David Ogilvy ten years on

By George Parker, brandrepublic.com, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 08:00AM

NEW YORK - David Ogilvy died on July 22 1999 but the business he influenced so much began dying years before that.

I met David Ogilvy twice. The first time was in the early sixties, I'd won a Royal Society of Arts Bursary and to the absolute, jaw-dropping astonishment of the awarding jury, instead of electing to spend six months in Florence gazing at the petrified works of the long dead, I chose to spend six months in New York attempting to join the ranks of the original "Mad Men".

Before embarking on the Queen Mary -- Yeah, believe it or not, in those days, that was the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic -- I'd written a series of pathetic letters to the hoi polloi of Madison Avenue begging for an interview, and to my astonishment, one of the few gracious enough to invite me round for a chat, was the great British man of American advertising himself.

Obviously, he thought I was some kind of novelty, as apart from himself there were few Brits on Madison Avenue in those days.

He very kindly gave me thirty minutes of his time and proceeded to lecture me on his immutable rules of advertising.

You know, all that stuff about no reversed type, putting the client's name in the headline, the consumer isn't stupid, she's your wife, humour is for clowns, etc, etc, leading up to the ultimate "carved-in-stone" edict.

Pounding on the desk through the voluminous clouds of smoke erupting from his gnarly briar, he declared "Never forget, advertising is about selling".

As I was ready to leave, I asked him a final question concerning what salary I should ask for if someone was stupid enough to offer me a job. "Dear boy," he replied as the smoke achieved Vesuvius sized proportions, "I never discuss money, I employ people who discuss money, you will have to go and ask them".

I next met him 25 years later when I was freelancing on a new business pitch at Ogilvy and a bunch of us were sat in a conference room one evening surrounded by cold pizza and warm beer hoping for one of those "miracles happen at midnight" occasions.

Suddenly, the door burst open and in came David with a couple of minders.

He was already looking frail and was well on the way to being stone deaf -- consequently, he shouted at the top of his voice "What are you lot doing?".

We all rose in the presence of the great man, "We're working on the Compaq pitch Sir" someone stammered.

He glared, snapped his red braces, (Well, I made that last bit up, 'cos it sounds like the kind of thing he would do) banged the table and shouted "Never forget, advertising is about selling".

Then he was escorted out of the room by the minders.

Consistency was always one of David's greatest attributes.

There were many others, most of which have been well recorded by both David himself, and a surprisingly small number of biographers. However, the latest is perhaps the greatest.

Ken Roman's recently published book, 'The King of Madison Avenue', is a warts and all disclosure which not only covers the well known and much reported aspects of David's career, but also some of the lesser disclosed and more intriguing ones concerning his personal life.

Yes, it was obvious to me after reading his first book many years ago, 'Confessions of an Advertising Man', that he was an unmitigated snob and an inveterate name dropper, to the point where in the final paragraph of his final chapter he refers to his sister as Lady Hendy, rather than Cicely. Although he can't refrain from tempering his brotherly love by describing her as a "socialist".

This is probably why the biggest disappointment of his life was the fact that in spite of doing more for British tourism than Henry the Eighth and Jack the Ripper, he was never summoned to go on bended knee before the Queen to receive his well deserved Knighthood.

Not that I blame him for being pissed about that, when you consider what he did for Britain as both a semi-spy during World War II, and as the agency of record for the British Tourist Board for many years.

Compare that to the various Knights and Lords now scattered around the UK ad scene who have done little more than line their pockets and shift the bulk of their rapidly shrinking assets to an assortment of off-shore bank accounts and tax havens.

Perhaps David's greatest contribution to advertising was an unashamed and unwavering enthusiasm for the business which was based on an acceptance of what it is all about. "Never forget, advertising is about selling," as he unfailingly liked to remind everyone, including yours truly, even after a 25-year hiatus.

But he also combined this bedrock credo with a belief that you didn't have to hit your audience over the head with a two by four to achieve the sale.

Remember his two thousand word ads for Dove Soap or the double page Guinness ads where he explained the difference between a dozen or so kinds of rather esoteric oysters?

Then compare these to the current detergent and beer ads we are unfortunately subjected to and you'll begin to appreciate why he once famously said…"the consumer isn't stupid, she's your wife".

And remember, that was said in the days when not only women, but consumers in general were treated by ad agencies as a bunch of morons, capable only of enjoying jingles and soporific product claims.

But then again, when you look at the current efforts of the Adverati for virtually all product categories, you have to wonder if perhaps the pendulum has once again swung back to its original abysmal starting point.

Back in the "good old days," of advertising you could be a failed Aga salesman of dubious Scottish ancestry, or a couple of cockney gits.

But if you had the moxie and self confidence to take on the establishment, you didn't need an MBA to create your very own "Mad Men" empire.

It was only later when the bean counters and ex-insurance, ex-financial services types gained control over most of the BDA's (Big Dumb Agencies) that the ad biz started its descent into the current abyss it finds itself in.

Which is something, I wouldn't be surprised to discover, is causing David to spin at an increasingly rapid rate of knots at that big agency in the sky.

You know the one I mean. It's got red carpets on the floor, and a sign on the door saying "Never forget, advertising is about selling!"

George Parker is the perpetrator of the Brandrepublic blog MadScam in the UK, and AdScam - The Horror in the US, which is without doubt, one of the most foul and annoying, piss & vinegar ad blogs on the planet.

His new book, 'The Ubiquitous Persuaders', with a foreword by Jeff Goodby, has just been published by Amazon and is currently setting the ether ablaze.

He will continue to relentlessly promote the crap out of it until you are forced to stab yourself in the eye a knitting needle.

This article was first published on brandrepublic.com

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