The First (and Last) Adman

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

David Ogilvy

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.


His double-breasted navy blazers were all lined with crimson. When he gave speeches, which he did with great verve and command, he took off his blazer before beginning, folding it crimson side out and laying it across a chair. (His hair, too, was near the color of the lining of his blazers.) When he won the Rolls-Royce account, in the age of Chevys and Caddies, he took to riding around New York in one of the few, if not the only, Rolls in the city. An early rapper.

He bought a 30-room 12th-century chateau in France.

He made scenes in restaurants to the great discomfort of his companions when the service failed—his point, however childish, was about service (a professional virtue at which he excelled) and about, well, him.

He was a rude, impatient, egotistical man, chary with a compliment, and yet who needed to be liked. And so he was always making up for his rudeness with extreme generosity.

He was obsessive about details: in copy, design, manners, dress, travel, workplace.

He was a memorable speaker most of all because his great fluency was marred or dramatized by pauses, hesitations, digressions—his audience was always coming closer, listening harder, paying more attention.

He was full of certainty—exaggerated, definitive, aphoristic.

He was, of course, a ladies’ man.

When I recently pressed three of his protégés at the agency—Ken Roman, Joel Raphaelson, Michael Ball—on their personal feelings toward their perfectionist, attention-seeking, egotistical boss, I also asked, point-blank: “Did you like him?”

They each separately replied: “I loved him.”

That is a status apart.

Ogilvy as an agency became a status apart: more cultured, more civilized, more creative than any other. Indeed, a suspect industry had found its better avatar. Clients needed—or began to think they needed—Ogilvy more than Ogilvy needed them. Not least of all because Ogilvy was always describing the clients he wouldn’t take, or the clients he had turned down, or client behavior he wouldn’t countenance.

Ogilvy, Benson & Mather was the true Church. It had its catechism; its little red book; its great leader. He spent much of his time convincing the people who worked at Ogilvy that they were an elite corps because they worked at Ogilvy.

His was not just the invention of the modern advertising business, but the arguably post-modern media. Media heretofore had been a way to reach mass audiences, but Ogilvy’s insight was to project a very specific message on a much smaller audience, which, in turn spread his story. It is all about culture (the real theme of Confessions of an Advertising Man). It is as though Jobs—who would owe so much to his adman, Jay Chiat, cut from the Ogilvy tradition—followed the Ogilvy rules of making look and feel and attitude as important as function.

Curiously, this tower of midcentury modernism came to seem, rather quickly, quite old-fashioned.

The creative revolution, led by Bill Bernbach (who will, himself, have a hundredth birthday in August), upstaged the Ogilvy revolution.

The late-’60s made the stylish early-’60s man in a blue-blazer and Rolls-Royce look just a bit out of it.

The ad businesses entered its anti-WASP and anti-establishment moment. Ogilvy’s relentless rules (no matter how impish and, perhaps, disruptive) seemed like rules, when everywhere rules were collapsing.

Ogilvy himself never liked television. He remained a magazine copywriter (along with The New Yorker, Holiday magazine was his real home).

His agency’s increasing success—with packaged-goods accounts—made it seem uncreative: the crown magically appearing on the head of the lummox eating Imperial margarine.

He became more and more curmudgeonly too, spending more and more time in France.

What’s more, he wouldn’t fly.

When his agency started to expand globally, he opposed it. When it bought Scali, McCabe, Sloves, in one of the first examples of consolidation, he was against it.

And yet, Ogilvy, at 100, survives.

While just about every other iconic figure in the advertising business, except Leo Burnett, has been blended and merged out of existence.

Why have the great names—the fundamental brands—in this business of brands been lost? Likely it has much to do with the insecurity of the industry. The economic insecurity which has forced agency after agency into successive consolidations, has, perhaps necessarily, leveled corporate cultures and their most distinctive personalities. The names themselves have become a kind of mulch: J. Walter Thompson to the anodyne JWT; Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach to DDB; Ted Bates disappeared. And now the new generation of Hunger, Fire, Harrumph.

Ogilvy’s name is still on the door—his signature scrawled over every surface of the agency—in some sense because his was a fight against insecurity and corporatism.

He was central. He was unique. He was right. And he told you so. Repeatedly.

What’s more, his was the first advertising agency—and one of the first service companies of any kind—to do a public offering. In 1962, the combination of Ogilvy, Benson & Mather with Mather & Crowther went public, making one of the first global agencies and, too, making David Ogilvy rich.

He was a rich man, with a clarion voice—a million copies of Confessions of an Advertising Man would soon be in print.

And there were the rules, repeated throughout the agency, passed down by generations: not so much rules of procedure, but rules of behavior and conduct. And the prose, which made the rules less rules than…truths.

Ogilvy is the greatest brand in the history of the advertising business because it is based on voice and style and identity—intemperate, savvy, original, sure.

Even in an industry that has gone out of its way to mercilessly flatten its own traditions and character, Ogilvy flourishes.