Dearth of a salesman's self

An Autobiography
July 11, 1997

David Ogilvy is one of the great achievers of advertising. He founded and built a huge global agency network, he brought the rigour of scientific measurement to what had been a subjective art and he imbued his agency and its work with his own patrician flair.

It is odd then that this autobiography affords the 30-odd years he spent at the helm of the agency he created, Ogilvy and Mather, a scant 25 pages, and that these pages are mostly filled with a stark record of clients won and general advice on how to run an agency. Those who have read his excellent advertising textbooks, Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man, can fill in the gaps, but the omission leaves this book empty at the centre.

What remains is an episodic account of an early life filled with incident and a luscious description of retirement in Touffou, the author's 12th-century French chateau. Neither is there any account beyond the preface of the 17 years since the book was first published. Thus O&M's role as victim in the first ever hostile takeover of an agency network, in 1989, is disappointingly omitted. Instead there are lists of Ogilvy's favourite words, flowers, recipes and friends. There is still, however, lots of interest and, even before O&M, lots of success.

Born in Surrey in 1911, Ogilvy was a scholarship boy at Fettes and then at Christ Church College, Oxford. He went on to work in the kitchen at the Majestic Hotel in Paris before getting closer to his metier by selling Aga's in the country house kitchens of Great Britain and writing what was, according to the editors of Fortune, "probably the best sales manual of all time".

A stint in his brother's advertising agency during his twenties was followed by emigration to the United States and an invaluable time in the employ of Gallup, the pioneering researcher and pollster, before serving with the British intelligence services during the second world war. The only place he does not succeed is in his time spent farming tobacco among the Amish, the episode which precedes his re-entry into advertising and the triumphant birth of Ogilvy and Mather in 1949, when he was 38.

In his prose style, Ogilvy's training as a copywriter is abundantly clear. The sentences are short and pithy, the anecdotes pruned and polished. This is an easy and entertaining read. But the style does something belittling to the man it describes.

In the spirit of his craft Ogilvy presents himself as his own best product; something to be talked up and sold. This book often reads more like a resume than biography. Each chapter advertises the author's qualities; "the most remarkable of the younger men to join (his branch of the intelligence services) or his successes; "I doubt whether any copywriter has ever produced so many winners in such a short period."

And everywhere there are proper nouns, or in the language of marketing, brand names. There are names of companies, places, institutions and people. It starts on page one with the mention that Beatrix Potter was a neighbour and visitor, it finishes on page 187 with Kodak; the last of a three page list of O&M's most famous clients. They seem designed to bolster our opinion of Ogilvy, to flatter by association.

Why he should feel the need to do this, at the end of a life packed with reward and recognition, is not clear. The insecurity that drove him may have come from the business failure and attempted suicide of his much loved father, in the face of disdain from both Ogilvy's unloving mother and formidably cold and successful grandfather. Certainly he resented his family's poverty and the way his status was undermined by it at school. Most significant though, was his failure, in the light of his father's academic record and ambition for him, to pass a single exam at Oxford.

But so little does he reveal of himself and his feelings that this must remain conjecture. Though we hear a lot about his ancestors and acquaintances we remain frustratingly distanced from the man himself. Nor does any of his domestic life as an adult yield clues; his wife and son merit a mention each, and there is one tantalising account of an affair he was too conscientious to prosecute with the mistress of his first employer.

So the book is candyfloss: sweet and luscious to the touch, but insubstantial and ultimately unsatisfying.

David Lund is managing director, Delaney, Fletcher, Bozell Ltd.

An Autobiography

Author - David Ogilvy
ISBN - 0 471 18002 5
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £16.99
Pages - 196

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