He was never modest

Obituary of an adman

David Ogilvy applied energy and skill to promoting all sorts of products, not least his own personality. As he liked to explain: “If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope can you have of being able to advertise anything else?”

His most effective self-promotions were his books: Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), Ogilvy on Advertising (1983), and David Ogilvy: An Autobiography (1997: it had first been published in 1978 as Blood, Brains & Beer). Elegantly written, and pervaded by his forceful enthusiasm, each book served as an extended letter of credentials to clients, complete with examples of his own work. In the autobiography, Ogilvy looked back on his early years in the advertising industry, expressing some doubt as to whether any copywriter had ever produced “so many winners” in such a short period. (He was never modest).

But some of his campaigns were indeed memorable. One had the following headline: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”. (Ogilvy offered this to the world as “the most famous automobile advertisement of all time”). Other celebrated campaigns included a 19-year series promoting Hathaway shirts, in which the photograph always featured a man wearing an eye-patch; advertisements for Shell which broke new ground by actually explaining the ingredients of petrol; and, for Guinness, a series of guides to foods that might be eaten with that drink – such as oysters, cheese and game.

He reviled advertising that seemed more intent on entertainment than shifting products: “People do not buy from clowns” was one of his many slogans. Whenever he got the chance, Ogilvy liked to repeat the advice he had presented in his books. Among the tips he aired most frequently were: “You cannot bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them in buying it”; and “Include the brand name in your headline: 80 per cent of people don’t read the body copy”. Perhaps most memorable of all was: “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”

Ogilvy was more than just a copywriter, he was a consummate businessman. In the generation that came after him, Charles and Maurice Saatchi were acknowledged masters of writing and client-handling, respectively: Ogilvy was peerless in both disciplines. Among the clients he won almost single-handedly were global giants such as Lever Brothers, Shell and American Express. Having founded his agency with no clients, and a staff of two, in 1948, he masterminded its rapid growth and eventually, in 1966, took it to the market (Ogilvy and Mather was one of the first agencies to go public.) By the mid-1990s, the agency had 272 offices in 64 countries.

David MacKenzie Ogilvy, the son of Francis Longley John Ogilvy and Dorothy Fairfield, was born in West Horsley, Surrey. He shared his birthday, June 23, with both his father and his grandfather. The comfortable home into which he was born was wrecked by financial disaster during the First World War; Francis Ogilvy asked for financial assistance from his own father but was refused, so he cut his throat in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide.

Backed by scholarships, David Ogilvy attended Fettes College, Edinburgh, and read history at Christ Church, Oxford. He did not graduate, however, because he failed every exam. Late in his life, having achieved worldly success, Ogilvy was amused to discover that his IQ amounted to no more than 96 (normal, as he put it, for ditch diggers).

His first job was in the kitchen of the Hotel Majestic in Paris, where the perfectionist head chef (who once sacked a member of his brigade for making wonky brioches) made a deep impression on him. Ogilvy’s first assignment at the Majestic was preparing food for the customers’ dogs. After that he returned to Britain to work as a door-to-door salesman for kitchen stoves and wrote a guide for that job which Fortune magazine described as probably the best sales manual ever written. In 1935 he joined the London advertising agency Mather & Crowther, becoming managing director only two years later.

In 1938, on sabbatical from Mather & Crowther, he went to the United States, where he worked closely with the market researcher George Gallup, another significant influence. In Hollywood, they advised studios on the likely success of film projects before they were made. Ogilvy suggested to Disney that he make Alice in Wonderland (which he did), and told David Selznick to film an epic about Christ (which he did not).

During the Second World War Ogilvy served under Sir William Stephenson in British intelligence, as Second Secretary at the Washington embassy. As part of his training, he learnt to shoot a revolver, blow up bridges and power lines, and kill with his bare hands.

When the the war was over he went to live for some years as a farmer in Pennsylvania, among the Amish community which had impressed him as a visitor. He gave up farming when he realised that it was insufficiently mechanical, and anyway he worried too much about weather and crop prices. At 37, an age when many people in advertising are already considered too old, Ogilvy set up his own agency, Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, based in New York, with the financial backing of Mather & Crowther in London.

By 1951, with such accounts as Sun Oil and Hathaway shirts secured, Ogilvy had created unstoppable momentum. His success in America owed a great deal to his personal style. Many were impressed by the gentlemanly English manner (he was not in fact related to the titled Ogilvy family, though the shared surname did not prove a hindrance). Unlike others with such an “English” style, however, Ogilvy managed to make himself understood in New York by slipping into his conversation Americanisms such as the word “gotten”.

His management ethos was simple, and inevitably he formulated a series of slogans to describe it. Taking a lead from J.P. Morgan, he always sought to hire “gentlemen with brains”. He told his senior colleagues to “be contagiously cheerful” and to “encourage exuberance”, but not to forget that “hard work never killed a man”.

In 1964 he merged the agency with his London backers Mather & Crowther to form a new international company. Ogilvy & Mather, as the company was subsequently named, went public in 1966. On handing over the running of the agency in 1973, Ogilvy wrote down the names of six countries, and compared them by 24 criteria, eventually selecting France as the most suitable for his retirement. From his 60-room medieval chateau at Touffou, 100 miles south-west of Paris, he continued to keep a close-eye on O&M. Indeed, he received so many letters there that the local post office needed upgrading, and the postmaster was awarded a higher salary. In 1989, when the agency was bought by the British holding company WPP, Ogilvy was furious, describing WPP’s chief executive Martin Sorrell as an “odious little jerk” who had never written an ad in his life. But Sorrell offered him the post of non-executive chairman and they patched up their differences. Ogilvy served in that capacity for three years.

Aside from his work, his principal interest in retirement was gardening. For his 80th birthday, Ogilvy & Mather presented him with a rose bred in the United States, the “David Ogilvy”.

He was appointed CBE in 1967 but openly expressed his regret that he was never knighted. Other honours included election to the French Order of Arts and Letters, in 1990, and to the American Advertising Hall of Fame in 1977. Marriages to Melinda Street and Anne Cabot were both dissolved. He is survived by his third wife, Herta Lans, whom he married in 1973, and by the son of his first marriage.

David Ogilvy, CBE, founder of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, died yesterday aged 88. He was born on June 23, 1911

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