Holding Court With the 'King of Madison Avenue'

Former Ogilvy Chairman Ken Roman Looks Back on the Life, Times and Legend of David Ogilvy

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There are three questions one can justifiably ask of a biography: Who the hell is this joker anyway; why is he so important that a book was written about him; and finally, what's in it for me -- or more politely, what can I learn from his life so I don't screw mine up in quite the same order?

For those in advertising who pick up Ken Roman's "King of Madison Avenue," the answer to the first question is obvious. A grinning David Ogilvy graces the cover, legendary "father of advertising," founder of the eponymous shop and the brains behind a host of indelible brand images -- The Man in the Hathaway Shirt suavely sporting his black eye patch springs immediately to mind.

Early chapters of the book recall much of the classic pre-Ogilvy Ogilvy mythology that has floated around for almost a century, from his Celtic heritage to his stints in the British secret service and as a chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris.

When the agency opens, so begins the unofficial Anecdotal Guide to David Ogilvy -- for, as Mr. Roman points out, everyone has a David story. The collection here is no less comprehensive. There's David picking up eye patches on a whim en route to the Hathaway shoot. There he is admonishing copywriters from his Rolls Royce, or charming the Amish at his farm in Lancaster, Pa. Or coining the "one-quarter cleansing cream" copy that Dove would use for decades. Or buying a castle in France. And on and on.

That old copywriter F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives; for Mr. Roman, the challenge is coming up with compelling a third act. Mr. Ogilvy's involvement in the agency he built waned between the twin millstones of the "creative revolution" and '80s "merger mania." As such, the last third of this biography drifts, with droll sections about the agency going public and WPP's eventual acquisition of The Ogilvy Group. While this is interesting history, Mr. Ogilvy is a bit player in the dramas, weighing in from France via memos and issuing now famous pronouncements on Martin Sorrell's stature. But clearly he has stepped to the sidelines.

Indeed by the time Mr. Roman reports on Mr. Ogilvy's death in July 1999, at the age of 88, the "King of Madison Avenue" seems an ironic title at best.

So why write a book about David Ogilvy? Because even though most of the people making advertising today could not pick him out of a police lineup, he did change the industry. He made this an industry of intelligence -- probably more so than his heroes Rosser Reeves and Claude Hopkins -- where smart people could do smart work that commanded respect.

"King of Madison Avenue," like most bios of 20th-century business pioneers, paints a broader picture of an industry's evolution, in this case advertising in America. Mr. Ogilvy is portrayed as a link between eras but also an agent of change. What's missing is a more critical analysis of his work, how it touched the masses and its lasting importance. One could argue this might make the book less accessible to the public, but let's be honest: The public cares a lot less about the inner workings of adland than we wish they did, "Mad Men" notwithstanding.

So, what can we learn? First, that we should never underestimate the client's need for a "reason to believe." Ogilvy sold his clients with personal mythology -- that he was going to give them something new because he was something new. And he used his famous research -- which, it should be noted, had not one whit of bearing on the Hathaway shirt or Schweppes advertising -- to help boost belief in the work. Give people a reason to believe. Meet them halfway.

The second lesson is to keep your eyes open. Part of Ogilvy's genius was that he understood how advertising after World War II would reflect -- and in a sense, replace -- the one-on-one salesmanship at which he excelled. Unfortunately, when the nature of the relationship between buyer and seller began to change -- that is, when a smile and litany of facts were no longer enough to hold consumer attention -- Ogilvy's work began to suffer as well.

It would be difficult for any career professional to reach the end of Mr. Roman's biography without a determination to live a life beyond their desk. Mr. Ogilvy was at his most fascinating when he was bringing the curiosity that steered his life before advertising into advertising. That he should have somehow forgotten this, ending his years as an ornament for an agency he no longer recognized, is a tragic thought.
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