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Friday, September 3, 2010

David Ogilvy

He's one of the most important figures in the advertising pantheon and his book Ogilvy On Advertising is a classic text on the field. A short biography on David Ogilvy, excerpted from the website of the worldwide agency he helped found:

David Mackenzie Ogilvy was born in West Horsley, England, on June 23, 1911. He was educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh and at Christ Church, Oxford (although he didn't graduate).

After Oxford, Ogilvy went to Paris, where he worked in the kitchen of the Hotel Majestic. He learned discipline, management - and when to move on: "If I stayed at the Majestic I would have faced years of slave wages, fiendish pressure, and perpetual exhaustion." He returned to England to sell cooking stoves, door-to-door.

Ogilvy's career with Aga Cookers was astonishing. He sold stoves to nuns, drunkards, and everyone in between. In 1935 he wrote a guide for Aga salesmen (Fortune magazine called it "probably the best sales manual ever written"). Among its suggestions, "The more prospects you talk to, the more sales you expose yourself to, the more orders you will get. But never mistake quantity of calls for quality of salesmanship."

In 1938, Ogilvy emigrated to the United States, where he went to work for George Gallup's Audience Research Institute in New Jersey. Ogilvy cites Gallup as one of the major influences on his thinking, emphasizing meticulous research methods and adherence to reality.

During World War II, Ogilvy worked with the Intelligence Service at the British Embassy in Washington. There he wrote enormously, analyzing and making recommendations on matters of diplomacy and security. He extrapolated his knowledge of human behavior from consumerism to nationalism in a report which suggested "applying the Gallup technique to fields of secret intelligence."

Eisenhower's Psychological Warfare Board picked up the report and successfully put Ogilvy's suggestions to work in Europe during the last year of the war.

After the war, Ogilvy bought a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and lived among the Amish. The atmosphere of "serenity, abundance, and contentment" kept Ogilvy and his wife in Pennsylvania for several years, but eventually he admitted his limitations as a farmer and moved to New York.

In 1948, he founded the New York-based ad agency Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather (which eventually became Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide), with the financial backing of London agency Mather & Crowther. He had never written an advertisement in his life.

Thirty-three years later, he sent the following memo to one of his partners:

Will Any Agency Hire This Man?

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college. 
He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer. 
He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy. 
He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year.

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

In his agency's first twenty years, Ogilvy won assignments from Lever Brothers, General Foods and American Express. Shell gave him their entire account in North America. Sears hired him for their first national advertising campaign.

"I doubt whether any copywriter has ever had so many winners in such a short period of time," he wrote in his autobiography. "They made Ogilvy & Mather so hot that getting clients was like shooting fish in a barrel."

In 1965, Ogilvy merged the agency with Mather & Crowther, his London backers, to form a new international company. One year later the company went public - one of the first advertising firms to do so. Soon Ogilvy & Mather had expanded around the world and was firmly in place as one of the top agencies in all regions.