Wednesday 23 October 2019

Gospel according to godfather of advertising still holds true today

Martin Sorrell. Pic: PA
Martin Sorrell. Pic: PA

John McGee

A little bit of advertising history was celebrated recently when the WPP-owned agency Ogilvy popped the corks for its 70th anniversary. As you do on these occasions, you raise a toast to the founder, celebrate their legacy and wonder what the next 70 years might hold.

The agency's founder, David Ogilvy, remains one of the most seminal figures in advertising history and his rich legacy runs deep and wide. Often referred to as the godfather of advertising, his opinions about the role advertising and marketing should play in the day-to-day operations of a business have found their way into most good advertising textbooks and God knows how many marketing power-point presentations down through the years.

It's quite possible that Ogilvy's rather unusual upbringing contributed towards his greatness. His father was an Argentinian-born Gaelic-speaking Scottish highlander who failed as a financial broker but revelled in his steely agnosticism.

His Irish mother, Dorothy Blew Fairfield, hailed from the well-known Anglo-Irish Fairfield family in Kerry. Anyone who has ever wondered why some streets and housing estates in the Dingle area of Kerry have Fairfield as a prefix will now know why. In his autobiography, Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy described his mother as both "beautiful and eccentric", a description that possibly applies to the vast majority of the people living in The Kingdom.

Having spent his childhood years growing up in what was once Lewis Carroll's old family home, the young Ogilvy was dispatched to several boarding schools in England, having availed of scholarships due to his father's straitened financial circumstances. A career in advertising, however, was possibly the last thing on his mind when he was expelled from Oxford in 1931 for skipping lectures, preoccupying himself with mainly non-academic pursuits. The next 17 years would see him work as an apprentice chef at an exclusive Parisian hotel, a salesman for Aga stoves, an employee of British Intelligence in Washington during World War II as well as a stint as a farmer in a mainly Amish community in Pennsylvania.

At the age of 37, however, his brother offered him a job as an account executive in the London agency Mather & Crowther and soon after he was dispatched to the US to learn American advertising techniques, presumably because British advertising at the time was a bit more fuddy-duddy. The post-war US, on the other hand, was a lot more exciting with rich pickings for advertising agencies with the right proposition.

After spending time under the wings of the pollster George Gallup, he decided to go it alone and with some financial backing from his brother's London agency. In 1948 he opened the doors to a new agency called Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather which later became just Ogilvy & Mather.

The agency now operates out of 131 offices in 83 countries, including Ireland where it has been consistently one of the most profitable and respected agencies for many years.

For much of the 1950s and 1960s - the so-called Mad Men era of advertising on Madison Avenue - Ogilvy morphed into a global powerhouse, winning business from clients as diverse as Rolls Royce, Lever Bros, American Express, Shell, Schweppes, Hathaway Shirts, General Foods and Dove soap. The agency had become so successful that in 1968 it became the first agency to go public on both the London and New York Stock Exchanges. Years later, it would become a takeover target when Martin Sorrell's WPP launched a successful but hostile takeover bid worth $864m in 1989.

During the takeover battle Sorrell was famously described by Ogilvy as an "odious little shit", although later reports had softened this to "odious little jerk".

But other, more important, Ogilvyisms also live on to this day. He once said that "when I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it creative. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product." On how advertisers treat their customers, he noted that "the consumer isn't a moron: she is your wife", while he urged his clients to "never run an advertisement you would not want your own family to see".

As Ogilvy passed away in 1999, it's difficult to know what he might think about the cluttered, fragmented and sometimes dysfunctional advertising landscape that has emerged in the digital age. Who knows, he may even be spinning in his grave. But one famous Ogilvy quote still holds true, although it's one which is often lost in translation in the race for brand fame: "Your role is to sell, don't let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising."

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