This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of David Ogilvy, by common consent one of the great men of advertising and indeed marketing in general. David Ogilvy was born in 1911 in West Horsley, Surrey and grew up in Lewis Carroll’s house there. He was educated at Fettes in Scotland and Christ Church, Oxford although he did not complete his degree and was sent down in 1931 in the depth of the recession. While his friends established themselves as dons, lawyers, civil servants and politicians he knocked about the world, uncertain of purpose. He started as a chef in the kitchens of the Hotel Majestic in Paris. He went on to sell Aga cookers door-to-door in Scotland and later went to America to become Associate Director of Dr George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in Princeton. During World War II he was on Sir William Stephenson’s staff in British Security Co-Ordination and served as Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington. After the war with the help of his brother Francis he founded the advertising agency that would become known as Ogilvy, Benson and Mather.
In 1948 with scarcely any capital he issued the following Order of the Day to his new staff:
“This is a new agency, struggling for its life. For some time we shall be overworked and underpaid.
In hiring the emphasis will be on youth. We are looking for young turks. I have no use for toadies or hacks. I seek gentlemen with brains.
Agencies are as big as they deserve to be. We are starting this one on a shoestring, but we are going to make it a great agency before 1960.”
And they did. The next day he made a list of the five clients he wanted most: General Foods, Bristol-Myers, Campbell Soup Company, Lever Brothers, and Shell. To pick such blue-chip targets was an act of mad presumption, but all five became clients of Ogilvy, Benson & Mather. In 1963 David Ogilvy published an account of this story in “Confessions of an Advertising Man” and I understand that to mark the centenary the publishers are bringing out a new edition. Get a copy. It is not just one of the fines t books about advertising or marketing to have been written; it is one of the best on business. My own dog-eared copy dates back to 1964. Much of the book consists of lists of rules that apply to running any type of service business with pithy quotes, pertinent anecdotes and insightful advice.
I think the fact that Ogilvy learnt about service from a great head chef, Monsieur Pithard, who some experts say ran probably the best kitchen there has ever been; learnt about selling in the hardest school of all, door-to-door selling; learnt about research from one of the founders of the profession in George Gallup; learnt about intelligence from The Man Called Intrepid himself and then learnt about advertising from competitors, clients and the fantastic people he hired is the principal reason why he became successful running a great agency. But quite where his skill as a copywriter came from is beyond analysis. He points out that many great writers like Charles Lamb, Byron, Bernard Shaw, Hemingway and Faulkner tried their hand at advertising with little success.
Ogilvy on the other hand wrote a string of famous and successful ads for Guinness, Schweppes, Rolls-Royce, Shell, the British Travel Association, Viyella and many more. Perhaps two stand out even after over half a century. His extraordinary impulse to buy a cheap ten shilling eye patch and use it in the “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” meant that a paltry advertising budget of $10,000 put Hathaway on the map after 116 years of relative obscurity and its owners later sold it at a profit of several millions. Then there was his famously long head line “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” Years later he met one of the senior engineers at Rolls-Royce who, reminded of this milestone ad, said “Ah! Yes, that clock. It’s time we did something about that!”
In the book Ogilvy defends advertising against some of its more hackneyed criticisms demonstrating its utility in providing information, lowering costs by spreading them over greater volume, encouraging innovation through competitiveness, but he also recognised its dangers and thought it needed reform. He led some of the reforms himself, for example, pioneering the abolition of the pernicious commission system for which he was roundly criticized by his competitors who effectively operated a cartel. He also thought that advertising should not be used in politics although it should be used to help charities.
When it was announced that the book was to be republished I heard Sir John Hegarty on the Today programme give his views on the book. He did not think it was so helpful to advertising practitioners although he conceded that it had general application in service businesses. For Sir John the rules in advertising are made to be broken and he did not like the prescriptive nature of the book.
I met up with Sir John at a recent Marketing Society event. He and I had worked together in the past on two occasions. First when I appointed his agency Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty as the agency of record for Sony. I had been very impressed with his pitch which refused to show new creative work on our business until they fully understood the strategy but instead demonstrated what they had done for other clients like Levi Strauss and Audi. In fact it was Ogilvy who pioneered this business technique largely on the grounds of cost. Then John and I were both asked to serve on the Advisory Council that worked with the Duchy of Cornwall to help fulfil HRH the Prince of Wales’ visions for helping British farmers. This work led to the successful launch of Duchy Originals.
John told me that he had just published a book Hegarty on Advertising. He had resisted writing a book for a long time as thinking of himself as an Art Director he did not feel qualified. However one established writer convinced him by saying “But John, writing is just describing pictures.” John told me that he had wanted to call the book “Don’t buy this book!” on the ground that people tend to do the opposite of what they are told. However, the publisher insisted on Hegarty on Advertising. John got his way over the sub-heading which reads Turning Intelligence into Magic. “Creativity” he writes “is a manic construction of absurd, unlikely, irreverent thoughts and feelings that somehow, when put together, change the way we see things.” John Hegarty’s book has some fine anecdotes, after all he was there at the beginning of Saatchi & Saatchi and went on to found his own agency with John Bartle and Nigel Bogle. But I’m not sure if it will be republished in 50 years’ time.
Unilever has recently announced that going forward it will prioritise magic over logic, and this has set off, or renewed, a debate about these two apparently opposite ideas. I think this debate is misconceived because to demonstrate that the magic was indeed superior to the logic we would have to find empirical, or logical, evidence to support our claims and justify our investments. The creative process may indeed have aspects of magic, apparently, but it is rooted in logical insights. For us to ‘change the way we see things’ comes from a recognition of the reasons for that change. As Keynes said, with great logic, “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?”
Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved