Remembrance of Things Past

David Ogilvy, Whose Life in Advertising Began at 39, Dies at 88
NEW YORK–David Ogilvy was nearly 40 before he got around to starting one of the most well-known ad agencies in the world. Curiosity, his most defining characteristic, took him through a richly lived life. It began in a little English village of thatched haystacks where Beatrix Potter was a frequent playmate and ended peacefully on July 21 in his beloved peach-colored castle in the French countryside.
Along the way, in his 88 years, were a stint as a chef at the Majestic Hotel in Paris and a brief turn as a door-to-door stove salesman. He introduced George Gallup’s research to Hollywood and was a member of the British Secret Service. He was proud of his attempt to become a farmer among the Amish in Pennsylvania, but ironically, it was his failure to make a life in that spartan community that led him to advertising.
Broke at age 39 and in need of work to support his wife and young child, he co-founded Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather in 1948.
Early on, he made a list of the five clients he desired most: General Foods, Bristol-Myers, Campbell’s Soup, Lever Brothers and Shell. Eleven years later, he had them all.
He may have flunked out of Oxford, but his intuitive nature served him well. Ogilvy’s movie star looks, signature red suspenders and British tweeds imbued a worldliness on Madison Avenue. His agency became known for subtle, intelligent work that strove to talk to consumers as equals. Until his death, he would preach the virtues of sales-driven copy that draws its message from research. But he also expected copy to be expressed with clarity, grace and relevance. “He taught us how to get to the heart of a brand and the right side of the consumer; he taught us the lost art of advertising, which is to sell,” says Phil Dusenberry of BBDO.
His most enduring contributions may ultimately lie in his efforts to elevate and dignify management practices in a business more popularly known for its snake-oil history. He always had a need to institutionalize his values and beliefs and did so through Ogilvy & Mather’s regal red corporate colors. More substantially, he achieved it through his writing, and he created management training programs that quickly became the industry gold standard. He worked hard to develop and promote talent.
“To me, it was about character and passion and leadership, and he had all three,” says Pat Fallon.
In 1973, Ogilvy moved to his chateau in Bonnes, France, and lived, for the most part, a retired life. He became WPP nonexecutive chairman after his agency was acquired in a hostile takeover bid in 1989.
If a younger generation derides Ogilvy’s “rules” as outdated, others persuasively argue his instincts were prescient. “He was one of the first to believe in direct marketing and to find ways–he never called it ‘planning’–to bring everything to the consumer, that the consumer isn’t a moron,” says Rick Boyko, Ogilvy’s senior partner and creative head.
He held regular “magic lantern” presentations where he would show work and explain the strategy. Everybody from secretaries to top executives were expected to show up. He took attendance, and absentees could expect a phone rebuke from the agency chief himself.
“It wasn’t a matter of anybody could show up. It was everybody should show up,” recalls longtime friend and former O&M chairman Jock Elliott. “But that was the difference between the agency and other agencies. It had a point of view, and that point of view was David. He was the best teacher ever. I learned more in my first year at Ogilvy Benson & Mather than I did in my previous 15 years in the business.”
“When I think of David, I always think of laughter,” says former Ogilvy chief Charlotte Beers. “He had a particular kind of intelligent wit. Whether you were talking to him or writing to him, you always had to rise up to your most insightful thinking.”
“The most significant insight he had all these years later was how much he appreciated finding and keeping good people,” says O&M Worldwide chief Shelly Lazarus about her last extended visit with Ogilvy 18 months ago. “Looking back at how to manage the agency, he said, ‘The most important job was doing that, taking care of the people at O&M. It’s twice as important as you think.'”