Departing Ogilvy CEO Miles Young Reflects on Tempering a Proud Legacy With Humility

Building a global empire, but not 'an establishment brand'

For nearly 35 years, Miles Young's life has been built around Ogilvy & Mather, the agency where he consistently climbed the ranks, eventually becoming global CEO in 2008.

Now with Young's agency tenure nearing its end and his successor, John Seifert, in place, the transition of power atop the storied network is officially underway.

As Young prepares to leave Ogilvy to take a top administrative post at Oxford University in September, he is reflective about his time in advertising and the WPP agency that has been so formative in that career.

Young paused between his recent globetrotting around the Ogilvy empire to share some of those thoughts with Adweek:

Adweek: You had never worked at Ogilvy New York before being named CEO. How hard was it for an outsider to move to the New York headquarters?

Miles Young: There were challenges: A lot of people wanted to see me floating down the Hudson River in a raft without a lifebelt!

How did you work that out?

If you come in as a Brit and start saying [operations] are old fashioned, you tend not to be the most popular person in the world. And I could have handled the message more tactfully, but that's the way it was, and it had to be done. It wasn't quite easy at the start, but it became easy. The first 18 months were tough.

What achievements are you most proud of as Ogilvy's CEO? 

When you're running a company that's got as strong and unique a heritage as Ogilvy, the thing you're proudest of is to keep true to it and even go back to its first principles, which I've been able to do.

I was in Touffou [David Ogilvy's French chateau] recently spending a weekend with Herta [the agency founder's widow]. Because it was so cold, I couldn't stay in my normal room, a humble place outside the main house, and she put me up in David's study/library. So you're sleeping surrounded by all his books just as they were when he died. You go to sleep reflecting. I don't think he would have been too upset with me [during my tenure as CEO], and that's a pretty good feeling.

The roots of this company extend back to him, a creative person, a copywriter, who actually had strong views on art as well. In that sense we've gone back to our origins. That's been exemplified by our performance in awards shows—we were completely absent from them, and the [O&M] brand lacked spark. It was very worthy, but it lacked youthfulness and edge. David's brand always did have that. So I'm proudest of encouraging people to re-find those things.

How is that paying off for the agency?

It's evident to me now when we're recruiting that we have millennial appeal. I was just in Berlin at a training course for a group of young European fast trackers in their mid-20s who are absolute brand apostles. Their view of the brand is slightly different in form but not in content. We somehow managed to adapt and not become an establishment brand, which I think would be the worst thing for Ogilvy.

What was it like for you sleeping in David Ogilvy's last work space as you contemplated the end of your own career at the agency?

It was moving for me, an end of an era. This person has been part of my life either in a real, human way, although not through so many [personal] contacts but certainly in the sense of being the steward for eight years of what he established.

As you talk to Herta, you get the sense of David's frustration when he retired. It wasn't easy for him. He didn't approve of things that were happening at the agency at that time. Whenever one touches on one of those things, it's always about escaping from fundamentally what you're in business to do and you become a little grandiose. One thing I've always been scared of is being grandiose as a leader. That's why doing the training program in Berlin was so important to me. Since that program I've had a lot of one-to-one email correspondence with the kids. They don't see me as an unapproachable panjandrum. That's the proudest thing for me. I can have a perfectly ordinary dialogue with them. They don't see me as anything other than a colleague.

         

        Touffou, David Ogilvy's chateau, in the French countryside. Getty Images

How else is the agency different?

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