When, in 1963, as a snot nosed 23 year old, I disembarked at pier 96 from the Queen Mary (the one that’s now a conference center in Long Beach), my sole objective was to get a job on Madison Avenue, drink, smoke and screw my brains out, and so become what would be known many years later as a “Mad Man!”
My single letter of introduction was to the “Great British Man of American Advertising.” Yes, I’m talking about David Ogilvy. In those days David had become an icon throughout the ad world, because of a unique combination of talent, charm, snobbery and intelligence. He had already created what was to become one of the great advertising agencies of the twentieth century, Ogilvy & Mather.
But what truly set David apart was the fact that he was one of a small number of people in the ad biz who were prepared to acknowledge that the public might be smarter than most people in advertising gave them credit for. Unfortunately, this is a perception within the industry that has never entirely gone away, and even seems to be on the ascendancy again. One of David’s best remembered quotes was… “The consumer isn’t stupid, she’s your wife”. However, if you look at the average Prozac/Viagra/Dingbat commercial airing on prime time TV, it is obvious that a great many people in the ad business have forgotten David’s advice.
Even though it was fifty years ago, my interview with David Ogilvy is still indelibly etched on my mind. I was ushered into his oak paneled office by his English secretary. He was sat behind a huge desk puffing on a gigantic briar pipe and he motioned me to sit. During the course of our twenty minute chat, he was most encouraging, peppering his advice with some of his own experiences when he had come to the States.
Towards the end of the interview, I hesitatingly asked his thoughts on salaries. He looked at me quizzically, “What do you mean”, he asked. “Well”, I said, “I have no idea what people in American agencies earn. If I should get offered a job, what kind of salary should I ask for?” Slowly placing his monstrous pipe in his monstrous ash tray, he leaned across the desk and said, “Dear boy, I never discuss money, I employ people who discuss money on my behalf. You’ll have to talk to them!”
I suppose when you have reached the Olympian heights of someone in David’s position, there’s certain logic to a statement like that. It’s no different from knowing that the Pope, the Queen of England and the President of the USA never carry money; for the simple reason they have no fucking need to. All these many years later I’m still trying to achieve a similar cash-free status. I doubt that I ever will!
However, before I was ushered out at the end of my audience, he fired up his fuming briar again, looked at me with his steely Scottish eyes and pronounced…
“The sole function of advertising is to sell things.”
I didn’t meet him again until more than 25 years had passed and I was freelancing for Ogilvy & Mather when they were desperately trying to hold onto the Compaq account, a futile saga consuming weeks of eighteen hour days, fueled by alcohol, cold pizza and cocaine. Even though everyone knew it was a total exercise in futility, as there was no way Compaq was going to stay with Ogilvy, in true BDA fashion, the agency proceeded to blow mountains of money on useless speculative work.
During this frenzy, a bunch of us were sat around one evening eating cold pizza and drinking warm beer in a conference room that had been converted into “The Compaq War Room.” You have to understand that agencies create “war rooms” for accounts which are in deep shit; accounts not in trouble are discussed over leisurely, well lubricated three hour lunches at the Four Seasons. But back to the war room…
The door burst open and in came David with a couple of minders. By this time he was in his eighties and had suffered the indignity of seeing his agency swallowed up by the Poisoned Dwarf (Sir Martin Sorrell) to become yet another rung on the upward ladder to his knighthood, something David never achieved even though he did far more work for British tourism and various UK charities than His Gnomeship ever did.
One of my very reliable “AdScam” deep throats assures me that for some unknown reason, the Duke of Edinburgh disliked him intensely. But, moving on… One of my favorite stories concerns the period when the battle for control of O&M was heating up, David was reputed to have referred to Sir Martin Sorrel, Chairman of WPP, as “that little shit.” A statement now strenuously denied by the current management of O&M. Well, all I can say is bless you David. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Even though he was no longer an active participant in the management of the agency, spending most of his time truffle hunting on the grounds of his palatial Chateau in France, New York would “Concorde” him in to make an appearance at new business presentations, or when an existing client was starting to get itchy feet.
The problem was that by now he was stone deaf and infirm, so his appearances were limited to little more than five minute cameos. However, because of his iconic stature, these appearances had on several occasions, saved the agencies bacon by calming down an irate client.
On this particular evening, when the grand old man entered the room we all immediately put down our cold pizza, hid the cocaine, and stood up, but, clearly being used to such signs of respect from the peons, he waved us to be seated and proceeded to shout at us…
“The sole function of advertising is to sell things.”
There was a moment of silence, and then we all looked at each other and slowly nodded in agreement. Damn it, the old fucker is right, and we’d always thought advertising was an excuse to be well paid for getting drunk, laid, and avoiding anything you would regard as work. I rushed over and grabbed his hand, shaking it vigorously, “Mr. Ogilvy,” I blurted out “We met over twenty five years ago.” I then proceeded to tell him about our first encounter. Half way through it dawned on me that he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I shut up.
He shook my hand vigorously, looked me in the eye and said, “The sole function of advertising is to sell things.”
With that, his minders ushered him out of the conference room.
And that was the last time I ever saw him.
This is the first of a number of excerpts we’re going to run from George’s excellent and seminal work Confessions of a Mad Man.