Reminiscences of David Ogilvy
Drayton Bird is a brilliant, bald, bodacious Brit. My opinion: He is the savviest direct marketer on the planet today.
No surprise, as Drayton comes well credentialed. His boss, mentor and later partner was David Ogilvy, one of the three 20th century direct marketing colossi (with Claude Hopkins and John Caples).
David Ogilvy (1911-1999) adored direct marketing from his earliest days in business. As he wrote in his masterpiece, “Ogilvy on Advertising”:
One day a man walked into a London agency and asked to see the boss. He had bought a country house and was about to open it as a hotel. Could the agency help him to get customers? He had $500 to spend. Not surprisingly, the head of the agency turned him over to the office boy, who happened to be the author of this book. I invested his money in penny postcards and mailed them to well-heeled people living in the neighborhood. Six weeks later the hotel opened to a full house. I had tasted blood.
Drayton—a colleague in David Ogilvy’s last years—is a living encyclopedia of direct marketing know-how and Ogilvyana. Bird travels the world taking good care of clients and dispensing eight decades of wisdom to anyone that will stump up the fee (or a lunch tab). Last year, I told Drayton if he would jot down some memories of David Ogilvy, not only would I be thrilled, but also so would my readers.
To my delight—and yours—Drayton obliged.
Drayton Bird on David Ogilvy
I regret that I only got to know him when he was quite old, but I was damn lucky to get to know him at all. Even luckier that for some reason he took a shine to me.
As he loved making lists, I thought I would list the chief characteristics I noticed from my time with him to convey how, fascinating, contradictory and unusual he was.
1. He was intensely insecure
This was partly because his family was not at all well off when he was young. Although an old, distinguished Scottish family, they had fallen upon hard times.
But I suspect it was just as much because he felt overshadowed by his brother Francis.
A brilliant scholar who did very well in advertising, Francis ran Mather & Crowther, the London firm that helped fund Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, which David set up in New York.
Some years ago, a friend found a copy of "Confessions of an Advertising Man" in a second hand shop here in England.
Inside was a message:
“To Francis - The older I get, the more I admire you - David.”
David far outdid his brother. But we cannot eradicate what we feel as children.
2. He worried constantly about money
Shortly after I got to know him, I visited him at Chateau Touffou with my wife.
I was overwhelmed, to say the least. It is one of France’s loveliest chateaux.
“What a glorious place,” I said to David.
“Have you any idea how much it costs to run?” he replied before lamenting how much it cost to put on a new roof.
No matter how famous or celebrated he became, he never lost his fear of poverty.
He rang me up one day around 1992 saying, “I’m terribly worried about money. Do you think we could do some seminars together? What about getting me some speaking engagements?”
I was astounded, though obviously very flattered and said, “David, look—don’t worry. Someone will always pay for you to cast a cloak of respectability over their activities.”
His money fears made him very stingy in small ways.
When I made the video with him in Paris, he kept bumming cigarettes off the cameraman.
Afterwards he invited me to lunch. Followng the meal, he asked the waiter, “Est-ce-que vous prenez American Express?” (“Do you take American Express?”) The waiter replied, “Non, monsieur.”
Ogilvy said, “Oh dear, we must pay cash—have you got any money?”
So I paid the bill.
On another occasion he bought me dinner. He asked if I was having a starter. I got the strong impression he thought this needless extravagance. When I said, “Yes,” he said, “Well, hurry up then.”
People have told me he was very careful with his expenses. Ogilvy and Mather paid, not David.
3. He had no false modesty
I once asked him if he would come and talk at a conference for all our creative directors.
“What would you like me to talk about?” he asked.
“We all know about your triumphs. Could you talk about what you got wrong?”
He began: “Drayton asked me to talk about my mistakes. We have an hour. It will take me three and half minutes to cover the mistakes. The rest of the time I will talk about what I got right.”
His greatest mistake, he thought, was going public. “Once you do that, you lose control of your business.”
He was proud that he had brought in the agency’s five biggest clients.
“I made their bed. They lie on it.”
4. He could be unforgivably rude
When in India, I was taken to a very good restaurant in New Delhi. My hosts told me that when David was there they brought out the chef to meet him—partly because David had been a chef when young.
The chef asked him what he wanted.
“Cornflakes,” was the reply.
He pulled this trick regularly. Ken Roman, his biographer, thought it a way of drawing attention to himself.
5. He was well-read, cultured, never stopped learning
In the chateau, one room was lined with books. I was childishly proud when a friend told me recently that one of my books is now prominently displayed there. I recall asking David whether he had read them all. He said he had.
He was very cultured, unlike most people in marketing today. He had a good knowledge of music and art. He had an eye for new ideas. Most people lose this sense of enquiry quite early on; once they succeed to a certain degree they feel no need to keep learning and collapse into happy sloth.
He used to send me things to comment on, including the proofs of “Maxi-Marketing” by Stan Rapp and Tom Collins. He asked for my opinion and later wrote a recommendation for it.
He also sent me a newsletter by Gary Halbert, the copywriter, asking what I thought about that.
6. He was never too proud to seek criticism
After drafting "Ogilvy on Advertising," he sent it to Joel Raphaelson [Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide] with the note: “Dear Joel, Kindly improve. D. O.”
When planning a speech about direct marketing, he sent me the draft for comment.
7. He was fun
I used to go around making a lot of speeches—still do.
David rang me one day saying, “Why do you go around the world making all these speeches—giving away our secrets?”
I replied, “You’ve been doing it for years—decades—and they still can’t do what you do. You can talk till you’re blue in the face, but people won’t know how to do what you can do.”
And I quoted Kipling: “They copied all they could follow but they couldn't copy my mind.”
He never forgot this. He rang me at home one day saying, “Hello, David here. Just back from making another speech, are we?”
8. He could be very sly
After I sold my business to Ogilvy, their London advertising agency asked me to review some copy for the World Wildlife Fund.
I did so, commenting, “David Ogilvy says advertisements without headlines are headless wonders. This copy has no urge to action at the end. It is a tailless wonder”—which I thought was rather neat.
Next day the phone rang. It was David. He said, “Thanks for looking at my copy. You’re quite right. I shall change it.”
Would I have been as frank if I had known it was his work? I doubt it.
9. He was a tremendous worker
Being fascinated by him, I used to ask those who knew him better what made him so remarkable.
Joel Raphaelson told me how he used to go into the office on Saturday morning to work. David would already be there.
When he would drive past the office on Sunday evening the lights would be on. David was still working away.
10. He never gave up
I asked Ken Roman, chief executive of Ogilvy most of the time I was there, what made David so remarkable.
Ken said, “Well, I’ve done quite well, one reason being I don’t give up easily.
“If something doesn’t work, I try again; and if it still doesn’t work I try again. And if it doesn’t work then, I try again. And again. And again.
"I’ll keep going for a couple of years before I give up. But David never gives up. He’ll keep going for 40 years.”
11. He had a great sense of theatre
The first time I saw him was in London, speaking at a conference. He had a flair for the dramatic. He was introduced. Everyone applauded. He got up very, very slowly from the front row and walked to the podium.
People were waiting eagerly. What was he going to say? He said nothing.
Then he took off his jacket to reveal his red braces and paused.
Then, like an old-time preacher he said in resonant tones: “My text today is from The Gospel; According to St. Matthew, verse so and so, chapter so-and-so.”
He had us in his power.
12. He never stopped thinking about business
He rang me one morning at around 10:00, and without preliminaries asked what was wrong with Ogilvy and Mather. I said I didn’t know, but I’d think about it and send him my thoughts.
Then he said, “Oh, by the way, Merry Christmas!” Yes: It was Christmas day.
To him every day was a working day.
Those are some things I recall about this remarkable man.
I do not think I ever forgot any conversation we had. It was a privilege and a joy to know him.
Takeaways to Consider
- Drayton Bird Blog—“Bird Droppings”
- “Commonsense Direct & Digital Marketing” by Drayton Bird
- “Ogilvy on Advertising” by David Ogilvy
- “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by David Ogilvy
- “The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising” [Paperback] by Kenneth Roman
Denny Hatch is a direct marketing consultant, copywriter and designer. He is the author of five books on marketing and four novels. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 215-627-9103 rings on his desk.