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The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising by Kenneth Roman The Man in The Hathaway Shirt shirt – David Ogilvy The

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Advertising titan David Ogilvy’s mantra for life, and marketing, was uncomplicated: “Go the whole hog!” His picaresque personal history is a testament to the power of undiluted enthusiasm – he was at one point an accomplished sous-chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, he bears the intriguing responsibility for, in his first job in sales, fabricating the “snob value” of Aga cookers, he worked alongside Noël Coward in the British government’s covert PR operation to influence American public opinion towards joining the second world war, and even briefly resigned from advertising to sample life as an Amish tobacco farmer in Pennsylvania.

But the role he played to greatest effect, and indeed defined, was that of the British gentleman in New York. When he set up Ogilvy & Mather there in 1948, the young Scot (born into genteel poverty in Surrey in 1911) drove a Rolls-Royce, sported a full-length cape and attended parties in a kilt, making sure to pause at the top of the stairs to give his fellow guests “the full effect”.

The showmanship worked in spades. Starting from a two-room New York office, Ogilvy built his advertising agency into an empire worth, by 1989, more than £600m, making himself the most famous ad man in the world in the process. The scale of his achievements, and his ego, is exemplified by the fact that he would almost certainly have been knighted for services to British industry had he not consistently refused to defer to Prince Philip at board meetings of the World Wildlife Fund.

It is tempting to label Ogilvy (who died in 1999) as a role model for Mad Men, the television series celebrating the golden age of Madison Avenue. But this biography exposes that fallacy. A relentless workaholic, Ogilvy disapproved of the culture of three-Martini lunches and Brooks Brothers suits. An unexpected moral streak also emerges in this book: he walked away from cigarette advertising much earlier than his competitors, campaigned against billboards, “which make the world hideous”, and railed against deceptive marketing, exhorting copywriters just to “tell the truth, and make the truth interesting”. (Not that Ogilvy was shy about embellishing his own life story, hinting at a lineage from Charlemagne and constantly rewriting his CV to entice fresh clients.)

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With such a character to work with, then, it’s a shame that Kenneth Roman, a friend and colleague of Ogilvy, has taken such a brazenly hagiographic approach. Ogilvy is characterised as “very, very sexy”, blessed with “quotable brilliance”, possessing a geopolitical brain to rival Churchill’s and the physical strength to shame men half his age.

Such breathless enthusiasm ensures Ogilvy’s true legacy is insufficiently explored. This, it hazily emerges, was the founder of the world’s largest “direct marketing” (junk mail, to you and me) company, the man who taught Hollywood studios to listen to pollsters rather than directors, and whose 1938 memo on what images captivate the British public was a bull’s-eye prediction of the visual culture to come: “Sex, famous people, babies, dogs and other animals.”

Roman displays more candour when detailing the end of his subject’s career. Ogilvy, who admitted he was motivated solely by “lucre”, persuaded his firm to go public and the romance ran out. Ogilvy & Mather was overrun by bean-counters, then devoured by behemoth WPP in 1989. Ogilvy, who had overstretched himself buying a French chateau, was made to accept a degrading sinecure. In 1948, he had pronounced that, at his upstart new agency, “In hiring, the emphasis will be on youth.” But in 1989 he addressed the newly merged firm as their belittled token chairman: “Why do we have this odious habit of putting all our old people out to pasture when they’re still young, and replacing them with baby zeroes?” His audience roared with laughter, missing the bitter reality behind the corporate bonhomie – a fitting metaphor for this unthinking and smug biography of a fascinating man.

The King of Madison Avenue by Kenneth Roman
Palgrave £17.99 pp304

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