By his own admission, David Ogilvy was useless in most spheres of life; except, perhaps, for advertising. A discipline he happened to understand so well that he created one of the greatest agencies in the world along the way. His reputation — judged by world standards of multinational business tycoons — was fitting for an obligatory obituary in TIME. But for most of us who have read, followed and some who have even worked for him, his reputation has earned him permanence in a place that is invariably inaccessible to strangers. Our hearts.
David Ogilvy lives. Because what made David Ogilvy, the man, great, makes for advertising that is great. He was the last of the great creatives alongside Bill Bernbach, Raymond Rubicam, Ted Bates and Leo Burnett. He proved that copywriters can live in a palace and still occupy a place in the business world. He proved that intelligence in advertising was for reasons best known to the consumer, your wife. He proved that advertising was a business for and of gentlemen. ‘Trumpeter Swans’ was his term for gentleman with brains: his hiring motto. He proved that if advertising wasn’t fit to be seen by your family, it wasn’t fit at all.
In his peripatetic career, he was also a door-to-door salesman for Aga Cookers where his guide on salesmanship to Aga salesmen was later described by Fortune as the ‘… best sales manual ever written.’ He proved that personal experience was the best insight to generate mass appeal. He was a living example of how creatives can put their life into their work: his ”The Man in the Hathaway Shirt’ and’ Schweppes’ campaigns with the Anglican, dignified and irreverent Commander Whitehead smacked of a Britishness (and an ad strategy) that firmly planted the agency of an Englishman in New York.
At his agency, his management principles were formed not from any business school syllabi but from the world’s best kitchen at Hotel Majestic, Paris where he worked under the ruthless head chef, Monsieur Pitard. His belief in research, thanks to time spent with George Gallup in Princeton, NJ, proved and disproved long-held advertising theories; not to mention, where he also cultivated a lifelong passion for research. He proved that thought worked harder than glitter. Even his classic layouts (picture, subhead, headline, body, logo, slogan — from top to bottom) proved the ideal, visual order of events for consumers interacting with press advertising.
His headline for Rolls Royce, ‘At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock’, is still the best-known headline written for an automobile, with, perhaps, the exception of ‘Think Small‘. At the age of 25, he declared on the subject of copy, ‘Every advertisement must tell the whole sales story. Every word in the copy must count’, further adding, that ‘permanent success has rarely been built on frivolity … people do not buy from clowns.’ He proved the discipline of knowledge over the anarchy of ignorance. ‘You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it.’
Relevant. Profound. Enduring. His many seminal books were initially a validation of his beliefs; but today, are his valediction. At the time of his death, the goliath agency that bears David’s name ranked as the world’s eighth largest network with 359 offices in 100 countries. When asked by a reporter who or what he thought was the bastion of inspiration for the world advertising community, he replied, ‘Modesty forbids.’
A Trumpeter Swan till the end, David Ogilvy not only raised the creative and professional standards of the industry, but enjoyed the reputation of giants. Not through any coincidence — but in typical Ogilvian form — through sheer research, planning, heady logic and flawless production and distribution. David would send a set of Babushka Dolls each time a new head was appointed for one of his many agency offices. Inside the smallest doll they would find a tiny, carefully folded note. It read, ‘If you hire those who are bigger than you, you will create a company of giants. If you hire those who are smaller than you, you will create a company of dwarfs.’
David Ogilvy died on 21 July 1999 at his home in Touffou, France at the age of 88. But, wherever and whenever a great idea survives the ridicule of the brazen and the mediocre, David Ogilvy — not so surprisingly —lives.