Tuesday, February 17, 2009

David Ogilvy: The Original Mad Man

The man who made advertising
A new biography of original Mad Man David Ogilvy illuminates his life and time.

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

For anyone serious about the craft of advertising, there are several essential books. Two of them, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising have permanent places in my own ever-shifting library. The author of both volumes had been a cook, a spy, an Oxford dropout, savior of Masterpiece Theatre and chairman of the United Negro College Fund. He grew up in England (and considered himself a Scot), made his name and fortune in the United States, but never became a citizen (though the head of the CIA offered to make it happen).

When David Ogilvy, the most famous advertising man of his era, died, it merited front-page notice in the New York Times. He introduced the eye-patched Man in the Hathaway Shirt and Schweppes' Commander Whitehead (and ''Schweppervesence''). He turned Dove ("one quarter cleansing cream'') into a powerhouse brand, catapulted American Express from a charge card for travelers into a multifaceted worldwide brand and established one of the most successful advertising agencies in the world. He's also credited with creating a ''corporate culture'' decades before the term was coined.

Ogilvy grew up poor, got into Oxford on a special scholarship — his grades had been poor, but his intellect and audacity impressed the school — before illness and other distractions kept him from fulfilling his academic requirements. He'd tried several jobs until his older brother, a successful ad man, lent a hand. After a bit of success borne less of talent and more of audacity and tenacity, young David emigrated to America (in steerage), got a job with research company Gallup and within a few years opened an American outpost of his brother's firm. His early success revolutionized the industry, though he later acknowledged the huge debt he owed to other, less publicized predecessors.

Kenneth Roman's very readable biography presents an expansive and entertaining portrait, offering insights into the life and times. Advertising had held a different place in culture and commerce before the emergence of Ogilvy, whose career ran parallel to the rise of the great agencies and their eventual consolidation into a handful of multinational corporate entities.

Roman, a former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, the agency his subject founded, is also the author of two how-to books on advertising, but his well researched and insightful life story required different skills, and Roman rose to the occasion. Using Ogilvy's own books, quotes, other writings and reminiscences, copious interviews from friends, family, colleagues and competitors, Roman does a masterful job of conveying the colorful personality of Ogilvy.

It's far from a fawning tale; the author incisively compares his work and influence with predecessors and peers such as Bill Bernbach, Rosser Reeves and others. Ogilvy often comes up short and vacillated between adoration and disdain of many of his fellow admen during his lifetime.

The only knock on this book is that it isn't loaded with examples of Ogilvy's work, though a little digging online and in other books may suffice. Regardless, Roman does his old boss proud.

published 2/16/09 in The Miami Herald

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