Fifty years ago, David Ogilvy moved with his wife and son to New York City from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania's Amish country, where he had sold his failed tobacco farm. With "no credentials, no clients and only $6,000 in the bank," he would open an advertising agency.
In carrying out this decision, made in his late 30s, he discovered himself. And during the next three years, Madison Avenue also discovered him. David Ogilvy's genius as a copywriter would propel him to the front ranks of the advertising business.
His qualifications? They could hardly be gleaned from the career drift he had fallen into following his expulsion in 1931 from Oxford's Christ Church College, essentially for his indifference. He served as a social worker in Edinburgh, became a sleep-deprived chef's apprentice in a Paris hotel kitchen, then sold Aga ovens door-to-door back in England.
His older brother, Francis, put him into an internship at his London ad agency, Mather & Crowley. Assigned to study American advertising techniques, David parlayed this project into a trip to the States in 1938 and never really went back. Research guru George Gallup hired him in 1939 and had him criss-crossing the continent for Gallup's Hollywood clients. For three years, Mr. Ogilvy pretested screenplays, forecast trends, gauged movie stars' popularity and, along the way, learned about his adopted country. He joined the war effort in Washington as a British secret-service officer.
David Ogilvy, surrendering to his advertising ambitions after his farming fiasco, placed great confidence in his approach to advertising and in his intangibles -- his adventures, ice-breaker anecdotes and contacts in high and lowbrow places. In opening Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, partnered with an American agency executive, Anderson (Andy) Hewitt, he served as the U.S. arm of his brother's agency. The Hewitt-Ogilvy team was not exactly made in heaven and, by 1953, Mr. Hewitt was gone.
The agency achieved enormous success with a stream of stunning work that built sales for OBM clients, excited genuine industry admiration and earned awards from an admiring, receptive industry. Newly liberated by the post-war creative revolution, agency people elevated David Ogilvy to the heights as an industry icon, an original. By the time Mr. Ogilvy was ready to ease his workload in 1975, 10 years after the agency shortened its name to Ogilvy & Mather, it ranked as one of the world's five biggest shops.
Among the brilliant ads Mr. Ogilvy and his proteges produced during those fertile years were:
* "At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock";
* Breakthrough long-copy Shell Oil ads that made gasoline interesting;
* Sears, Roebuck & Co. ads that focused on its little-known people-friendly services and policies;
* The haughty Commander Whitehead for Schweppes tonic water;
* The "Man with a Black Eye Patch" for Hathaway shirts.
There also were seminal campaigns for Maxwell House coffee, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, the British Travel Association, Guinness stout, the U.S. Travel Service, Puerto Rico Economic Development, Pepperidge Farm and Lever Bros.' Dove soap.
The work stood out because Mr. Ogilvy insisted that print ads not only put client names, or brand names, in each headline, but "promise a benefit . . . deliver news . . . offer a service . . . quote a satisfied customer . . . recognize a problem . . . tell a significant story." Of his rivals who created "tricky, comic or cute advertising," the one-time door-to-door salesman snapped: "They never had to sell anything in their lives."
Rooted in his Gallup work and a love of the selling process that he learned from knocking on doors, he would boast, "I gave the facts, no hot air, no adjectives."
Always in pursuit of the Big Idea, Mr. Ogilvy celebrated the fact that in his heyday he would come up with one, sometimes two, a year. Years later, in the spacious chambers of Touffou, the 14th century French chateau he purchased for his retirement years, he justifiably boasted that his early success "made O&M so hot that getting clients was like shooting fish in a barrel."
THE OGILVY `EDGE'
While Mr. Ogilvy's 1948 summary of his agency prospects seems rather bleak, it was hardly complete. The man who was once described as possessing a "richly furnished mind," formed by a "Spartan Scottish education," sensed that he had an edge, namely the 13 years he had invested in learning about Madison Avenue. While assiduously directing Mr. Gallup's Audience Research Institute, he befriended many key ad people, including Ray Rubicam of Young & Rubicam and Rosser Reeves, then a rising "hard-sell" copywriter. Messrs. Reeves and Ogilvy, who later would become brothers-in-law, spent hours arguing about copy. Mr. Ogilvy favored what Mr. Reeves scorned: "Charming, witty and warm."
Advertising, to David Ogilvy, was an information medium, not an art form, and demanded tedious "homework" before it could gain attention and avoid audience boredom. It had to be buttressed by disciplined, coherent and consistent concepts.
To create tasteful advertising based on what he termed "the discipline of knowledge," Mr. Ogilvy advocated "testing, testing, testing" everything -- ideas, headlines, spending levels, media mixes. And he focused on the importance, and power, of brand imagery and how advertising could protect and project it.
Another major component of his success was his commitment to hiring "the smartest people around," for Mr. Ogilvy was convinced that "smart" trumped rich, connected, grooming and looks. This concept once flustered the mighty Marion Harper Jr., architect of Interpublic Group of Cos., who avidly pursued Mr. Ogilvy as a buyout prospect. Rejected for the umteenth time, Mr. Harper asked the real reason. Mr. Ogilvy let him have it: "Because my people are smarter than yours."
By 1964, "DO" and his super-smarties were advertising superstars, and -- arguably before the word entered everyday vocabulary -- "charismatic" was attaching to David Ogilvy. His 1963 book "Confessions of an Advertising Man" had become a huge international best-seller (as well as a new-business tool), and this world-famous adman was being extolled in Fortune and beset by invitations from all points to speak, visit, consult, write, even act on Broadway. In London, he was made a Commander of the British Empire and in the U.S., the Library of Congress asked for -- and received -- his papers. "DO," world-class celebrity, later would produce two more entertaining and informative books, the autobiographical "Blood, Brains & Beer" (1978) and the coffee-table tome "Ogilvy on Advertising" (1983).
PENCHANT FOR SHOWMANSHIP
This most elegant and handsome of men also demonstrated a wily penchant for showmanship. He would appear in public wearing kilts, or remove his jacket to deliver speeches in his shirtsleeves -- the better to show off his bright red suspenders -- or mop his brow with a farmer's red bandanna. He occasionally sported a black cape (with scarlet lining). "If you can't advertise yourself, what hope have you of being able to advertise anything else?" he asked.
David Ogilvy's books, memos and speeches -- like his ads -- remain popular even in today's naughty-bawdy creative environment because they deliver eternal advertising truths in sensible terms. Among them: "People do not buy from bad-mannered liars," "The consumer's not a moron, she's your wife. Don't insult her intelligence" and "Never run an advertisement you wouldn't want your family to see. Tell the truth but make truth fascinating. You know, you can't bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them in buying it."
He also studied the quality of leadership and discovered that "great leaders exude self-confidence, are never petty" and have "the guts to make unpopular decisions." His business leadership was all-inclusive, not confined to creative work alone. Mr. Ogilvy advocated a fee system for agencies at a time when the 15% commission was deemed sacred. He so hated roadside billboards that he took Shell out of the medium. He scorned political advertising, describing the genre as "flagrantly dishonest," where "chicanery" was endemic.
To keep his troops on the same page, Mr. Ogilvy issued memos containing "tips" or "lists." "There is no substitute for homework. The more you know about (the product you are going to advertise), the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it." But again, the premise had to be "true, credible and pleasant."
One possibly unexpected tip involved sex in advertising. "To show bosoms in a detergent ad would not sell the detergent," he wrote, "but there is a functional reason to show nudes in advertisements for beauty products." In short: make sure it's relevant.
As the advertising community basks under David Ogilvy's brilliant creative contributions, it finds itself, ironically, at a crossroad. Dumbed-down creative work has somehow gotten spliced onto the industry's end-of-century reel. Thus, the timing of Mr. Ogilvy's golden anniversary retrospective is perfect, just as it was when he joined the liberated agency scene 50 years ago.
Fred Danzig has been covering the David Ogilvy story since 1962, when he joined Advertising Age.