What David Ogilvy Meant to Me
On September 15th, I went to New York to attend a special eulogy for David Ogilvy, who passed away July 21st at the age of 88.
It was a tremendously moving tribute, attended by over 1,000 people including some of the heads of the largest agencies in the world.
I had worked for Ogilvy & Mather for 11 years, and had corresponded with David several times over those years, from New York, Hong Kong and then Boston.
I admired him as much as anyone I have ever known.
Here are some of my thoughts on that day, which I want to share with Direct Marketing readers.
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David was one of the first great proponents of direct marketing. He called it "my first love and my secret weapon."
He once gave a speech in France that began with this, "There is a yawning chasm between you Generalists and we Directs. We Directs belong to a different world. Your gods are not our gods.
"You pride yourselves on being "creative - whatever that awful word means. You cultivate the mystique of "creativity." Some of you are pretentious poseurs.
"We humble people who work in direct do not regard advertising as an art form. Our clients don't give a damn whether we win awards at Cannes. They pay us to sell their products. Nothing else.
"We sell -- or else."
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After a number of false starts -- as a chef, a door-to-door salesperson, a farmer, David Ogilvy began his career in advertising as a researcher, working for Dr. George Gallup.
One of the things he researched was the readership of advertisements. He accumulated scores and analyzed them, and began to study how to make them more effective.
He was fond of quoting a conversation he had with Sir Hugh Rigby, the Royal Surgeon.
"I once asked him, "What makes a great surgeon?" Sir Hugh replied, "There isn't much to choose between surgeons in manual dexterity. What distinguishes the great surgeon is that he knows more than other surgeons."
David Ogilvy would apply that same lesson to advertising -- he knew more about advertising than anyone who had come before him.
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But it went further than that. David was only too willing to share his knowledge with others.
He created what he called "Magic Lanterns." These were presentations about advertising that summarized everything he knew about travel advertising, food advertising, financial services advertising, direct marketing and more.
Each presentation began with a similar, humble disclaimer: "Ogilvy & Mather has created over 650 million dollars worth of travel advertising on behalf of our clients. Here is what we've learned."
Each presentation had dozens, if not hundreds, of different "rules." For example, when doing TV commercials for food, always make sure to show the food in motion."
However, David Ogilvy was always quick to point out that "Rules are for the obedience of fools. And the guidance of wise men."
David made sure that every new employee was exposed to these presentations (He gave them himself when the agency was small) He also published several of them as house ads.
For many of us, they still represent the Rosetta Stones of advertising.
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I first read "Confessions of an Advertising Man" when I was 15, and immediately decided that I wanted to work for David Ogilvy.
I joined the company five years later, and knew I had come to the right place because when I arrived for work that day, I found a letter from David Ogilvy. "Dear Alan, Congratulations. You have joined the greatest agency in the world."
I was very proud, and tried my best to live up to it.
What impressed me most about "Confessions" was David Ogilvy's principles and high standards. Advertising people had such terrible reputations -- as slick, slippery sales people who would do anything to fool the public.
He wrote, "The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife." And added:
"Never write an advertisement which you wouldn't want your own family to read. While you are responsible to your clients for sales results, you are responsible to consumers for the kind of advertising you bring into their homes.
"I abhor advertising that is blatant, dull, or dishonest."
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I met David Ogilvy for the first time when I was a junior copywriter in New York.
But I really got to know him when I was Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong. Each month, every office around the world, would have to send him all our finished work, including TV commercials, print ads and direct mail.
Most of what we sent him he didn't comment on. But we lived in fear of the ads that he sent back, with either corrections, or "What's the big idea?" scrawled across the top.
There was never any retribution or punishment, but you still felt awful -- because you had let him down.
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The first campaign I did that really pleased him was a series of TV commercials for ITT color television.
We did a series of three humorous spots; each 10 seconds long that highlighted a different benefit of the set.
In one, a large family is gathering together to watch a new show. Everyone is scrambling for their seats in front of a competitive TV, with great excitement and anticipation. Suddenly the set goes blank.
The mother then delivered our line, which was "You should have bought an ITT!"
Unfortunately, right up until the morning of the shoot, the client's lawyers didn't approve the line -- which they thought might be disparaging to other TV sets. I didn't know what to do.
But when I arrived at the studio, I noticed that the director had a large parrot perched in his office. And I instantly saw the solution.
We could use the parrot -- and not an actor -- to deliver the tag line in the commercial!
We'd simply dub in the line we needed. And that meant that we could always change it, if we had to, without having to re-shoot the spot. After all, who could tell what a parrot was actually saying?
The parrot became an instant hit. We used him for the point-of-sale, print ads, everything. What better "spokesperson" for a color TV than a beautiful, multi-colored parrot?
David Ogilvy loved the solution.
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Big ideas were always David Ogilvy's passion.
He always said "Unless your advertising is based on a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. "
In one of his books, he outlined how to recognize one.
"It will help you recognize a big idea if you ask yourself these five questions
1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it? 2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself 3. Is it unique? 4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection? 5. Could it be used for 30 years?"
He once wrote: "I would like to be remembered as a copywriter who had some big ideas"
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In my mind, David Ogilvy was the first true advertising professional.
He had a reason for everything he did. He knew what worked, and why. He often refused to give clients the advertising they demanded -- and instead, gave them what they needed.
My very favorite Ogilvy story was when he pitched the Greyhound Bus account. The room where he would make his presentations had the work of the previous agency left behind.
David took one look at their ads, and their line, "Leave the Driving to Us" and refused to continue.
"That should be your campaign.," he said, "I'm not even going to bother showing you our work."
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David Ogilvy took his work seriously, but never himself. I have always tried to emulate that.
In his wonderful book, "Ogilvy on Advertising," his preface ends with "If you think this is a lousy book, you should have seen it before my partner did his best to de-louse it. Bless you, Joel."
There's also a chapter entitled "What Little I Know About Marketing" And another one called "Six Giants Who Invented Modern Advertising: He modestly kept himself off the list.
David also relentlessly tried to hire people better than himself. One of his most famous stories is the time he sent Russian dolls to each of the heads of Ogilvy & Mather offices.
They opened the doll to find a smaller one inside, then a smaller one, then an even smaller one that that. After opening all of the dolls, they found this message:
"If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become giants."
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David Ogilvy disdained advertising awards, claiming they had nothing to do with sales. He claimed that most awards were trivial, "for best commercial shot on a cloudy day."
He thought advertising awards should reflect the effectiveness of the campaign, not it's cleverness or creativity. He wrote, " It is the professional duty of the advertising agent to conceal his artifice. When Aeschines spoke, they said, "How well he speaks." But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, "Let us march against Philip."
"I'm for Demosthenes."
So David created his own award, "for campaigns that made the cash register ring." And instead of giving away little statues or plaques, he gave away $10,000 prizes.
I entered one of my most successful campaigns for Edgars Stores, which I did overseas, but didn't win. The award was only open to U.S. campaigns. And so they had to change it the following year.
There are now several Ogilvy Awards worldwide, including the Ogilvy Gold Medallion for the use of research.
How many other agencies do anything like that?
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When I began my career in advertising, I knew nothing.
Today, I teach advertising and direct marketing courses at Bentley College, at DMA seminars and at presentations around the world. And most of what I teach, I learned from one man.
Bless you, David.
© Alan Rosenspan & Associates