David Ogilvy, Whose Life in Advertising Began at 39, Dies at 88

David MacKenzie 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 it ended peacefully on July 21 in his beloved peach-colored castle in the French countryside.

Along the way, in his 88 years, there was a stint as a chef at the Majestic Hotel in Paris and an infamously short career as a door-to-door stove salesman. He introduced George Gallup's audience research to Hollywood and was a member of the British Secret Service. As much as anything else, he was proud of his attempt to become a farmer among the Amish in Pennsylvania. Ironically, it was his failure to make a life in that spartan community that led Ogilvy to become one of the leading figures in an industry fueling the boom in post-war consumerism.

Broke at age 38 and in need of work to support his wife and young child, he started Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather in 1948. Although backed by two London ad agencies, he was a marketing novice, but that didn't limit his ambitions. The would-be adman made a list of the five clients he most desired: General Foods, Bristol-Myers, Campbell's Soup, Lever Brothers and Shell. Eleven years later, he had them all. Once, a group of IBM executives unexpectedly showed up in Ogilvy's office and offered him their account. Sears took him a bit longer: a seven-minute presentation.

He may have flunked out of Oxford, but his intuitive nature served him well. His handsome looks, signature red suspenders and British tweeds imbued a glamour and worldliness to Madison Avenue that dwarfed the actual dimensions of the industry. Cary Grant played the part; David Ogilvy created the role.

His agency became known for subtle, intelligent work that drew on the virtues of sales-driven copy. Ogilvy insisted that strategy be expressed through clarity, grace and relevance. If a younger generation of industry practitioners deride Ogilvy's "rules" as outdated and overly disciplined, others argue his instincts were prescient.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. The consumer isn't a moron," says Rick Boyko, Ogilvy & Mather creative head.

Ogilvy's most enduring contribution may ultimately lie in his efforts to dignify management practices in a business more popularly known for its snake-oil history.

"To me, it was about character and passion and leadership, and he had all three," says Pat Fallon.

David Ogilvy always felt a fierce urgency to institutionalize Ogilvy's culture beyond his own involvement. His greatest regret was that he did not secure its independence, an outcome he blamed on taking the company public in 1966. In 1989, after WPP's hostile acquisition, he became nonexecutive chairman of the parent. 

While his ads for Hathaway, Schweppes and Rolls-Royce are widely considered classics, his legacy goes beyond creative influence. 

"People say his advertising is his legacy," says former O&M head Charlotte Beers. "I say it's the fact the man founded a company with offices around the world." 

All of O&M's far-flung outposts are decorated in the same regal red, befitting an exclusive club. More substantially, he codified O&M's operating philosophy in books that became international bestsellers and still serve as study guides for industry newcomers. Ogilvy was passionate about nurturing young talent and he created management-training programs that became the industry gold standard.

As one of advertising's original personalities, he liked to add a twist to agency affairs. Everybody from secretaries to top executives were summoned to Ogilvy's "magic lantern" slide presentations. It was there he showed O&M work and explained underlying strategy. Clients were invited and often stopped by. He took agency attendance and absentees could expect a phone rebuke from the 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 this agency and other agencies. It had a point of view, and that point of view was David. He was the best teacher ever."

While Ogilvy worked hard to ensure that his agency would prosper in his absence, O&M strived to keep him connected. His birthday, June 23, was always remembered. The agency even commissioned a new rose hybrid in his name on his 80th. Now O&M is changing its corporate logo to reflect Ogilvy's signature, an appropriate gesture for one of advertising's most idiosyncratic pioneers.

'Legend' is inevitably attached to his name. But it may be his small eccentricities and enthusiasms that his friends will remember best. In 1973, after retiring to his 14th-century Chateau Touffou in the Loire Valley, he designed his own formal gardens and took much solitary delight there.

He knew all the proper names of plants, in English and Latin. His favorite flowers included backyard varieties like the California Poppy, but he also was fond of his more exotic specimens like the Weeping Silver Lime Tree. He cared deeply about India and traveled extensively within its borders. In the '80s, he served as chairman of O&M's agency there. D.O.'s mischievous reflexes found cherished companionship in his grandchildren and dogs. He shared his favorite recipes—like one for homemade honey ice cream—and he made a list of his favorite friends and favorite words.

He harbored a love for words and ideas and had little tolerance for those who did not. Much was made in the press of his 'curmudgeonly' crankiness, his public 'arrogance'. In private, he was self-deprecating, kind and loyal. 

O&M chief Shelly Lazarus remembers that as a 27-year-old account exec, she looked up at the end of one day to see Ogilvy, visiting from France. He was staring at her intently. She was nearly nine months pregnant, and Ogilvy asked if she felt alright. Thereafter, for the entire month Ogilvy was in New York, he stopped by each day to make sure she was well. 

"I don't think he ever had a pregnant woman working at the agency," Lazarus laughs.

Speaking the day after his death, Lazarus continues: "For those of us who knew him, he will always be one of the most remarkable people we've ever met. But even today, I've been getting calls from people who met him once for half an hour and they still remember clearly that half-hour. People always think of him as some elite, aloof personality. In fact, he was the ultimate democrat."

After Ogilvy moved to Bonnes, France, the town butcher began cutting his hair. But Emil Vaessen, the barber he installed at O&M in the '60s, knew him for 33 years. 

"The man has been extraordinary to me and my family," Vaessen says. "He always treated us well, always inquiring about the progress of my daughter when she was at school."

D.O. may have epitomized Madison Avenue's "man in the grey flannel suit," but he didn't share a lot of the industry's tribal traditions. "Long three-martini lunches? He hated that stuff. I don't think David ever had a martini in his life. He never played golf or tennis. I don't think he had a lot of hobbies, for that matter," says Elliott. "That makes him sound like a bore. He was anything but. He always talked about people with well-furnished minds. Well, he had the most well-furnished mind of anyone I ever met."

By his own account, Ogilvy could sometimes become overly sentimental, but he betrayed none of that in facing life's end. Lazarus recalls three days alone with Ogilvy and his wife, Herta, at Touffou 18 months ago. Taking walks, eating and drinking wine together, Ogilvy was reflective. Lazarus says: "Looking back at how to manage the agency, he said, 'The most important part of the job is finding and keeping good people at O&M. However important you think it is, it's twice as important,' he told me."

In a memo dated May 1983, Ogilvy wrote instructions on how his death should be managed. He requested no mourning and sadness.

That's probably not so surprising when you consider he lived a remarkable life with few regrets. And after having more careers than most, there was still time to enjoy personal pursuits that offered divine, if simple, satisfaction. "My idea of heaven is the same as Keats," he said. "Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather."