Ogling Ogilvy

There are a few revelations to be found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy collection. But is this what happens when the personality endures longer than the creative work?

For many, David Ogilvy is the ultimate ad man. He was the Brit who conquered America. The late starter who, at 38, became not just a world famous copywriter, but a sort of household name. The agency that he founded, Ogilvy and Mather, still uses his signature as its logo more than a decade after his death. And this is no accident: the brand he created contains immense value. To the right kind of business the agency founded by the ‘godfather of modern advertising’ sounds like a pretty safe bet.

One of the mad men?

But if Ogilvy’s personal reputation is intact, his creative legacy is harder to place. I’m an advertising nerd, but I might struggle to pick Bill Bernbach from a line-up of Mad Men extras. His most famous campaigns, however, remain instantly recognisable.

The opposite is true of Ogilvy. The name alone brings to mind the extravagantly Brylcreemed hairdo, the black spectacles and pipe, even the rich Fettes burr. But complete the headline: ‘At 60mph the loudest thing in this new Rolls Royce is the …’ something to do with a clock? And this is doubly strange when you consider how prolific Ogilvy was. He was, as he liked to tell anyone that would listen, an immensely hard worker and highly reluctant to employ anyone who did not meet his own exacting standards.

So for the first ten or so years, he was his agency. He was right there in Madison Avenue, at the very epicentre of the creative revolution, and yet he is notably absent from histories of the period, including Andrew Cracknell’s excellent book, The Real Mad Men. In some accounts he even seems to have been closer to the forces of reaction than revolution. Dave Trott, when asked to contribute to a documentary on Ogilvy a few years ago, declined. “You were either an Ogilvy man or a Bill Bernbach man.” Dave, it seems, was a Bernbach man.

The man, the brand

There can be no doubt that Ogilvy was a colossal figure in the history of advertising, but he came to be one as much through self-promotion as the promotion of products. His published works, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising were both bestsellers. He also seems never, even once, to have turned down an opportunity to speak in public or give an interview “I’m always selling Ogilvy & Mather,” he said, “I hope I conceal that sometimes, but I am.”

Ogilvy realised early on that his personality was his own best asset. It was clear to him from the outset, from the magical effect his accent had on Madison Avenue. “I had a gimmick…. In those days there were about two of us … it was a tremendous advantage,” he said.

The Americans kept giving him their business, they couldn’t stop themselves. Having understood the advantages of being a rare bird he tried to bring this understanding to the brands he worked for. “I plead for charm, flair, showmanship, taste, distinction”, in other words, all those qualities a Main Street CEO might see in the Oxford graduate with the pipe and three-piece-suit. For Ogilvy, personality was branding. And if his personality has endured longer than his work has done, it may be because it was his work.

This volume then, is collected personality run-off. It’s everything apart from his advertising writing, or his writing about advertising. It’s a few of his speeches, memos, interviews and letters gathered by his colleagues as a gift for his 75th birthday. By that point Ogilvy’s executive duties had been greatly reduced but he remained, if no longer the boss, a boss-like figure.

We can’t really expect any revelations from such a toadying artefact. Ogilvy taught his employees to value his writing highly. “The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy and Mather. People who think well, write well.” But of course, no matter how well you wrote you could go no higher than Ogilvy himself. His writing was meant to exemplify their aspirations. Is it any wonder that they kept his memos?

Originality is dangerous

The organisation of the book is, to put it mildly, informal. And while the photographs are fairly chronological, the writing is organised by type. So it’s sometimes hard to know whether you’re hearing from the young man with the sun in his eyes, or the genial old millionaire in the chateau at Touffou. The weird thing is that this doesn’t seem to matter. Ogilvy’s written style, and even many of his ideas, changed not at all over the years. One of the first pieces here finds him saying “Every word of the copy must count. Concrete figures must be substituted for atmospheric claims”. He wrote it when he was 25, but he would still have approved of the idea at 75.

In fact Ogilvy encouraged resistance to change. He thought originality was dangerous. “What guts it takes, what obstinate determination, to stick to one coherent creative policy, year after year, in the face of all the pressures to ‘come up with something new’ every six months.” When asked how he might like to be reincarnated he suggested a Galapagos turtle – slow moving and long-lived.

The Aga era

One of the more interesting pieces in this book dates from his early career, it’s a guide on how to sell Agas door-to-door. It’s a document from another time, one where private houses were best approached by the back door, and the salesman might find himself addressing husband, wife or cook. Even in those environmentally carefree days efficiency was not the Aga’s strong point. Ogilvy managed to turn this into an advantage – it might burn a whopping £4 of a fuel a year, but there was no way of making it burn more than £4 of fuel a year. As well as extreme wastefulness Agas are known for longevity. Perhaps somewhere in Scotland one of Ogilvy’s Agas is still burning now.

It’s hard to know who needs this book. It’s not so much Ogilvy as you’ve never seen him before, as Ogilvy from a slightly different angle than you may have seen him until now. Ogilvy completists, if such people really exist, will love this. Everyone else can safely pass.

Gordon Comstock is an advertising creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo

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