David Ogilvy, CBE - Advertising Career Profile

A Brief History of an Advertising Legend.

David Ogilvy CBE
David Ogilvy CBE. Getty Images

There are several names in the industry that are synonymous with advertising. David Ogilvy is perhaps the most famous, and respected, of those names. Often referred to as “The Father of Advertising” he left behind him a legacy of astounding work, powerful agencies and several books that have become must reads for anyone who even thinks about getting into the ad business.

An Englishman Born and Bred

Born in West Horsley, England, on June 23rd, 1911, David Mackenzie Ogilvy came from a family of moderate means.

Although he attended both Fettes College, Edinburgh, and Christ Church, Oxford, he did so under scholarships. His father’s business suffered greatly during the depression, and David had to find his own way to support his educational career.

Failed Graduate, Chef, and Door-to-Door Salesman

Advertising career paths in the thirties and forties are not the same as they are today. Many successful ad people started out on very different paths, and David Ogilvy was one of them. He never graduated from Christ Church and in 1931 he turned his back on England to become a chef at the Hotel Majestic, Paris. It lasted one year, with Ogilvy returning to Scotland to sell Aga stoves door-to-door.

Here, he wrote an instruction manual entitled “The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA cooker” for the other salesman. Among the gems inside was this one: "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."

Fortune Magazine called it the finest sales instruction manual ever written. This was a sign of greater things to come.

The Call of America

Ogilvy said goodbye to England in 1938 and emigrated to America, leaving a very mixed career behind him.

He found work at George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute, and later claimed it was a major influence on his ability to think, and rely on accurate research. This would be the foundation for Ogilvy’s great success in the world of direct mail.

World War II, National Security and the Amish

Ogilvy’s skills with analysis, human behavior, consumerism, and nationalism attracted the Intelligence Service at the British Embassy in Washington. Here he made diplomacy and security recommendations "applying the Gallup technique to fields of secret intelligence.” Ogilvy’s suggested were employed with great success in Europe by Eisenhower’s Psychological Warfare Board.

After working in such intense, psychologically draining conditions, Ogilvy turned his back on research and bought a small farm in Lancaster County, PA. He lived among the Amish, leading a serene and peaceful existence for several years. But Manhattan was calling, and David Ogilvy was happy to answer it.

The Early Years of Ogilvy & Mather

In 1948, at the age of just 37, David Ogilvy founded his first agency. It was named Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, a company that would eventually become Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. Of course, Ogilvy wasn’t in this alone.

The company was established on the back of an already successful London agency named Mather & Crowther, which quite handily was being run by his older brother Francis.

What’s more astonishing about this start-up agency is that, at this point in his life, David Ogilvy had never written an advertisement. Not even an idea for an outline for an ad. Some would call this arrogance. Others, stupidity. But Ogilvy had a confidence about him that was backed by hard work, astuteness, and an irresistible charisma. He also had just $6000 in the bank. Not bad for an average joe’s savings account, but certainly not a fortune for an advertising agency in the heart of New York. From these humble beginnings, Ogilvy would build an empire.

“It isn’t creative unless it sells.” – David Ogilvy

It’s one of the most quoted phrases in the advertising industry, especially now when so much work is more concerned with winning awards than selling product.

But it was this ethos that made Ogilvy & Mather the worldwide success that it became.

Among some of the iconic campaigns that helped Ogilvy establish his agency as a player were:

  • The Man in the Hathaway Shirt
  • The Man from Schweppes is here
  • The Rolls-Royce ad (At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock)
  • Pablo Casals is coming home – to Puerto Rico (Ogilvy’s proudest achievement)
  • Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream

The Dove campaign helped Dove become the best-selling soap in the United States. And this success created a snowball effect helped Ogilvy get notable clients such as Lever Brothers, General Foods, Shell, and American Express. These were the golden years for Ogilvy & Mather.

In and Out of Retirement

Having created an advertising empire, David Ogilvy stepped down as Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather in 1973, at the age of 62. He moved to Touffou, his luxurious estate in France, where he spent seven years enjoying the serenity of the countryside. But in the 1980s, Ogilvy came out of retirement to become chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, India.

Not content with that assignment, he spent a year as the temporary chairman at the Ogilvy & Mather, Germany, office, and would commute daily between Touffou, France, and Frankfurt, Germany. They are 902km apart. That’s 560 miles, or the distance between Manhattan and Cincinnati, Ohio. Not too bad for a man in his 70s.

In 1989 the Ogilvy Group was purchased by WPP. This made WPP, owned by Sir Martin Sorrell, the world’s largest marketing communications firm. David Ogilvy was named non-executive chairman, a position he held for three years.

David Ogilvy died on July 21, 1999 at his home in Touffou, France. He was 88 years old. He is still the most famous name in advertising, and many of his ads have stood the test of time. Truly one of the greats.