1962’s Time Magazine described David Ogilvy as the “most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.” Indeed, he was the quintessential (m)ad man, someone whose work was instantly recognizable, fiercely original, smart, straightforward, and above all, crafted to transform the fortunes of companies worldwide.
Everyone had an Ogilvy anecdote; Be it summoning creatives to his castle high above the banks of the French Loire to lecture them about the importance of not caring for awards, or his use of parables or commandments to convey a point of view. Bart Cummings, at 75, in 1989 recalled being able to count the number of times Ogilvy conceded defeat on one hand. There was one occasion where he was sat in a waiting room, work in hand, waiting to pitch a client for some new business. Sat across from him was the chairman of the competing firm. Ogilvy asked to see the work. He was interested to see what he was up against. “The story goes,” says Compton “that the fellow showed David his work right there in the waiting room. David took one look at it and told the people he was about to pitch to, to hire the competition.”
He was a master. A slave to his craft. And his famous agency, Ogilvy & Mather grew from zero clients and two employees to 10,000 staff who were all producing work for hordes of all-star brands numbering in the thousands.
That rise, and his journey were not straightforward. Advertising was never in his blood. His father was a stockbroker, and his grandfather was a merchant banker. It was assumed he’d go into politics. But he never had any intention to follow their lead.
Born in England’s South-East in 1911, in a small town called West Horsley, Ogilvy was sent to Oxford and was quickly thrown back out for failing his exams. Yearning for something more nomadic he moved to Paris, and somehow found his way into one of the best French kitchens: Hotel Majestic on Avenue Claybert. He withstood the “slave wages, fiendish pressure and perpetual exhaustion for a year” until meeting someone who suggested he should sell cookers door to door. He was such a good salesman that he wrote the manual. The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker (1935), his first publication – at 24 – displays a clear capacity to draw lessons from his own experiences, and all the eagerness to teach what he had learned. From AGA he meandered between jobs, working in research at Gallup. Always learning. Followed by a short stint as a tobacco farmer. Even briefly working for national intelligence during the war. He was invited back to join MI-6 during peacetime, but it wasn’t for him.
His formative experiences would shape what came next. Aged 38 and with no credentials, or clients, just $6,000 in the bank, he founded his own agency in New York, on Madison Avenue. From there the rest is history, so to speak.
The campaigns he produced – for the most part – on behalf of British clients made the agency famous worldwide. “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” was a fictitious eyepatched character used to sell shirts. “The Guinness Guide to Oysters” showed how persuasive he could be with longer copy. And “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”, was perhaps the best- known car advertisement of all time. It was his personal favourite tagline too.
Ogilvy’s name is synonymous with advertising.
So much so, he was once on Letterman. How many ad men can say that?