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This article was published 21/2/2009 (3925 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The King of Madison Avenue
David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising
By Kenneth Roman
Palgrave Macmillan, 248 pages, $31
THE current agony of the Aga (Britain's most famous oven has seen its sales plummet) can only be relieved by one man.
Alas, David Ogilvy, the British advertising guru who cut his teeth on Agas, selling them door to door to Scottish cooks during the Great Depression, died in 1999. And as this first full biography, by a man who worked with him suggests, so have many of his precepts.
Kenneth Roman's book is an entertaining, very well researched, if too polite, biography of a colossus among pygmies.
Much of the man is revealed in those early Aga days. Example? Sending a letter to heads of schools written in classical Greek, inviting them to buy one. If they didn't respond, he sent one in classical Latin.
This experience also taught him what he felt should be one of the Commandments of Advertising. "The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Don't insult her intelligence."
After working as a trainee in his older brother Francis's advertising firm in London, he convinced his brother to send him to America in 1938 to study their advertising techniques.
In North America his work with the Gallup polling people led to him moonlight as an adviser to the British government on American public opinion. With the advent of what he called the "Hitler war" he went to work full time in British Military Intelligence.
His new boss was the former Winnipegger, William Stephenson, aka Intrepid. Ogilvy rarely spoke of his work, honouring the Official Secrets Act, but Stephenson said of him, "literary skill, very keen analytical powers, initiative and special aptitude for handling problems of extreme delicacy ... David not only made a good intelligence officer, but he was a brilliant one."
If Timothy Eaton's introduction of his "wish book" happily coincided with the expansion of the Canadian postal system, so it was with Ogilvy's coming to prominence in the United States accompanied by the burst of pent up demand following the war.
Ogilvy had a hand in writing or seeing to completion ad campaigns that are remembered 50-plus years later. The Hathaway shirt ads featuring the distinguished gent with the eye patch (not that the model needed it.) The Rolls-Royce ad with the copy he pulled out of an article that had appeared 20 years earlier, "At 60 Miles an Hour the Loudest Noise in This New Rolls-Royce Comes from the Electric Clock." Credit Ogilvy.
He also deserves credit for the attention paid to brand images. "I pinched it" was his forthright comment.
If comets burn brightly but quickly across our heavens, so it seems do genius copywriters. Ogilvy was still young when he became a grand old guru. Fortunately, he put down his best in his book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, in 1962, at the age of 51. In it he brought dignity to the howl of the huckster.
Of the current TV hit Mad Men, Roman refers to it with "its somewhat overblown portrayal of that era's smoking, drinking and womanizing." Mind you, Ogilvy was married three times, and one weekend in 1957 he went to a party and left with another man's wife, ending his own 18-year marriage.
BBC 4 did a documentary called David Ogilvy: Original Mad Man. More likely he would have preferred CBC Radio's O'Reilly on Advertising, with its mix of entertainment and education.
An entertaining, very well researched, if too polite, biography of a colossus among pygmies. His principles of how to do good work and how to treat clients and employees can still be applied to any organization today, and the young Turks and technology be damned.
Ogilvy summed himself up this way: "I came into advertising from research and that gave me a great advantage. And I had a short period in my life, maybe 10 years at the outside, when I was pretty close to being a genius. Then it ran out."
Retired Winnipeg broadcaster Ron Robinson wishes he had done more than looked over the shoulders of copywriters at Eaton's in a previous life as a book buyer.