Gross: How David Ogilvy Transformed Advertising

David Ogilvy, a British immigrant who didn't immerse himself in advertising until his late 30s, was one of the original Mad Men. A swashbuckling, charismatic rebel, he devised a series of highly successful ad campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s for clients like Schweppes and the Puerto Rico tourism board. His definitive writings about the ad business provided valuable lessons to generations of marketers. In "The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising" (Palgrave MacMillan) Kenneth Roman, the former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, provides the first full-length biography of Ogilvy. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross spoke with Roman about Ogilvy's unusual career, his legacy and how he transformed Americans' buying habits. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Tell us about the strange trajectory of this Englishman
ROMAN:
This is the most improbable, implausible story. He's born in England, he grows up there, drops out of Oxford. And then, what does he do? He becomes a chef in Paris. Then he sells Aga cooking stoves door-to-door in Scotland at the depth of the Depression. He writes a manual that Fortune says is probably the best sales manual ever written and he uses that to talk himself into a little job in the ad business in London. Then he ends up in the U.S. working for George Gallup, the pollster, doing pioneering research in Hollywood. Then before and during World War II he does undercover work with British intelligence. At the end of the war he becomes a farmer in the Amish country in Pennsylvania. At the age of 38, he decides to open an advertising agency. It's really an astonishing story.

He was a legendary eccentric with a big flamboyant personality. Given that, one would have thought he'd be an instinct-driven creative genius. But that's not really what he was about, was it?
The seminal influence in his business life really was working in the research business for George Gallup. He believed in research and he brought research into the advertising business and made it more professional. He was known as a creative genius but in fact he was more of a leader who changed the business in many ways.

His philosophy was very data-driven. He believed that you sell a product by providing a lot of well-written high-level information about the product. What was his line about not talking down to the customer?
He really brought civilized good taste into American advertising. And he also believed very much in honesty and candor in advertising. He would state it in a way you would never forget: "The consumer is not a moron, she's your wife! Don't insult her intelligence. You wouldn't lie to your wife, don't lie to mine." And in that sense, and in many ways, he was probably the first consumerist. He lobbied against billboards. He was a highly principled man. He may have been flamboyant in his dress and his mannerisms but his mind was orthodox and conventional.

You write that there were a series of campaigns he devised that ran for 20 years or more.
He'd say "unless your campaign is built on a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night." But for him, to be a big idea it had to last 20 or more years and most of his campaigns did. The one for which he is least known but his greatest success probably is the Dove [soap]bar. He created the image of the one-quarter cleansing cream that doesn't dry your skin. It's now the largest-selling soap brand in the world.

One of his iconic campaigns was the Hathaway shirt, the man with the eye-patch. Why did that work and how did he hit upon that idea?
He took on this tiny shirt company in Maine with a tiny budget. He had done some research and he found out that a photograph or an illustration with what he called story appeal would have more appeal than an ordinary photograph. On the way to the shoot, he picked up and eye patch at the drug store for a dollar and a half and he said to the photographer: "Just humor me, take a few pictures with this thing". And people looked at that one ad in The New Yorker and it sold out all the Hathaway shirts in New York … Some people looked at the model and asked: "How did he hurt his eye?" There was nothing wrong with the model's eye by the way.

But while he loved these "story appeal" ads, you write that he was a big believer in direct marketing.
He loved direct marketing. He walked around saying: "We sell or else!" In the business, direct marketing used to be known as below the line promotion. It clearly was less glamorous but he raised its profile and was its champion. He was named to the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame.

In the '60s advertising changed a great deal, especially with the advances in television. And you write that he didn't really get that medium.
No, David was a word man, not a picture man; a rational man not an emotional man. So he never really liked music in commercials. He didn't really buy music and emotion and the visual aspects of television, and he admitted it … I think he really changed the business in some fundamental ways: he made the business more professional with using the consumer research to develop advertising. But his biggest contribution may have been a speech he wrote in 1955 where he said, "Every advertisement is part of the investment in the personality of the brand." Everywhere you go now you hear about brand and brand image. He was the one who really made people aware of the idea of a brand and what a brand personality is. That's a very enduring phenomenon.

You write that he didn't like the direction advertising was going in the '80s and in the '90s, why not?
Well, he felt that the advertising business had changed with the introduction of these creative awards contests. I mean the advertising business is maybe one of the few businesses where people give awards to each other. And on what basis do they do it? Because they like it, because it's entertaining. He gave this speech saying, " There's a disease called entertainment, that's infecting our business." I think he didn't recognize that a lot of the advertising today must be entertaining to get a younger generation to pay attention. But for him, the measure of an advertisement's success was always its ability to sell.

Join the Discussion