Wally Olins, co-founder of Wolff Olins and chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants, has died aged 83. CR editor Patrick Burgoyne pays tribute
The Financial Times once described Wally Olins as “the world’s leading practitioner of branding and identity” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Certainly Wally didn’t as, in typical style, he placed it in a prominent position on his website.
Under the What I’m Like heading, he described himself thus: “I try to be direct and clear. I simply tell my clients the truth as I see it, without too much gloss or varnish because that’s what I’m there for. Of course it’s nice to be nice. But it’s also nice to be straight. I can’t stand people who don’t return phone calls and are generally sloppy, but apart from that I’m told I’m reasonable to work with. And I like having a bit of a laugh.”
Direct, intelligent and with a wickedly mischievous sense of humour, I’d say that sums Wally up to a T. He was one of those people with whom spending time was an absolute joy. He always had an opinion and would always let you know it. But he would do so with huge charm.
Wally began his working life in advertising. In the early 60s, he ran Ogilvy & Mather in what was then Bombay, living there for five years. It was the start of a life-long attachment to India, a country he loved and where he worked and taught extensively. In fact, the first I heard of his passing was from Rajesh Kejriwal, the founder of the design conference Design Yatra, who was his great friend and business partner.
In 1965, Wally co-founded Wolff Olins with Michael Wolff. The two of them would change not just the design industry but industry itself. Wolff Olins was perhaps the first design consultancy in Britain, in the sense that we now understand that term. It introduced the idea to UK corporate life that this thing called ‘brand’ was vitally important and that it influenced everything that organisations did and said about themselves.
Wolff and Olins’ relationship was likened to a marriage and like many marriages it would eventually break down with Wolff leaving the consultancy in 1983. In 2001, Wally also left and set up Saffron with a former Wolff Olins colleague, Jacob Benbunan. There, he continued to work with many of the world’s largest companies on branding and identity.
He also began to explore an interest in place branding, a field in which he was a pioneer and which he expounded on in his many books. Indeed, he became a prolific author on branding: his latest book, Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come, launched last week.
Not everyone agreed with Wally on the positive contribution of brands to our world – Eye magazine, for example, ran a famously withering review of On Brand by academic Terry Eagleton. On our part, the March issue of CR featured a review of the new book by Nick Asbury which took issue with several of his key arguments. But Wally relished an argument and he was more than happy to engage with his critics. And he was not afraid to criticise the design industry either, referring to the larger design consultancies as “machines devised to produce mediocre rubbish” and calling some of their actions “despicable” in an interview in 2009 (see Design Yatra videos below)
I suspect that, for most of our readers, it is as co-founder of Wolff Olins that Wally will mostly be remembered, and rightly so. Anyone who currently earns a living advising or designing for brands owes Wally a debt of gratitude for his pioneering work in establishing the credibility and value of brand identity design.
From a personal point of view, I will always treasure the conversations I enjoyed with this brilliant and charming man. And I can thank both Wally and Michael for one of the highlights of my time at CR. In 2009, the pair were reunited for the first time since their split on stage at Design Yatra in Mumbai. I was fortunate enough to be asked to compere. Here’s what happened.
Statement from Saffron
“With immense sadness we announce the passing of our Chairman Wally Olins, who died on the 14th April after a short illness.
Anyone who ever met Wally will remember him well and those of us who knew him well will remember him forever. A man who lived four lifetimes in one, he was insatiably curious, infectiously charming and occasionally infuriatingly impatient!
A genuine pioneer, Wally was one of the leading individuals that helped carve out the business of branding – he would always say he did it ‘with colleagues’ but those of us that were lucky enough to have been his colleagues know that this is only partly true.
Oddly for a man who was so defined by his prolific talent, he will perhaps be remembered most for his incredible generosity and optimism. Whether advising a young student looking for advice on getting ahead in branding or advising presidents on ways to enhance their nation’s brand, Wally was always willing to give more than he expected to receive.
Incredibly, at 83 Wally was still able to manage to go out on a high with the release of his latest book ‘Brand New, published by Thames & Hudson’ only last week. Full of his characteristic wit, insight and humanity it’s arguably his best yet.
We miss him tremendously. And will continue to be inspired by him every day.”
We’d like to encourage CR readers to use the comment space below to share their memories of Wally Olins