 be good at anything in advertising, or is it ipsofacto that you're useless at 81? They're out there saying, for God's sake, get rid of that old codger. But I've had to become outspoken. There is still very much I would like to do and not many years to do it … Don't laugh off experience. Someone once said to me advertising has no history, which is a weird statement." 

Especially weird to a man whose friends had names like Rubicam, Burnett and Bernbach. Ogilvy is not only the last of the great creators of modern advertising, he has been its most visible personality. He gave red suspenders to the faceless man in the gray flannel suit. His best-selling books, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising, defined an industry to its practitioners and to the general public as well. His Oxford affectations, British tweeds and pipe suggested a worldliness and style larger than the actual dimensions of Madison Avenue's place in corporate America. 

Rubicam gladly cut all ties with advertising at age 51. Burnett ran his company until he died at 79, leaving the agency in disarray without an obvious successor. Ogilvy, who gave up the top job at Ogilvy & Mather in 1975, has tried for something in between, and he continues to grapple with a changing role in a changed industry. He spent three years as chairman of O&M's debt-swapped parent, WPP Group plc, but retired in August after the banks insisted on putting in their own man.

At the time, Ogilivy was publicly miffed by the slight from a group of money men. He now admits the change was necessary. "Time after time I said to the board, this is absurd. This is a financial holding company, and you must have a financial man as chairman. I know absolutely zero about finance."

But when it comes to advertising, Ogilvy, true to form, remains feisty and blunt after eight decades. He's an outspoken critic about the industry's chart toward "lunatic" work and the awards-show circuit that champions it. He blames that advertising style, and its inability to sell product, for marketers' exodus to promotions. Such strong opinions have won him few fans among young creatives who dismiss his "rules" as old-fashioned. "Did Mozart write bad music?!" Ogilvy barks back. "Their ignorance of the world is what really kills me." 

More to the point, Ogilvy makes clear he is not simply nitpicking about the virtues of long copy or the legibility problems of reverse type. Those details are critical to creating what he feels is so absent from advertising right now: sales-driven copy that draws its message from research and is expressed with clarity, grace and relevance. 

"We go through periods—and there have been two or three of them during my career where the advertising business goes mad," he says. "It starts producing self-conscious, award-winning, obscure, incomprehensible, arty, literary advertising. You go through one of those periods, and generally they win all the awards. Then it passes, and the business goes back to producing advertising whose purpose it is to sell. This time we still haven't gone back." 

It's a matter of no small frustration for Ogilvy. He is discouraged by what he sees as the general lack of marketing discipline and craft in advertising now. While building O&M, he codified its culture as a way to ensure a consistent level of quality around the world. "You have to legislate dogma. If advertising had nothing but creative geniuses like Hal Riney—we don't and never will—you wouldn't have to do that. Any agency has to legislate for hundreds of creative people around the world who are dull, second-rate people. You have to give them some direction, some general help in what to do."

The problem now, he says, is that so few creative people seem interested in learning about advertising theory or precedent: "They've got no curiosity. If they want to earn their living in this trade—writing advertising—you'd think they would want to know something. There's been an awful lot of advertising that has preceded them. These advertising people aren't reading. It's extraordinary, because their approach to the business is so indescribably amateurish."

Ogilvy also makes no secret of his contempt for the "conspiracies of politeness" in so many agencies, and when he voices his hopes for O&M's future, he clearly is looking for more strong figures like Riney, who broke from the agency six years ago. "I would like Ogilvy & Mather to be a private company, but that's probably impossible. I would like it to be an agency that can hang on to difficult people who are able. All companies need mavericks, need a lacing of revolutionaries. Most companies can't stand revolutionaries, and they get rid of them." 

Ogilvy might also be talking about himself. Stubborn and opinionated, Ogilvy is often described as arrogant. But in person he's far more interesting than that. His charm is equal parts British aristocracy, child-like curiosity and ease with himself. His shirts may be handmade Saville Row but most likely a cuff button is missing or the elbow is wearing thin. At breakfast, he'll spoon himself a mouthful of marmalade with unself-conscious, elegant flourish. He is fascinated by children, draws much energy from them, and is especially fond of grandson Francois. The sandy-haired 3-year-old tricks Ogilvy into standing in a corner and quietly unhooks those signature red suspenders, causing the inevitable to happen. "That was a brilliant little strategy," Ogilvy laughs. "I've met my match in him."

As with most original personalities, Ogilvy is full of contradictions and eccentricities. He's devoted much of his adult life to modern consumerism, yet he harbors a deep love for the spartan Amish of Pennsylvania Dutch country, among whom he once lived. One minute he's seriously egocentric—"What do you mean I'm ONE of the greatest admen??"—the next, he's poking fun at his low IQ scores. He likes the notion that people imitate him—wearing red suspenders and the like—but seems to have little respect for them because they do so.

Life in the lush French countryside suits him. The handsome cornflower eyes are still alert under a fine shock of silver grey hair. He grows strawberries and roses. He's created secret garden rooms with evergreen walls that are filled with lavender, magnolias, honeysuckle, lilies, sweet peas and orange trees in wooden planters. Ogilvy bought his 15th-century peach-colored castle, complete with 37 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms, towers, dungeons, chapel and wild boar-infested moats, in 1965 for $500,000. He's since pumped so much money into its upkeep that the French government has honored him. Ogilvy and his wife, Herta, live at Chateau Touffou with a small household staff and also keep a Paris apartment. 

Old age is narrowing his interests—he no longer cares to eat meat, for instance—but in his study there is little evidence of an increasingly insular life. There are books everywhere: biographies, gardening books, his own writings. There are bird books and binoculars. What there is little of is memorabilia or tributes to the past. No photographs, no souvenirs. On his desk instead are the daily stacks of mail and faxes that bring him up to date on O&M around the world. And there are the neat stacks of note pads emblazoned with a bright red "Note from D.O.," missives which still paper O&M offices.

The lack of sentimental display belies an extraordinary life. Ogilvy was still in his 20s when pollster George Gallup sent him to Hollywood to introduce research to the movie studios. Although he was only making $40 a week, his personal and business circle grew to include the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (a former art director in a London ad agency), Louis Mayer, Walt Disney, Sam Goldwyn and David Selznick. Ogilvy was not shy about making himself heard in such company.

"Selznick became absolutely addicted to our research. He called me while making Jane Eyre. He said 'We have a problem here, can you make a survey?' I said, 'No, I won't; I told you not to make that movie. If you had asked me before you started making that film, I would have said no, it would be an absolute dog, so stew in your own juice.' "

The most well-known movie research Ogilvy conducted—providing some powerful ammunition for Gallup in Hollywood—was his Audit of Marquee Values studies, which measured star popularity in terms of ticket sales. He still keeps the big bound volumes of data in his study.

Ogilvy's own career track had all the plot twists of a Hollywood epic. After flunking out of Oxford, he moved to Paris, where he became a chef at the Majestic Hotel. He returned to Britain and sold Aga cooking stoves door-to-door. Eventually he landed in the States and his Gallup job. When World War II broke out, he worked as a member of the British Secret Service. After the war he settled in the rolling countryside of Lancaster, Pa., where he grew a long beard and became a tobacco farmer in the Amish community.

"I wasn't serious about being a farmer," recalls Ogilvy. "But I was serious about the Amish and needed a cash crop like tobacco. They lead a life of extraordinary serenity, cut off from the rest of the world." 

Ogilvy's efforts at farming failed. Unemployed, he moved to New York with his wife and young son. It was 1949; he had only $6,000 in the bank. His older brother Francis worked at a London ad agency, Mather & Crowther. Ogilvy convinced that agency and another London shop, S.H. Benson Ltd., to back him. He knew little about marketing and had virtually no experience writing copy, but he didn't let that stunt his agency ambitions. To start, he made a list of the five clients he wanted most: General Foods, Bristol Myers, Campbell's Soup, Lever Brothers and Shell. Eleven years later, he had them all.

As one of the first British admen on Madison Avenue, Ogilvy used his Englishness as a gimmick to differentiate the agency. "As it turned out, it was much easier to get large American clients than small British ones … although I got a few like Rolls Royce," he notes. He worked six days a week, usually 12-14 hours a day. In a seven-year hot streak, O&M won every account it pitched. ("The secret is to only pitch accounts you're 90 percent sure of winning," he says.) One day a group of IBM executives arrived unexpectedly at his office and asked Ogilvy if he'd like to handle the company's advertising. The account was his immediately. He says it took a bit longer to land Sears—a seven-minute presentation. 

Ogilvy points out that he also spent as much time thinking about which clients not to bring into the agency. "Ford was bringing out a new car. We were invited to compete when we were still quite small. I said, 'You'd be too big for me. If I thought you were doing something wrong, I couldn't tell you for risk of being fired.' They brought it out and about three weeks later, it was pulled back in. The car was called Edsel." 

The agency fared much better. Along with Doyle Dane Bernbach and Leo Burnett, O&M became one of advertising's high-fliers of the '60s. As a money-scraping child, the red of his rich aunt's chic household had dazzled him; he made that color the worldwide symbol of the prosperity of his own farflung corporate family. Ogilvy had a hard time believing his huge success. "I was a perfect bloody fool. I always thought the agency would go up in smoke at any moment. I was frightened. I should have been having a ball because we were doing so brilliantly well. But I was always shaking. 'When are we going to lose a valuable person? When are we going to lose an account?' "

He had lots of offers to sell—Interpublic, Leo Burnett, BBDO, Foote, Cone & Belding and Ted Bates were among his suitors—but the agency was doing so well he didn't want to merge it. He says he also deliberately stayed away from the diversification craze of the '70s, when companies like JWT bought into insurance concerns. In 1966, however, Ogilvy sold O&M shares to the public, a decision he has regretted ever since.

"Going public was the greatest mistake I ever made. Why did I do it? Greed. I never had any money. I was paid a miserable salary at the agency. My parents made 300 pounds a year and had to raise five children. Suddenly, I saw an enormous sum of money being offered and I couldn't resist. At the time there had been no takeovers, but the day we went public, we became the target of a takeover. It was almost inevitable."

Despite speculation to the contrary, the staggering sum WPP paid in 1989 for O&M didn't translate into greater riches for Ogilvy. "One of my biggest regrets as a businessman: my financial naivete," he says. "At one point I owned 90 percent of voting shares. If I had stuck to them, I would have an enormous amount of money because of the [WPP] acquisition. But I sold my Ogilvy shares when I could. I was always so afraid the agency would disappear." 

In the aftermath of the merger frenzy of the '80s, the agency business looks more fragile than ever to Ogilvy. Most of his close acquaintances in advertising are no longer alive, a fact that doesn't make him morbid as much as protective of their legacies.

"I had this friend, [legendary Ted Bates figure] Rosser Reeves, who was also my enemy and my brother-in-law," he says. "Today, mention Reeves' name and no one seems to know who he is. Before long, Bernbach's influence will be completely wiped out. Earlier they tried to do that to Burnett. I knew a lot of these people. I remember them vividly. I know what they contributed to advertising." 

Most of this history seems lost on a new generation of creatives, who find their heroes in MTV. Research is rejected as compromising, hard sell to be avoided. Even the more conservative packaged goods agencies like Backer Spielvogel Bates became ashamed of Reeves' Unique Selling Proposition and abandoned it. (Ogilvy takes heart that USP has since been reinstated at BSB.)

Ogilvy cites many of his own campaigns as evidence of the enduring success of persuasive sales messages. His "one-quarter cleansing cream" line for Dove beauty soap is still being used more than 30 years after he wrote it; his Hathaway Shirts eyepatch man ran for 22 years; Schweppes used Ogilvy's Commander Whitehead ads for 18 years. 

With his instincts honed well before the TV era, Ogilvy still finds more inspiration in print—especially the fact-filled, long copy of direct mail. "I can tell when I look at a print ad whether the person who wrote it has ever had any experience in direct. You'd have the brand name in it, you'd have a promise of some benefit, and possibly you'd have some news in it. If I could choose employees, I wouldn't hire anybody unless they have direct response experience. They're in touch with reality, and if they've been spending, say, five years doing advertising that has only one purpose—which is to get orders by Tuesday morning—they'd come to Ogilvy & Mather well-prepared." 

Fittingly, O&M Direct has adopted Ogilvy's motto: "We Sell or Else." He is their advocate within the O&M companies and continues his crusade to upgrade the status of direct marketing. Still, he concedes client assumptions about creativity have changed along with popular taste. "If Ogilvy & Mather all over the world would stop doing this fancy nonsense it might endanger them, because it might be said they've lost their creative reputation. There used to be a couple of agencies with Procter business, agencies like Compton, and they never got new business because they were said to not be a creative agency. 

"You asked me which agencies are producing the best campaigns, and my immediate, almost unconscious answer is to say no one. They're all producing lousy campaigns. That is partly true. But it is also a reflection of my being a son of a bitch, of being so critical. Any decent man would say yes, oh so and so, so and so are doing wonderful work. I've always been rather like this. My only excuse, and it's inexcusable, is that I was pretty damn tough on myself."

Ogilvy can be a tough critic, even to those he respects. But they note he is just as quick to share one of his characteristic superlatives. "David can be ruthless in his expectations. He always reminds us how high our standards must be," says Charlotte Beers, O&M's new CEO. "But having David around makes us all feel better about ourselves. He reminds you of why you love advertising."

When Beers was considering taking the O&M job earlier this year, she flew to Paris to meet Ogilvy, where the two hit it off. He admires her experience working on P&G and her career success. She is in awe of his legacy and often asks him to review her speeches and strategy statements or confers with him on specific creative assignments or client briefs. "David's been my ally," says Beers. "He is flawless in walking the line between support, nourishment and counsel without interfering."

Beers and Ogilvy are still discussing his role in the agency. This time, rather than any lofty holding-company titles, it's more likely Ogilvy will settle into a post befitting an Englishman with a global empire. Ogilvy sees it as loosely akin to British economist Walter Bagehot's view that a constitutional monarchy earns "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn." 

For now, as the last of advertising's royalty, Ogilvy tends to his castle in France. Like his beloved Amish country, Ogilvy revels in the sense of lost time there, reminding visitors the wing of the building they stand in was built 350 years before Columbus was born. But such musings don't last long. There is still much to do before winter sets in. An orangery must be built for his boxed trees, the vegetable gardens need clearing; a new cook and gardener have to be introduced to the household schedules. Inside, Ogilvy builds fires, and between regular puffs of a constant Havana, he works on his mail and ponders the future.

"Now I walk into client meetings as a living legend," he says. "I'd rather go in with a piece of copy or research in my hand. I prefer earning my living with them. But I've become sort of like an exhibit at the zoo. All the others have gone, and I'm the lone survivor."