The First (and Last) Adman

Thoughts on the writer, rule-maker, and business genius

Among the giants of modern prose must be David Ogilvy.

Confessions of an Advertising Man, a book my advertising-man father gave me to read when I was 12 (an age of high susceptibility to prose styles), had the same body-slamming impact on me as Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, which I read about the same time. Active rather than passive, intimate rather than formal, grammatically streamlined, first person, and characterized by a set of appealing personal tics, the language seemed to break from all the blah blah you’d ever read before. Not only did it make you want to write like that, but you felt you could write like that: crystalline, authoritative, oracular even, and witty.

I read that book and was instantly smarter. A precocious 12-year-old to start, after reading Ogilvy I was confident that I knew more than anyone (teachers, friends, parents) who had not read that book. People who I urge the book on now still have the same amazed reaction of suddenly understanding the world.

It’s about how the clever world works—not just how advertising works (which would have been quite a lot), or about how advertising agencies work, but how savvy people function. It’s about how to be successful—how to make money with style, grace, and chutzpa. And it’s about creating your own character (creating your own brand, 50 years before that was anybody’s notion).

Just as Hemingway was defined by his picture as well as his prose, Ogilvy’s look matched his words: effortless, smooth, proud, and a bit scornful. He not only looked the part, but looked like a movie star playing the part.

He was the most famous businessman of his generation, one that went from shortly after the Second World War through the 1960s. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to put him, in his time, on the level of Steve Jobs in ours. That ought to prompt a curious question: Why has no one in the advertising business matched him in stature (save arguably the Saatchis for a flash) since?

Certainly he grabbed his moment. His was the first voice to define the advertising business in an aspirational sense. His list of rules, proscribed standards, and artful snobbery (despite being a liberal in a Republican business, he was its biggest snob) gave the business its first real sense of professionalism and class.

This was helped by his meteoric success—or at least the illusion of meteoric success.

He opened his doors with next to nothing—a story he always repeated—although, actually, his older brother was the managing director of Mather & Crowther, one of the oldest and most vaunted agencies in London, who invested in his brother’s New York venture. (The two agencies would ultimately merge, and there would be a tussle with his brother for the leadership role, conveniently resolved with his brother’s timely death.)

He had a handful of small accounts: Wedgwood, the British china company; Hathaway, a shirt maker; Schweppes, a tonic water maker; and British Travel. For Hathaway and Schweppes, he developed not just a definitive campaign, but, in a sense, the definitive idea of the definitive campaign: that single, identifiable element that slips into the popular imagination. Indeed, the branded persona is an Ogilvy invention. The Hathaway man wears an eyepatch (and would do so, reason never explained, for the next generation). Schweppes was served up by Commander Whitehead, its fortuitously craggy and red-bearded CEO (a generation later O&M would pull the same trick with Frank Perdue).

And then he put virtually the entire budgets of his small accounts into The New Yorker, the single most powerful and concentrated piece of upscale (then called carriage trade) media that existed in the country. Almost every upscale person—a significantly more rarefied lot then—could be counted on to read The New Yorker and to see Ogilvy’s ads. The frequency in The New Yorker gave the illusion that these were much bigger campaigns than they were and, as well, put the Ogilvy work regularly in front of the very people who hired advertising agencies.

With a series of flourishes, idiosyncrasies, and publicity gambits (including his assiduous working of the trade press), he sold himself.

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