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October 5, 2009updated 10 Jan 2016 3:57pm

The King of Madison Avenue

By Spear's

The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising  
Kenneth Roman
Palgrave Macmillan, 304pp

Review by Peter York

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‘HE’S JUST AN actor-presenter,’ a half-cut member of Tony Blair’s cabinet once hissed to me back in 2002. Like Blair, advertising grandee David Ogilvy (1911–1999), the King of Madison Avenue, was an RP-speaking Scot — Fettes and Oxford (he left after two years without a degree, unlike the swotty, God-bothering Blair).

Handsome like Blair, but socially smarter — borderline Upper Scots Irish — Ogilvy reminds me of his contemporary, the actor David Niven (born 1910). Like Niven, who parlayed his smart Anglo-Scottish ways to great effect in Hollywood after starting in whisky sales in New York and rodeo promotion in Atlantic City, Ogilvy was an actor-presenter to the max, playing up to a 1940s movie-based American idea of British genthood and posh eccentricity.

His dress-code, for instance: the flowing black cape with the scarlet lining; the three-piece tweed suit with waistcoat lapels; the bow ties and foulard pocket handkerchiefs; the double-breasted blue blazer and red braces. The kilts for high-impact evenings. Plus the Roller and the red office carpets in his New York advertising agency, Ogilvy and Mather.

Ogilvy gave his market what they wanted, and made himself an effective brand, a clear stand-out from the Organisation Men in their grey flannel suits and Brooks Brothers Boston Boxes. An advertising contemporary, getting it muddled, said Ogilvy was ‘practically a character out of Dickens’. Wrong century, wrong class, but you get the drift.

Like Niven’s, Ogilvy’s early 1930s working life was smart picaresque; he was a sous chef in the Majestic Hotel, Paris, and a door-to-door salesman for Aga stores in Scotland, where he wrote a classic sales manual at 24: ‘The good salesman combines the tenacity of a bulldog with the manners of a spaniel. If you have any charm, ooze it.’

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Like many Scots Borderline Uppers after World War I, Ogilvy’s parents were hard-up — by the standards of their class. His stockbroking father, never that good with money, lost most of it. As a scholarship boy there were miserable episodes at his prep school, the legendary St Cyprian’s in Eastbourne (St Cyprian’s warrants a book of its own after featuring in so many between-wars biographies). It left him for ever obsessed by money — and vulnerable about it.

As a Borderline Upper Scotsman on the make in America — Ogilvy first went there in 1938 on an expedition for his straight-A older brother Francis, already established in the big London advertising agency Mather and Crowther — Ogilvy was thrilled by what he saw, the power and impact of their advertising and the clear-thinking professionals behind it.

‘Scientific Advertising, Claude Hopkins’ 1923 guide to advertising that did the business, became his reference point. And the wind-tunnel-tested theories of Rosser Reeves, head of the Ted Bates agency — the deeply formulaic American 50s approaches everyone loves to spoof now — were what he cited at conferences until he died.

OGILVY’S REPUTATIONTHE ‘King of Madison Avenue’ tag — derives from a combination of the personal brand with the real achievement of building his eponymous Top Ten US agency, and the authorship of a few famous 1950s print campaigns. Those campaigns were endlessly rehearsed in advertising’s own mythology and Ogilvy’s own writing (his 1967 Confessions of an Advertising Man was the best-selling advertising book ever). They were for two British ‘upscale’ brands — Rolls-Royce and Schweppes — and a minor US shirt brand, Hathaway.

They were stylish, high-impact, long-copy affairs, made memorable by a statement like ‘At 60mph, the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce is the ticking of the electric clock’, or a visual stroke like the Hathaway model’s eye-patch, or the casting of Schweppes’ US president, Commander Edward Whitehead, an elegant old salt in the Jack Hawkins mould with an Edwardian beard, as the brand spokesman.

The US Ogilvy agency, opened in 1948, was backed by two big, long-established London Agencies, SH Benson and Mather and Crowther, and originally set out to work for British companies in America. It made its name with high-profile but actually rather low-spending advertisers. But however delicious it sounded — running a small, smart hot-shop agency in New York specialising in snobby brands with that British touch — Ogilvy was determined not to be marginalised.

He meant to use the profile he’d built to move into the volume mainstream, into the heartland of American 1950s advertising, and the huge budgets of the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) giants, the cereals and soaps, soups and headache pills from companies such as General Foods, Unilever and Alka-Seltzer; that was where the money was then. That was how you built a Top Ten agency.

Dandies are usually socially conservative, like Ogilvy, but his dandyism was strategic. The Ogilvy strategy was to build a large mainstream agency with a reputation for effectiveness rather than ‘creativity’ (a word he hated, like the whole round of awards dinners).

Ogilvy worked constantly, pitched relentlessly, produced a raft of rules and exhortations for his employees, and worried endlessly about money. In this biography Kenneth Roman quotes Ogilvy’s New York neighbour, Walter Cronkite, the dean of 1950s US TV anchormen, saying he could see Ogilvy working away in his study at all hours.

Ogilvy became mainstream US media’s favourite advertising man, although he was fundamentally careful, conservative and, by the early-60s Mad Men period, distinctly old-fashioned since he’d never personally made the transition from print to writing TV advertising. The adman’s adman from the late 50s on, the inspiration of the later British New Wave agencies, was Bill Bernbach.
SMALL, PHYSICALLY IMPRESSIVE and socially unsmart, Bernbach was from Brooklyn and stayed there (successful admen lived on the Upper East Side or commuted from Connecticut back then). But Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen, Levy’s bread or Orbach’s stores looks, even now, to have appeared practically from another decade. There are those gnomic one-word headlines, the simple Euro-Modernist layouts, the demotic references and, above all, the use of subtle mood-setting and emotion.

Ogilvy’s business, by contrast, was founded on his belief in crisp claims based on hard-line quantitative research — he’d worked for Gallup in the 30s. His greatest achievement was to build a parallel agency network, O&M direct, based on the utterly measurable down-and-dirty techniques of direct marketing; the telephone-now, cut-the-coupon, press-the-button end of advertising that wins few prizes but shifts the product.

I wasn’t expecting much from this biography; Kenneth Roman started at Ogilvy and Mather in 1963 and succeeded Ogilvy as CEO of the by then giant global agency. He’s 79 now and the end-papers of his book are plastered with endorsements from every kind of old American client and agency wallah. It didn’t augur well, but he’s made a very good fist of it.

It’s well, if not thrillingly, written (although I’d have liked much more about the ‘Mad Men’ social context and the Big Picture issues). And Roman’s surprisingly tough on Ogilvy — the vanities, the conservatism, the financial vulnerabilities, the sad final years of semi-retirement as a roving token chairman after the WPP takeover in 1980.

Ogilvy needed the money; he’d got a château in France and a third wife to support. You can see the château, and its owner, in Annie Leibowitz’s dust-jacket photogragh. Ogilvy looks like an ageing Monarch of the Glen, and the château behind looks oddly like one of Lorimer’s stagey Scottish Baronial numbers. 

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