Monday, 28 February 2011

David Ogilvy’s “if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative” is 100% more relevant today as we mark his 100th year with this blog

Edwin Ward, Director of Ogilvy Malta
David Ogilvy’s name is bandied around on the internet and appears in the advertising press with a frequency and regularity that is very surprising, given that the man has not worked in the business in over a decade. Sadly, David passed away at the grand old age of 88 in the summer of 1999, it was sweltering hot in Malta that day when the unhappy news came through on July 21. David, a British advertising man in a foreign country, had been my beacon for a number of years. He was a Scot and proud of it. Me too. He had an eclectic background before joining the ranks of advertising professionals. Me too. He was interested in research and great work, especially with the pen. Me too. He was devoted to getting business results for clients. Me too. He believed in brands. Me too. And he made his career outside the UK. Guess what? Me too. So this affinity led to my opening the Ogilvy signature office in Malta, and spending years patiently explaining to prospective clients how to pronounce “Oh, gil, vi”. The phonetic method being the only means of knowledge transfer in this part of the Mediterranean at that time. But I find that David and I now have something else in common. And it is this thing that seems to be his greatest legacy. It defines him. It keeps him alive, in spirit. You see, in the last few years, I have become an educator (a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta, teaching ‘Branding’ in one form or another), and that role of educator is David’s primary contribution to today’s business community.

Nowadays there are a few more Brits in the advertising industry in Malta since the days when we launched the agency here. Mostly they work with us. Malta’s marvelous English language credentials have not yet begun to deliver for the creative industries in the Mediterranean, but one day this will be the Singapore of the Med, and it will be the expats who finally pull Mediterranean advertising up to the heights that much of Asia now enjoys. David was the ultimate educator. And I don’t mean his ‘Magic Lanterns’, nor his advertising rules, all that stuff about no reversed type, putting the client's name in the headline, the consumer isn't stupid, she's your wife, humour is for clowns, etc, etc, leading up to the ultimate "carved-in-stone" edict, if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative. David, God bless him, was the greatest articulator of his own thought, in 3 fascinating books, as well as in thousands of memos that he bombarded his partners with over the years. For a man of such stature in our industry, Ogilvy has had few biographers. In fact, at one time, before the idea for this blog came along, I was mulling pitching our CEO, Miles Young, about having O&M commission me to write a new biography of David. That’s because my colleague Nigel Leyson and I have been discussing David’s relevance to agency life in the 21st century for the last 6 years, and we find in our daily work that David is more relevant today than ever before, because we are surrounded by crass, moronic drivel masquerading as advertising on this beautiful isle. And so, with true missionary zeal, we set out to change that while wondering what David would have done at every step along the way.

David wrote long copy, “Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating”. There was a famous advertisement for an obscure bar of soap that ran to over 2000 words. A feat of Olympian proportions. That the brand is now world famous, and extended to every personal care line imaginable, is just part of the man’s legacy. David walked around Unilever’s factory and interrogated the living bejesus out of the scientists and technicians who worked there. Spotting a vat of industrial goo he demanded to know what was in it, and was told “stearic acid”. “Isn’t that what goes into cold cream?” he demanded. And there you have the birth of Dove, one of Ogilvy’s biggest sales ideas. “Only Dove is one quarter moisturizing cream”. Research that turned an ordinary bar of soap into a beauty bar, “It creams your skin while you wash” exemplified the key benefit of softer, less dry skin. Side-by-side face tests demonstrated the difference, and on TV cleansing cream was poured into a plastic Dove-shaped mold. Being better informed, led to the insight that fed the creative work, and the creative work drives the market. And kept driving it until it became a billion plus brand sold from Boston to Bombay. Over the years, this campaign helped grow Dove into the number-one cleansing brand in the world. All of it emanating from the original positioning decision taken by the Scotsman in red braces.

In another apotheosis, David researched the strategy for a beverage entering the US market and then had a big idea on the train and became so excited he telephoned the agency to tell them about it. It was a massive double-page spread showing a dozen beautifully illustrated oysters and a dozen ways to consume them, under the headline, “Guinness Guide to oysters”. It was a piece of such quality that the brand could only bask in its brilliance and the resulting upswing in the fortunes of Ireland’s most famous export which led to a series, Guinness Guide to steak, game birds, cheese and so on that paired the brand with gastronomy and good living. This classic gem was one of a handful of advertisements that made David Ogilvy a name in the heart of that bastion of advertising, Madison Avenue in the 1950’s. Yes, the product truly became the hero in these advertising executions, and they allow intelligent people to read them after 60 years and still find something of the connoisseur’s personality in them. The products were not treated like every other product, they were supported by claims and facts that give dimensionality, personality, to these goods. A slew of advertisements for Hathaway shirts, some theatre was required to attract the reader’s attention, leading to the invention of a much talked-about eye-patch for the actor Baron Wrangell, who starred as “the man in the Hathaway shirt” with his instantly recognisable and mysterious black eye-patch. This series of advertisements is often referred to as the birth of brand personality, and it’s intriguing to consider that David was creating differentiation not only on product attributes but also for the first time on brand personality attributes too. It was a double-whammy that lifted Hathaway from obscurity into profitable growth that lasted over 20 years. Story appeal.

His claim as a creative force is further strengthened by the authoring of the advertisement that many argue contains the greatest headline ever written in automobile advertising, his pitch for Rolls Royce, "At 60 mph, the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock". One of my own personal favourites is the campaign for the British Tourist Authority run in the USA. David was the architect of Britain’s image, the way we package and present ourselves. Leaf through the collaterals that promote Britain abroad and the same images tend to predominate: Beefeaters, castles, pipers in kilts, girls in Welsh costume, stately homes and thatched cottages – British history and culture served between two big slices of heritage. Tourist Britain is the product of that canny Scottish advertising executive. All the advertisements followed a similar pattern: one large image, a long headline and a lot of copy. “Tread softly past the long, long sleep of kings”, shows Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, with some Shakespearean prose: 'Three monarchs rest here now. Henry, Elizabeth and Mary. Such are their names in sleep. No titles. No trumpets. The banners hang battle-heavy and becalmed . . .' It’s from the same well as British poet Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”. I was at TEDxValletta the other day and someone ended their presentation by quoting W. B. Yates, “Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams” so you can see where Ogilvy was coming from on this. Judging by the numbers crossing the Atlantic eastwards, all this beautiful writing was lapped up by Americans. Fortunately, David had an enormous reservoir of it - other advertisements included: 'How to sit on the grass and watch cricket' which read: 'The time is almost any Saturday in summer. The place . . . almost any English village. And the game is cricket, with the blacksmith hitting boundaries off the Duke's bowling.' This image continues to endure, take a look at anything put out by the British Tourist Authority in the last couple of years. Just like Dove this campaign is still going strong 60 years later. David’s influence continues to echo around the world. Brand image applied to a part of a country’s service portfolio, now there was a big idea. But the campaign which Ogilvy said helped change the image of a country, and was his proudest achievement, came in the form of a campaign for Puerto Rico, at a time when the concept of Nation Branding had not even been coined.

We decided that we would start this blog to mark David’s 100th birthday, which will be on June 23 this year, since the proposal we sent into network global headquarters about celebrating David’s life went unanswered. It would be great if some of those who knew David could contribute to this site, and it would also be appreciated if those who work at WPP and Ogilvy could contribute too. But it’s also a place for anyone who wants to share their thoughts about David, his life and work. Posts are welcome in every form, writing, visuals, video, songs, poems, photos, cartoons, memorabilia, journalism, old advertisements and TVC’s, rap, anything you feel contributes to the mix.

So what was David? A nerdy planner? A suave suit? A creative “God”? A clever businessman? Anyone who works in a small agency, and we know because we’re the smallest outfit in the Ogilvy empire, will know that you have to multi-task and be proficient in a number of skills sets. You wind up doing a bit of everything. That was David, but when he did a little of anything he did it brilliantly, never more so than when he hired people who were as good as, if not better than him, and then left them to get on with it. As a founder and owner he was an inspired business leader. “If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger then you are, we shall become a company of giants.” When the company was sold to WPP for close to a billion dollars in 1989 it was a bargain, and it has not only grown in value but has been the cornerstone that underpins WPP’s growth. David spent 3 years as WPP’s chairman, “Senior men have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get”. You will also find in a relatively long career in this business that you pick up a bit of everything along the way, a “generalist” as David coined it, and David’s days selling Aga stoves door-to-door and then at both Mather & Crowther in London, as well as heading Gallup’s Audience Research Institute at Princeton, laid the foundations for proficiency in a talent that had matured by the time Ogilvy, Benson and Mather was launched in New York in 1948.

David was probably the most influential advertising man in history, and I assume millions of people have made their own fortunes based on the business education he provided, and which is his greatest legacy. On the 10th anniversary of David departing for that big red agency in the sky, Patricia Sellers at Fortune Magazine told a story about meeting David at a convention in 1991, and asking him what his advice for building and running a business would be. The answer was scrawled in pencil on a note that she kept in a drawer of her desk for 18 years, and it said this:

1. Remember that Abraham Lincoln spoke of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He left out the pursuit of profit.

2. Remember the old Scottish motto: "Be happy while you're living, for you are a long time dead."

3. If you have to reduce your company's payroll, don't fire your people until you have cut your compensation and the compensation of your big-shots.

4. Define your corporate culture and your principles of management in writing. Don't delegate this to a committee. Search all the parks in all your cities. You'll find no statues of committees.

5. Stop cutting the quality of your products in search of bigger margins. The consumer always notices -- and punishes you.

6. Never spend money on advertising which does not sell.

7. Bear in mind that the consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence.”

Ogilvy & Mather is built on David Ogilvy's principles, in particular, that the function of advertising is to sell and that successful advertising for any product is based on information about its consumer. Principles that, at least in my own mind, are the holy grail of the advertising industry.

"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."

In the next 100 years, will there be anyone in the advertising industry as revered as David Ogilvy is today?