Obituary: David Ogilvy

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The Independent Culture
DAVID OGILVY was an innovative giant of advertising. He was the founder of Ogilvy & Mather, which became one of the largest international advertising agencies. He invented the concept of the "brand image"; he devised advertisements which became legends in their time; and he formulated his principles of advertising into a coherent body of doctrine.

He was born in 1911 at West Horsley, Surrey, the younger son of a gifted family. His father was a Scottish stockbroker who spoke Gaelic and had combined a Cambridge Blue for rugby with a First in the classical tripos. His mother, a Fairfield from Co Kerry, was a cousin of Rebecca West.

He was a scholar at Fettes, where Walter Sellar (of 1066 and All That) taught him history, and a scholar of Christ Church, Oxford, whence he was sent down for idleness in 1931 at the height of the Depression. He ran away to Paris and became a chef at the Hotel Majestic, earning two promotions in what was then one of the best kitchens in France.

This proved a seminal experience of the relentless hard work, disciplined thoroughness and pursuit of excellence that was to characterise the rest of his life. He was later to compare the rule of the martinet chef de cuisine, M Pitard, with his own task of running an advertising agency.

He was rescued from the kitchens of the Hotel Majestic by his elder brother, Francis Ogilvy, then managing the London advertising agency Mather & Crowther. Francis got him a job selling Aga cookers, recently introduced to Britain. He sold so many, chiefly by charming first the cooks and then the mistresses of Scottish stately homes, that the company commissioned him to write a manual for their other salesmen.

The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker (1935), his first publication - he was 24 - is not only a vastly amusing classic of its kind; it displays all the scholarly capacity to draw lessons from experience, all the eagerness to teach what he had learned, that he was later to apply to the theory and practice of advertising.

The work earned him some initial training in the Mather & Crowther agency; but in 1938 he left to seek his fortune in the United States, travelling steerage, with introductions in plenty but no money. "The tall young man with flaming red hair," whom Ruth Gordon described arriving at Alexander Woollcott's island home in Vermont, soon enchanted Americans he met with his irreverence for authority and the outrageous candour of his wit.

George Gallup gave him a job measuring the popularity of film stars and stories for Hollywood studios. This entailed repeated travel across the states between Hollywood and Princeton and, he was to claim, taught him "more about the country than most of its inhabitants knew". Polling for Gallup, whom he greatly admired, certainly nurtured his conviction that the foundation of good advertising lies in opinion research about products and services.

From the outbreak of war in 1939, he was also moonlighting as an adviser to the British Government on American public opinion; and in 1941 Sir William Stephenson recruited him for his British Intelligence office in New York and as a Second Secretary on the staff of the embassy in Washington.

In his biography of Stephenson, The Quiet Canadian (1962), Montgomery Hyde described Ogilvy as "perhaps the most remarkable of the younger men to join Stephenson"; and Stephenson himself said "he made not only a good intelligence officer: he made a brilliant one". But, when the war ended, Ogilvy declined an invitation to enlist in the peacetime MI6. Instead he bought a farm in Amish country, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: a life he enjoyed but found otherwise unprofitable.

At the age of 38, "with no credentials, no clients and only US $6,000 in the bank" (but additional capital from Mather & Crowther and S.H. Benson in London, sanctioned as an export-producing investment by Harold Wilson, then at the Board of Trade), David Ogilvy founded his own advertising agency in New York. He had a staff of two.

It was a bold step for a Scotsman who had never worked on Madison Avenue; but he was soon producing a series of stylish advertising campaigns, chiefly for British clients, which made Ogilvy & Mather famous: "The Man in the Hathaway Shirt", with the black eyepatch; "The Man from Schweppes is here" (red-whiskered Commander Whitehead); "The Guinness Guide to Oysters" (and Cheese, and Game); "London's heart beats faster as the Life Guards clatter by" for British Travel; and "At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock", perhaps the best- known car advertisement of all time.

When Shell entrusted him with their US advertising in 1960, Ogilvy & Mather came into the big time, attracting major American advertisers such as General Foods, Campbell Soups, Lever Bros, American Express, IBM, Morgan Guaranty and Sears Roebuck. An office was opened in Toronto in 1961 and the need for representation in Europe led, three years later, to a merger with Mather & Crowther in London, which already had offices on the Continent and still held a small interest in the New York enterprise. In 1963 he published Confessions of an Advertising Man, a record of his first 15 years on Madison Avenue.

A public offering in 1966 made Ogilvy a rich man (although it also put his achievements at the mercy of a stockmarket he never understood). There followed 20 years of growth and expansion which brought into being a world- wide group of Ogilvy & Mather companies. He resigned as chairman in 1973, remaining a director and living chiefly at his beautiful Chateau de Touffou, near Poitiers. There he applied himself to "what I do best"; reviewing the advertising his offices produced and refining the guiding principles he had established as the hallmark of his firm.

Nemesis arrived in 1989 disguised as Martin Sorrell, a financier. He used the frivolity of the market to buy (the prosperous) Ogilvy & Mather with borrowed cash, as he had bought (the faltering but venerable) J. Walter Thompson the year before. Ogilvy called Sorrell "that odious little jerk". Sorrell promptly asked Ogilvy to be Chairman of his now enlarged empire (WPP).

By accepting, David Ogilvy surprised and saddened his friends. For there was no influence he could exert and he had never been a corporate tycoon. Financial and organisational problems bored him. He had called his directors his partners and saw himself at one with them in offering professional skills to their clients. To become, in age, the powerless (yet vulnerable) figurehead of a conglomerate would have been an anathema to him in his prime.

At Touffou he created a garden of taste and distinction (an aunt had fostered his love of gardening in his youth by making him a Life Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society). He loved music, felt passionate about conservation and wrote compulsively. He was a director of the New York Philharmonic 1957-67; chairman of the United Negro Colleges Fund in 1968; and a Trustee and Member of Honour of the World Wildlife Fund.

He published Blood, Beer and Brains, his autobiography, in 1978, and Ogilvy on Advertising in 1983, a summation of his doctrines. They had been clearly formulated five decades earlier when, aged 25, in 1936, he had asserted that: "Every advertisement must tell the whole sales story . . . Every word in the copy must count . . . permanent success has rarely been built on frivolity and . . . people do not buy from clowns." He continued to state this belief in the 1990s, claiming that "People don't buy a new detergent because the manufacturer told a joke on television last night. They buy it because it promises a benefit." As he memorably stated in the 1950s, "The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife."

David Mackenzie Ogilvy, advertising copywriter and executive: born West Horsley, Surrey 23 June 1911; Founder, Ogilvy & Mather 1948, Chairman 1948-73; CBE 1967; married 1939 Melinda Street (one son; marriage dissolved 1955), 1957 Anne Cabot (marriage dissolved), 1973 Herta Lans; died Bonnes, France 21 July 1999.

Stanley Pigott died 26 April 1994

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