Celebrating Advertising’s Patron Saint

By J.F. McKenna

As an advertising executive, David Ogilvy never stood on ceremony.

He stood for results, all the time.

Kenneth Roman, in the definitive biography to date, recounts Ogilvy’s one-man war against industry self-congratulation. First, Ogilvy banned his legendary agency from entering any more contests. Then advertising’s celebrated iconoclast launched his in-house David Ogilvy Award in 1970.

“The winner received a small red plaque and $10,000 cash,” Roman chronicles in The King of Madison Avenue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). “’If you, my fellow copywriters or art directors, want to win the award,’ he admonished the troops, ‘devote your genius to making the cash register ring.’ Making the cash register ring joined the agency’s lexicon.”

That anecdote is representative of Ogilvy’s style: his life and his work bore what he himself called “the burr of singularity.” David Mackenzie Ogilvy was an original, and he never tired of leveraging that status. As Michael Wolff describes him in the current Ad Week, Ogilvy “was the most famous businessman of his generation, one that went from shortly after the Second World War through the 1960s. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to put him, in his time, on the level of Steve Jobs in ours.”

Were Ogilvy alive, he would be pleased, if amused, by the current fanfare tied to the centenary of his birth. At the same time, the calculating contrarian would surely decry any somber moment of silence on June 23. Now dead a dozen years, the acknowledged “Father of Modern Advertising” would hector from his grave: “Just hit those keyboards and create some copy. Fashion designs worthy of the product. Create messages that sell.”

Actually, that very attitude is why 21st century advertising and its cousins celebrate Ogilvy’s life and legacy. Businesses still demand results, and many business leaders tell today’s “mad men” and marketing wise guys to follow Ogilvy’s lead.

“There are very few men of genius in advertising agencies,” Ogilvy observed decades ago. “But we need all we can find.” By the time Ogilvy said that, the industry had recognized the Scot-Irish ad man as a messaging mahatma and a success story like few others.

Ogilvy had moved from Oxford student to a series of careers, including door-to-door salesman and restaurant worker in France, before immigrating to the United States in 1938. He worked for George Gallup and even won praise while serving Britain’s Intelligence Service in Washington during World War II. His early entrepreneurial adventures set up his 1948 founding of Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather (now Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide). As the agency boasts on its Web site today:

Thirty-three years later, he sent the following memo to one of his partners:

Will Any Agency Hire This Man?

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college.
He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer.
He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy.

He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year.

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring. 

Imaginative and unorthodox, most certainly. Imaginative and unorthodox enough to introduce the now iconic “Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” eye patch and all. To enlist Commander Whitehead to defend Schweppes’ market share around the globe. To create what has been called advertising’s most enduring automotive headline: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Biographer Roman, who worked with Ogilvy, acknowledges that Bill Bernbach had a greater influence on advertising standards than Ogilvy. But Ogilvy, Roman adds, took top marks for championing brand image and for preaching ethics and good taste. Ogilvy was quoted as saying, “I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings.”

The title “Father of Modern Advertising” may be in dispute; Ogilvy’s election to industry patron saint is not.

Also indisputable is the richness and durability of the aphorisms Ogilvy left the business word. Here is a sampler of my favorites:

If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.

There is no better yardstick for advertising or marketing-communications.

Advertising is a business of words, but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They cannot write advertisements, and they cannot write plans. They are helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

As I scan the marketplace, I see that Ogilvy’s indictment remains in force. As Roman writes, “Ogilvy was, above all, a writer, and his agency had a writing culture.” As far as great commercial copy is concerned, such culture teeters toward extinction.

Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.

Another argument in support of Ogilvy’s canonization. More important, though, it is sidewalk-smart advice.

The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST. If you pretest your product with consumers, and pretest your advertising, you will do well in the marketplace.

Allow me to add this critically important Ogilvy corollary: “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support rather than for illumination.”

There are many more such gems. (To access some of them, click on: http://todaysadvisor.com/Ogilvy.aspx .) My absolute favorite is this one, drawn from the baseball world and worthy of adoption by anyone in business:

Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.

Ogilvy’s kind of company.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .



  1. JF

    I enjoyed reading your article on Ogilvy. And I agree that Ogilvy was and still is a huge influence on many people in the advertising business. And rightfully so. He conducted himself and his company in many ways that attract emulation. However I have some observations:

    First, the Rolls-Royce ad was indeed brilliant copy. “At 60 miles per hour, the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”. Personally I think it was the best one he ever did. However, BBDO had created essentially the same thought and headline for Pierce Arrow 20 years earlier: “The only sound one can hear in the new Pierce Arrow is the ticking of the electric clock”. When confronted with this, Ogilvy’s nonchalant response was “he had borrowed it from a British Motor Magazine”.

    Second, his reliance on research was misguided, I believe. Having been a Marketing Research Director early in my career I knew a bit about research, particularly copy research and I knew and proved that it is a very, very blunt instrument. Not only were/are the techniques flawed and the data more often than not spurious, but it can be very misleading and is primarily used in my opinion to cover ones client’s ass. I was involved with the development and implementation of the Apple “1984” introductory Macintosh commercial. I had it tested but never presented the results to Apple. It got the single worst score that was ever recorded in that testing system. I have many other similar experiences with misleading results from copy research.

    Finally, Ogilvy was a bit of a hypocrite. As I explain in my book, The Insanity of Advertising, he wrote Jay Chiat a letter once complaining about an ad we did at Chiat/Day San Francisco and which used a visual he had used in an early ad of his and which he thought was irrelevant. His use of it was, but ours was not. And he sent a similar letter to Ad Week complaining publicly about it. Not only was this cheeky, it was wrong.

    Check out my book for the complete details on these and many other matters of interest. It’s kind of fun. I am sending you some background on my book separately. Maybe you can do something with it. It’s selling very well. Regards,
    Fred G

    Fred Goldberg, author: The Insanity of Advertising (www.theinsanityofadvertising.com)

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