"Look at all the old people here," Michael Schrage, the writer and M.I.T. new media scholar, observed. "This place should be crawling with young people trying to make their way in interactive advertising. David Ogilvy had more to tell them about their craft than any of the new Internet gurus."
Schrage was correct. Internet advertising is in dire straits. A half century after the founding of his agency and several months after his passing, the late Mr. Ogilvy still owns the compass that points the way out.
First, an elaboration on the crisis in Internet advertising: It stinks. "We have abominable creative online; the worst of the worst," Rich LeFurgy, the founder of the Internet Advertising Bureau and a veteran of mainstream agencies, lamented to me a few weeks ago. Click-through rates, still the measure by which most online advertising is judged, have by all accounts declined. Many, perhaps most, Internet banner campaigns are eliciting responses from less than 1% of the audience.
So much online ad inventory remains unsold that CPMs are continually being pressured downward. Yet all the faux savants in the interactive advertising clique -- as evidenced by the preening at Jupiter Communications' online ad conference last month -- still insist they and only they hold the key to advertising's future.
God help us. I mean you.
The problem is the discipline of interactive advertising has evolved almost fully out of direct marketing, and direct has different goals and a different culture than media advertising.
Direct response values only the response; the notion that an advertisement or a campaign might help build an image, bolster a brand or make a firm more likeable is foreign to professionals trained in its arcana. Indeed, in the aggressively macho culture of direct, all glory goes to he (shes remain a minority) who can beat the "control" -- the ad that remains in use until another surmounts it by a fraction of a percentage point -- even if the new ad subverts the character of the brand.
This heritage explains the dreadfulness of Internet advertising -- and, for that matter, of mainstream advertising for dot-com companies. Like most junk mail, it tries to shock you into opening the envelope (with a barely credible offer, a sexual tease or a threat to your well-being). If the come-on injures the brand among 98% of the audience, no matter; not as long as 2% make the buy.
Mainstream advertising is little better. Its practitioners typically disdain the craft of selling, preferring to regale their audience with entertaining schtick. Don't argue with me: The mere fact the industry regurgitated the Effie Awards for "effective" advertising to counter the One Show and other honors for "creative" advertising is evidence enough of the dichotomy.
More than any of this century's advertising lions, David Ogilvy understood there was no split between great selling and great brand communicating. While he filled his books with encomia to direct marketing, he also said: "Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image."
His own life serves as documentation. Mr. Ogilvy remains the ad trade's strongest human brand, a crafty, calculated stew of Oxonian erudition, dry Scots wit, French elegance and American know-how; a mixture so potent that the company which survives him has redone its own image to emphasize his handwritten initials.
Yet inside that urbane exterior was a man who relished the opportunity to sell himself. In "Confessions of an Advertising Man", he tells a lovely tale of pursuing the Scots Presbyterian chairman of the Armstrong Cork company into the man's church, where Mr. Ogilvy contrived to give a speech crediting the Scots Presbyterian contribution to U.S. history. Naturally, he won the account.
At his memorial service, contemplating the films and anecdotes -- David in a kilt, David on "big ideas" -- Ted Chin, one of the hundreds there who attributed their careers to him, turned to me and said with gravity: "David Ogilvy was a genius who transformed this industry through his innate understanding of brand marketing."
"C'mon, Ted," I, ever the cynic, scoffed. "He was a huckster whose greatest success was selling himself." Mr. Chin chuckled. "You're right."
We both were. Branding must sell, and selling must brand -- that was David Ogilvy's creed, and his legacy to the Internet era.