It’s David Ogilvy’s centenary – does he have anything to say to us now?

David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, was born in 1911 and died in 1999.

In his time he was the one and only Brit who made it big-time on Madison Avenue (before his nemesis Martin Sorrell arrived) and the founder of what is still one of the biggest agency brands.

Ogilvy started off as a chef in Paris, became a salesman in London and only got his feet under a desk in New York because his brother Francis, then running Mather & Crowther in London, gave him some money.

And he came up with a lot of famous print ads, including Rolls-Royce, the man in the Hathaway shirt and some for Schweppes, based on fantasy Englishman war hero Commander Whitehead, a dodgy-looking cove with a handlebar moustache.

He also wrote some good things including the famous ad book ‘Confessions of an advertising man’ which combined stating the obvious with some insights based on experience and a recognition of the point of relevant research.

And he wrote another one ‘Blood, brains and beer’ which I read in a pre-publication copy. This wasn’t very nice at all and was never published, at least not in the version I read.

Ogilvy floated his agency on Wall Street and was then stunned to be bought by Martin Sorrell’s WPP in !989 for $864m, which didn’t go down at all well with Ogilvy (who described Sorrell as an ‘odious little shit’) or Sorrell’s bankers who barely resisted taking WPP away from him. Sorrell was saved by a promise of good behaviour.

Ogilvy and Sorrell subsequently kissed and made up and Ogilvy became in-a French-chateau chairman of WPP.

So, you can tell then, I’m not an admirer?

Not really, I never met the guy but O&M in the UK has been a pretty moribund operation for ever, despite having some good people pass through the doors like Richard Venables, Peter Warren, Michael Baulk and Norman Berry.

Obviously Ogilvy and his agency had a big impact on Mad Ave (the English bastards who bought Sterling Cooper in Mad Men were at least partly based on DO and brother Francis) but Ogilvy always struck me as a bit of a phoney: not as clever as he was supposed to be; a professional Scotsman who actually came from Surrey and someone who profited mightily from foisting an image of Englishness on the US that, really, hadn’t survived the war.

Some of you will disagree of course and we’ll happily print your views if you send them to us.

There’s a very elegant memoir here from Adweek’s Michael Wolff, who doesn’t agree with me.

But Ogilvy was a big figure regardless, maybe the most important British adman after Sir Martin.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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