Book review: Self-doubts of an ad genius, by Kenneth Roman

This biography of David Ogilvy captures the paradoxes of a charismatic pioneer whose outer confidence hid a fretful uncertainty. Review by Jeremy Bullmore.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the making of modern
Kenneth Roman
Palgrave Macmillan

After I'd read this book for the first time, I made a quick and barely coherent note for myself: 'A man deeply unsure of his own remarkable abilities, who desperately wanted to be as able and as successful as he sometimes suspected he wasn't - while most of the time he actually was.' The David Ogilvy (1911-99) paradoxes that Ken Roman's scrupulous book reveal are far too multi-layered to be reduced to a single sentence, but it's a start.

For someone destined to be called the Pope of Modern Advertising, Ogilvy's own beginning was relatively late. Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather opened for business in New York on 1 September 1948, when Ogilvy was already 37. He'd been a salesman, a sous-chef, a farmer, a British intelligence agent and a researcher, but had no practical experience in advertising. His official title was research director. In fact, even then, his core skill was almost certainly his ability to write taut, confident prose.

Seven years later, he devoured the Gardner and Levy Harvard Business Review paper, 'The Product and the Brand' - but it simply articulated what he'd al-ways sensed and practised. He had an instinctive understanding of brands and, from the start, saw himself and his company, indivisibly, in brand terms. For the rest of his life, every action he took, and every one of the millions of words that he wrote in his memos, copy, letters and books, he saw as 'part of the long-term investment in the personality of the brand' - both his and his agency's.

As a good-looking Scot, with an impeccable English accent and a whiff of aristocratic self-confidence about him, his brand personality needed little artificial help. In Madison Avenue, he stood apart and above - and so, very quickly, did the agency, which he seems to have dominated from the start.

An unapologetic elitist, he believed in good manners, in always giving your product a first-class ticket through life, in hiring gentlemen with brains. Three of his earliest campaigns were unashamedly classy, assuming and rewarding an intelligent readership. His work for Hathaway Shirts, Schweppes and Rolls-Royce was also a reflection of his own self-image. The ads propelled the infant agency to fame and fortune.

The books he later wrote were best-sellers - and also the best long-copy advertisements for an advertising agency ever written.

Ogilvy's commitment to research, acquired when he worked for George Gallup, remained with him all his life. He was always looking for rules - while disclaiming the word. It was as if he was wrestling with the slippery, elusive business of advertising, frustrated by his inability to tame it.

Though he clearly knew that his adopted mantra, 'We sell or else', implied an easy measurability that wasn't always achievable, he nevertheless felt safe with it; and never budged on it. It came to represent his wider stand against vacuous creativity - a word he disliked.

Like many natural leaders, he seems to have disguised his doubts with surface certainty. Ogilvy's terse prose was always assertive, sometimes didactic and seldom conceded doubt. Doubt didn't sit well with his brand personality.

For the first 15 years of his working life, he'd done many things, but none of them outstandingly well. He remained troubled at having been sent down from Oxford, and his explanation for that seeming failure came in several versions. Even after both he and his agency had conquered the world, he confessed to feeling that it couldn't last. He lived in daily fear of losing clients. In consequence, he sold far too many of his shares far too soon and regretted it forever after.

There was vanity, certainly. Ogilvy knew by heart every compliment he'd ever been paid, every glowing magazine profile in which he'd featured, every sales figure for his books. But when he reminded his hearers of these achievements - which he did quite often - it was as if the person he was most anxious to impress was himself. And if he succeeded, it never seemed to last for long. His hunger for praise and appreciation was insatiable.

Inevitably, his work contains inconsistencies. He never succeeded in pinning advertising to the floor and forcing it to give up all its secrets; but no-one else has, either. He is just about the only insider who has made his chosen profession engrossing to a wider world.

Ken Roman worked with Ogilvy for 26 years. It's his considerable accomplishment to have written a meticulously researched and lucid account of this clever, charismatic and complicated man that is nowhere judgmental. He allows his subject to emerge from his own history. Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather is now called simply Ogilvy, and is a respected agency wherever advertising is practised.

Ogilvy himself would have taken such a testament as entirely justified - while no doubt continuing to fret ceaselessly about it.

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