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Ecstatic materialist

<strong>The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising</strong>


The original Mad Men included Bill Bernbach, Leo Burnett, Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy. The first three were American originals, each with his own well-crafted, somewhat self- conscious life story. Satisfyingly, the fourth was an elegant, Oxford-educated Anglo-Scot of powerful charm, overwhelming ego, oceanic ambition and great actorly originality.

Ogilvy's psychology was complicated. He knew Shakespeare and wrote beautifully, but wanted to be seen only as an evolved version of the door­stepping salesman that was his first career incarnation. He got rich, but handled money badly. He made himself a valuable brand, but sold out. He was garrulous but lonely, a socially ambitious outsider. With unsettling insight, his friend Roald Dahl told him: "Your client is you."

For roughly thirty years between 1950 and 1980, the Mad Men dominated what was then the glamorous profession of advertising. Madison Avenue was the Manhattan asylum where they were unchained. It seems to us now - freed but tarnished by eBay and Amazon - a fabulously romantic age. This was America's Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution rolled into one slickly packaged and remorselessly consumerised experience. For three decades it was an intoxicatingly attractive delusion: life could be enhanced by buying more stuff. Suits were gorgeous, the commissions were generous, lunches were long, women had been liberated, but not too much. There was such a thing as an American Car and it was duotone pistachio and ivory with cosmic tail fins and chrome. Air travel was a luxurious privilege for the "jet set". Clients were gentlemen. They had fun, fun, fun.

David Ogilvy was born in 1911 into a milieu of gentility-on-a-budget. He seems to have been quite exceptionally self-possessed, travelling freely and enjoying amazing contacts wherever he landed. Money was magicked out of air. He always professed poverty, but never stinted himself. He was, of course, his own greatest invention, as Kenneth Roman, one-time chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency he founded, makes clear in this dutiful biography, which adds not a lot to the record, except the facts Ogilvy tended to avoid in his breezy 1978 autobiography, Blood, Brains and Beer.

I still remember three bits of advice I read in my university library copy that give some example of Ogilvy's persuasiveness. To paraphrase: when in doubt, confuse the issue; always give gracefully what you cannot refuse; always carry a box of matches so that if you foul the air in someone's bathroom, a chemical remedy is at hand (the burning phosphorus seems to have some vitiating effect on the expressed sulphur dioxide). Doesn't that, in retrospect, sound like an entire advertising philosophy?

A period with the pollster Arthur Gallup and an admiration for the metric methodology of the management consultant Alfred Kinsey were important influences. For Ogilvy, selling was the essence of advertising. He disdained the (usually unaccountable) bravura of "creativity", which in his day was a creeping malaise but nowadays wins adland awards, advocating instead "long copy". His most famous advert had the headline: "At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock." There follow four closely argued columns of small-font text. It is still often cited as the best ever advertisement (though it is more difficult to quantify the effect it actually had on Rolls-Royce sales).

Ogilvy was among the first to realise that, as all cars and soap powders are technically similar, the voodoo of brands had more value than chemical ingredients or metal nuts and bolts. It is not an accident that his two best advertisements - for Rolls-Royce and Hathaway shirts - were for small, idiosyncratic, susceptible (even credulous) companies, not for the mighty Ford or Texaco gasoline companies. In addition, Ogilvy maintained a version of morality about his trade, perhaps a racial inheritance from Scotland, perhaps acquired when he (briefly) owned a farm on Amish land in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he affected American Gothic dungarees and a broad-brimmed hat.

As he built his agency in New York, staff were bombarded with memos, inspirational thought­lets, packaged advice, aphorisms, slide shows. Ogilvy was literally a man of letters. Many of these were incorporated in his landmark book, the 1963 Confessions of an Advertising Man. It was light on confession but heavy on quotability. It was also, of course, an advertisement for himself. Here we find "The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife" and "You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it".

In 1965, Ogilvy merged his New York and London agencies and the following year they went public. In 1973 he semi-retired to a preposterously grandiose French house called the Château de Touffou, near Poitiers. Here, he indulged in very well-dressed role-playing and entertained promiscuously, but was lured from la France profonde by the transatlantic wave of advertising agency mergers that began in the late 1970s, signalling the end of one type of Mad Man and his replacement by a different type, just as Mad, but now more Corporate as well.

The Saatchi brothers bought the Ted Bates agency in 1986. That same year, the Omnicom Group was, in a defensive manoeuvre, created out of Madison Avenue's finest independents. Most significantly, Martin Sorrell, one-time finance director and consigliere to the Saatchis, bought the revered J Walter Thompson Company in 1987. Ogilvy called Sorrell, not entirely respectfully, a "gnome", on account of his stature. When Sorrell made a move on Ogilvy & Mather, the old proprietor became more specific and called him an "odious little shit" (later modified to "jerk"). Then, when Sorrell put his price up, Ogilvy told his dismayed directors, "Maybe I can reform him." Well, he couldn't. In 1989 the Ogilvy brand was bought for $862m (Sorrell's WPP Group says $864m). The consumer was not a moron; the consumer was a rapacious numbers man.

Even as Ogilvy's style of meticulously crafted copy gave way to "creativity", the Mad Men's big-budget, carpet-bombing version of advertising became moribund. With the fragmenting media, disparate markets, time-shifting, online sales, consumer fatigue and a generalised psychogenic distrust of the declining multinationals whose vanities once fed the mania and lined the pockets of the Mad Men, paid-for communications are taking occult forms. Now that anyone with a laptop and a digital camera can create a viral campaign that girdles Planet Earth, a Madison Avenue suite full of expensive people contemplating lunch is redundant.

It's a curious truism that books about advertising are generally not very good at selling their subject. The King of Madison Avenue is unexciting, but has the great virtue of being sourced in its subject's archives (and includes a great deal of fascinating unpublished Ogilvy miscellanea). And what might David Ogilvy have made of it? I think he would have confused the issue and then would gracefully have given what he knew he could not refuse: advice to read his own (now delightfully dated) books for real insight into mad, bad adland.