Paul Simons: how Ogilvy can recapture its glory days

WPP acquired Ogilvy & Mather in 1989, 29 years ago which is a long time in advertising. David Ogilvy died ten years later aged 88.

My guess is he stepped down from the leadership role once he had banked the cash from “that odious little shit” Martin Sorrel; DO’s words not mine.

This was pre-internet as we know it today and as a client of O&M for a short period of time the media options at my and their disposal were TV, press or posters, and possibly radio in some parts of the UK. O&M in those days was operating through a rear view mirror represented by the account men, dressed like city boys in double breasted pinstripe suits. A very different time.

Which brings me to the news of the latest re-launch of new Ogilvy announced this week.

I led Ogilvy in the UK from 1999 to 2003 and back then David Ogilvy (below) defined the generations.

Many of the lifers in their 50’s regularly referred to ‘David’ like he was their best friend whereas the under ’40’s rarely referred to the great man. A curious point was that the seminal book ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ was never handed out to newcomers, rather odd when the seniors were known to quote him at the drop of a hat. Trilby of course.

In this latest announcement CEO John Siefert talks about new Ogilvy going to ‘blaze a trail forward’ as a result of their restructuring; well that is cultural change on a major scale, often seen as a 2-3 year job by leading change management experts. They talk a lot about leopards and spots.

I wouldn’t say Ogilvy has blazed too many trails in the last decade or more so a new attitude and approach is key to delivering the promise.

I felt back in my day, and I would observe the same is true today, Ogilvy didn’t practice what it preached, possibly true of most ad agencies. Ogilvy must decide on what it is providing and to who.

Here in the UK Ogilvy will find it very difficult to compete with top creative agencies Mother or adam&eveDBB or BBH or in the US agencies like Droga5, Anomaly, W&K et al.

However Ogilvy can provide wall to wall servicing globally for a client needing that coverage. So they are providing breadth and depth of resource on a large scale, definitely not a one size fits all strategy. When I announced in New York our £20m win of what became MORE TH>N it was ignored the moment it was understood as a domestic account only. The machine had and has a voracious appetite for global clients.

One danger of the multiple craft list is the cynical response of ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’. I understand the need to say “we have all of these skills” but in truth they are necessary but not sufficient. I bet Dan Wieden has a lot of clever people in Portland doing lots of clever things all supporting what Dan stands for, creative excellence. same for David Droga, John Hegarty at BBH plus others we can all recall. In the end it is all about ideas that are relevant, inspiring and fresh, wherever they originate from.

I’ve read a lot about John Siefert’s new ideas and I wish him every success with this bold move trying to change a juggernaut into to a speedier craft but I would suggest cheekily Ogilvy needs leadership that represents excellence in its delivery to their clients and avoids getting confused by well intentioned rhetoric.

David Ogilvy and many of his contemporaries, Bill Bernbach for instance, kept their minds focused on singular ideas, uncomplicated by extraneous influences. The challenge these days is trying to keep the pitch clear and simple, ignoring the numerous distractions that create blind alleys and wasted time.

Paul Simons joined Ogilvy as chairman of the UK group and CEO of O&M Advertising from a similar role at TBWA. He was also on the worldwide board.


  1. Niece piece Paul. Do you remember that back in 2005 Shona Siefert took the fall for husband John Siefert and was jailed for 18 months and fined $125,000 for her role in over-billing the US National Drug Control Policy office to make up an income shortfall. The best bit is that as part of her sentence she was required to write a code of ethics for the advertising industry, the judge at the trial observing that the industry didn’t seem to have one. Oh, fucking yes… An Agency Code of ethics… That’s rich.

  2. Thanks George, I do remember the Shona incident as I was there when the allegation began to unravel with a lot of people hiding behind closed doors in the old Ogilvy Manhattan building. I did think John Siefert was a dead man at the time but he survived and ended up at the top of the greasy pole. Quite a feat in my book as he wasn’t a shiney star, more a bit of a shadowy figure with the ear of Shelly Lazarus which he obviously managed to continue with another retiring figure in Shelly’s successor, Miles Young.

  3. Paul…
    Yes indeed, I too wondered how Siefert survived that particular kerfuffle. Still, with the news today that Gustavo Martinez finally got his marching orders from WPP, who knows what may happen yet. I always remember when I was at B&B back in my Mad Man days and it was discovered that the head of TV production was on the payroll of five production companies, he was escorted from the building (666 Fifth Ave. The one Jerard owes billions on) A week later, he was hired as head of TV production at Wells, Rich, Green. Nothing changes. Perhaps we will see Gustavo heading up Sorrel’ls new venture. Time for a drink.

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