The Rise and Fall of David Ogilvy

How the founder of renowned ad agency Ogilvy & Mather lost his Hathaway shirt

Editor's Rating:

The Good: An entertaining portrait of the legendary ad man behind Ogilvy and Mather.

The Bad: There's too much justification of Ogilvy's lasting influence.

The Bottom Line: An affectionate account of a colorful and influential figure.

The King of Madison Avenue:David Ogilvy and the Makingof Modern AdvertisingBy Kenneth RomanPalgrave Macmillan; 282 pp.; $27.95

In 1951, on the way to an advertising photo shoot for a small shirt company based in Waterville, Me., David Ogilvy picked up several eye patches at a drugstore for 50 cents each. "Just shoot a couple of these to humor me," he told the photographer. The result, an ad featuring a slender, haughty, mysteriously one-eyed male model in a white dress shirt accompanied by a lengthy description of the shirt's benefits, soon appeared in The New Yorker. American men were intrigued. Within a week, C.F. Hathaway's entire stock sold out.

"The Man in the Hathaway Shirt" became a national sensation, made Ogilvy famous, and epitomized what would become known as his trademark approach: stylish, alluring print ads that spoke directly about the product and its benefits. In The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising, Kenneth Roman offers an entertaining and admiring portrait of the legendary figure behind what became Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, an agency that continues to have such prestigious clients as American Express (AXP) and Unilever (UN). Roman, who worked at Ogilvy's side from 1963 until 1989, rising from junior account executive to company chairman, paints the proudly Scottish ad man as a tireless worker driven by his taste for "lucre," as he termed it, a desire that proved a curse. The author sometimes dives too deep into advertising theory and offers a too lengthy argument for Ogilvy's lasting influence. But his many entertaining yarns delivered in spare prose are a pleasure to read.

Ogilvy left Oxford at 20 in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, taking a position in the kitchen at Paris' tony Hotel Majestic. It was the first in a motley series of occupations: By 1948, when he started his fledgling New York agency, Ogilvy had been a sous-chef, an advertising trainee, a door-to-door salesman for Aga stoves, a researcher for George Gallup of Americans' opinions about movie stars, an Amish-country farm owner, and, during World War II, a spy for British military intelligence. His cloak-and-dagger colleagues included Cary Grant, David Niven, and authors Noël Coward and Roald Dahl, and his boss was Sir William Stephenson, a man Ian Fleming would claim was the model for James Bond.

This diverse work experience, asserts Roman, was the key to Ogilvy's later success. His twenties were a source of lasting lessons. At the Majestic, he witnessed the terrifying head chef, Monsieur Pitard, firing a man whose brioches weren't just so. "Such extravagant standards [and]...Pitard's management style became [Ogilvy's] model for hard work, discipline, and excellence." A gifted stove salesman at age 24, Ogilvy wrote a sales handbook for Aga in which he emphasized the value of using straightforward, entertaining imagery to extol the product—early evidence, Roman argues, of Ogilvy's advertising philosophy. "The good salesman combines the tenacity of a bulldog with the manners of a spaniel," Ogilvy wrote then. "If you have any charm, ooze it." Polite frankness would be an Ogilvy hallmark. One aphorism: "The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife."

The author's picture of 1950s and '60s Madison Avenue is colorful but lacking: Roman cites the work of Bill Bernbach, the father of the catchy, humorous school of advertising (one example: "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's" rye bread), but gives us too little on the heady rivalry that characterized the era's ad game. After all, this period is the basis for the exciting TV show Mad Men.

Ogilvy ads may have been austere, but his lifestyle was lavish. He had a penchant for flamboyant clothing, private clubs, and a chauffeured Rolls. In 1966, Ogilvy & Mather (a U.S. offshoot of the decades-old Mather and Crowther) went public.

Shortly afterward, Ogilvy purchased the 30-room Château Touffou south of France's Loire Valley, to which he retired seven years later with his third wife, a woman 25 years his junior. There, guests were serenaded by a troupe of horn players after dinner and were served breakfasts in their rooms. This baronial life became his undoing. From France, Ogilvy bombarded employees with up to 50 faxed memos per day, but his influence waned. So, too, did his vast wealth, owing to his profligate spending.

In 1989, when Martin Sorrell, the CEO of ad conglomerate WPP (WPPGY), approached with a takeover bid, Ogilvy's opposition was fleeting. Roman, the chairman of Ogilvy & Mather at the time, provides a spellbinding, first-person account of the denouement. At first Ogilvy strongly resisted. But eventually, "worn and tired," he succumbed. In a final meeting, he quieted his incredulous lieutenants. "I've mismanaged my money. I have a castle and a young wife, and I need the money. Greed." Roman caps this tale with a dull final chapter on Ogilvy's lasting influence in advertising. But his account of the Scotsman's capitulation to Sorrell is memorable.

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