Meet Emil Vaessen, Ogilvy's In-House Barber Who Cut David's Hair

He's Been There For 50 Years, but Don't Expect Confessions From This Ad Insider

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In his nearly 50 years working inside one of the biggest ad agencies in the world, Emil Vaessen's clients have included some of history's incredibly powerful business figures: IBM Chairman-CEO Lou Gerstner, Unilever Chief Richard Goldstein, Compaq Chairman Ben Rosen, Fortune Publisher Jack Haire.

Emil Vaessen
Emil Vaessen Credit: David Yellen
But it wasn't advertising advice that brought those men calling. What they wanted was a shampoo , careful pruning, and, if they were lucky, maybe a quick scalp massage or neck shave.

Mr. Vaessen isn't an adman. He's the barber David Ogilvy recruited in the 1960's to set up shop in his agency to provide cuts to clients and staff. White-haired and mustachioed, but trim and healthy for his 75 years, Mr. Vaessen is no less busy than he was decades ago.

The notion of in-house coiffeur at an ad agency may sound like a questionable old-school holdover from the Mad Men days, but to appreciate the importance of Mr. Vaessen to the agency's history and culture, you have to understand the unlikely tale of how he arrived there.

He's not so much a perk for employees as he is a part of the family. Over the years, he's worked at three different Ogilvy offices in Manhattan. Each time the agency moved, senior execs ensured the blueprints allotted Mr. Vaessen space for a parlor, partly out of respect for Mr. Ogilvy.

Proud as he is , Mr. Vaessen's has not allowed Ogilvy to foot the bill for his space; he pays his own rent.

A busy barber has little time for chitchat with folks who aren't his clients, but he has twice let me visit him during my tenure at Ad Age . Mr. Vaessen's role has afforded him many unique insights into adland. Listening to his stories -- the ones he's willing to share, that is -- is always fascinating, sort of like speaking to a tribal elder. Mr. Vaessen knows all the old players and the debauchery that was Madison Avenue in its '60s, viewed from the perspective of an outsider.

New beginnings

Born and raised in Liege, the third-biggest city in Belgium, Mr. Vaessen as a young man dreamed of pursuing a life outside of Europe. In 1963 at 23, he got his chance. The U.S. wasn't his first choice -- he had his heart set on Australia -- but fate intervened. A visa permitting him entry into the States was promised much faster than one for Down Under.

His first job in the U.S. was at the posh Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan. He didn't speak English, but landed the gig anyway, thanks to a cohort of Italian barbers who accepted the validity of his Belgian barber's certificate and appreciated his clipper skills. A newlywed with a baby on the way, Mr. Vaessen put in the extra effort to work his way up to hotel barbershop manager.

One day, David Ogilvy, who was not a regular customer at the Park Lane, walked in and requested a cut. He liked it enough that he returned, asking for "the Frenchman." Though Mr. Vaessen is Belgian, the two men spoke in French, likely part of what was endearing to Mr. Ogilvy. Though a Brit, the adman was a Francophile: Paris was the city he escaped to when his college studies weren't successful; later in life Mr. Ogilvy vacationed there (when his fear of flying would allow it). After stepping away from his day-to-day duties as chairman of Ogilvy, he retired in France to Chateau de Touffou, a medieval castle replete with moats, gardens, stables and vineyards that was converted to a mansion.

Mr. Vaessen, who recounts stories while gripping the string attached to his spectacles that hangs about his neck, recalls being stunned when one day a couple of years after their initial meeting, Mr. Ogilvy strutted into the Park Lane and declared, "You should have your own shop." He even offered to set aside some space at Ogilvy's offices.

At first, Mr. Vaessen protested and politely turned him down. "I was afraid to lose too many customers in the move."

To appease the barber, Ogilvy wrote a letter to each of his clients, including the chairman of Union Carbide, to announce that Mr. Vaessen's services were available. So when Mr. Vaessen opened his first shop, he didn't lack for clients and hasn't in more than four decades since. "A letter from David Ogilvy works, let me tell you," he said.

'I don't make a big fuss'

Beyond the marketer heavyweights, many famous agency execs have been Mr. Vaessen's patrons over the years, like the late Jim Heekin Sr. (whose son is now the CEO of Grey Group); retiring VCU BrandCenter director Rick Boyko; and Harold Burson, the founder of WPP PR shop Burson Marsteller. Also, luminaries from outside the ad business patronized the shop, such as the late author of the bestseller "Exodus" Leon Uris and even an ambassador to Russia. Today it's a mix of retired ad folk and current Ogilvy employees.

"I've got great customers, and the secret is to not make a big deal of them," said Mr. Vaessen. "They relax here. I have respect for them, but I must tell you, I don't make a big fuss." He's been careful not to be confused with others in the building who fawn over bigwigs. His concern is cowlicks, not kowtowing.

Mr. Vaessen arrives at work earlier than anyone at Ogilvy. He's in by 6:15 a.m. and his day doesn't end until 12 hours later, when he travels to his home in Westchester, N.Y. He lives with his wife, who is also from Belgium and was a hairdresser before retiring a few years ago. She's been pressing him to slow down and cut his week to four days so they can do some traveling. The barbershop sits in the underbelly of Ogilvy's offices, behind a nondescript door with nothing but a small stained-glass sign that says "Barbier" hinting at its presence. Entering the windowless room takes you miles away from the outside world. It's quiet, but with a request you may get a little opera music or piano concerto.

The decor is sparse. A large gilded mirror and some framed hunting scenes hang on the wall, decorative touches a long-ago client suggested to help make the space look more masculine. Because his license applied only to men's hair, Mr. Vaessen has never cut women's hair, though he made an exception for Jane Maas, the former Ogilvy copywriter and author of "Mad Women" who has steadfastly sported a pixie cut.

His toolkit is simple, far less complex than that of an adman these days to be sure. The essentials include a big bottle of tingling green-mint shampoo ; an inexpensive conditioner (there's no use in spending money on fancy brands, he said, because they generally all are made of the same ingredients and have the same effect); Mont St. Michel Eau de Lavande aftershave; and a few small, sharp scissors made of German steel. A red cape is wrapped around customers who sit in the leather barber's chair.

"Clean around the ears, no curls, full on the sides and short on the top" -- in Mr. Vaessen's view, that 's the ideal haircut for a businessman. He charges anywhere between $25 and $45. Most remarkable are the out-of -town clients and the ones whose former companies haven't worked with Ogilvy in years, yet they make the trip every few weeks for a cut. The chauffeur-driven black cars pull up in front of the Ogilvy building on 11th Avenue, many of them having traveled to Manhattan from the sprawling estates of Connecticut where Mr. Vaessen's patrons are spending their retired days.

A rapport is bound to build up when you see one another so much, and so the barber has become a vault of secrets about business, workplace fears, medical problems and messy divorces. Back in the day, they'd drag him to parties where he didn't know anyone but his clients, where everyone would drink heavily (though Mr. Vaessen skipped the martinis for red wine).

Ken Roman, the former CEO of Ogilvy and author of "The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising," told the barber years ago that if there's one person who could really pen a juicy tell-all about adland, it would be Mr. Vaessen.

"I would feel terrible to reveal those things," said Mr. Vaessen. "They are nobody's business. I could never."

Mr. Roman has been a customer for nearly 40 years. "He gives an absolutely first-class haircut, he's very discreet, interesting to talk to, and it's a quiet, relaxed, peaceful place to go," Mr. Roman told me. "That's why people like it."

Writer Tom Chiarella, who grew up in the '60's, reflected on the relationship between man and barber in Esquire a few years ago. "It had to do with loyalty. With reliability and respect. This stuff exists between a man and the man who cuts his hair -- barber, stylist, hair guy, whatever. A man entrusts his barber to tend the facial nethers without comment, with a rhythm both efficient and personal. It becomes a partnership, quiet in particularities, declared with his return business as much as his tip."

'I didn't like the haircut he requested'

David Ogilvy came in every two-and-a-half weeks. During his visit, he'd share stories of his past, goings-on with clients, and he'd often pester Mr. Vaessen for some gossip in return. "He always wanted to know the things that went on here," said Mr. Vaessen, who says he might selectively offer a few tidbits, but was careful to never break the confidence of a patron.

These conversations were innocent fun in comparison to what would happen when the talk would shift to the subject at hand: The haircut. That's when the bickering would ensue.

"I didn't like the haircut he requested" said Mr. Vaessen, shaking his head, even after all these years lamenting the low part that Mr. Ogilvy preferred. "It looked like a toupe." And, he added, "He was very cheap. He never had any money on him and would always say, 'I'll pay you the next time I see you."'

These days, he sees his old friend hanging on the wall of the barber shop in a yellowing cutting of The Flagbearer, Ogilvy's internal agency newsletter. The article, titled "Our Classy Clipper," is dated Oct. 10, 1966, and a photo depicts a baby-faced Mr. Vaessen setting to work on Mr. Ogilvy's dome.

Mr. Vaessen still enjoys his visits from David Ogilvy Jr., who he's known since he was a small boy. The only child of the legendary adman now works in real estate and is a devoted client like his dad.

"I think in the old days the executives had more fun," Mr. Vaessen said. "They were more relaxed in a way, and more confident. There were long lunches and a lot more drinking...and they dressed beautifully."

Though he doesn't approve of their haircuts and their casual dress, Mr. Vaessen concedes that the new generation of ad executives works far harder today than the Mad Men did, when scheduling a 3 p.m. haircut ensured they wouldn't be going back to work. Today, an ad career is much harder, Mr. Vaessen observed, but the fact that everyone actually works is something he respects. That's probably because he's so tirelessly dedicated himself to his own profession.

Last I saw Mr. Vaessen, he was waiting for me to finish querying him so he could receive his next appointment, Steve Hayden, the retired vice chair of Ogilvy and former creative behind the famous Apple "1984" ad.

Thanks to his mentor, Mr. Vaessen's shop continues to thrive. "It's a dirty thing to say around here," notes the barber as he prepared to receive Mr. Hayden, "but I have never had to advertise."

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