What was David Ogilvy like?

Memories of an extraordinary individual – Part One

A few months back Denny Hatch of Target Marketing asked me to write about my experiences of working with David Ogilvy.

An abridged version was published, but here is the original memoir.

I regret that I only got to know him when he was quite old, but I was damn lucky to get to know him at all; even luckier that for some reason he took a shine to me.

As he loved making lists, I thought I would list the chief characteristics I noticed from my time with him so as to convey how fascinating, contradictory and unusual he was.

1. He was intensely insecure.

This was partly because his family was not at all well off when he was young. Although an old, distinguished Scottish family they had fallen upon hard times.

But I am sure it was just as much because he felt overshadowed by his brother Francis.

A brilliant scholar who did very well in advertising, Francis ran Mather & Crowther, the London agency that helped fund Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather which David set up in New York.

A revealing insight into their relationship occurred when some years ago a friend of mine came across a copy of Confessions of an Advertising Man in an English second hand bookshop.

Inside was a message: “To Francis – The older I get, the more I admire you – David”.

Of course, David far outdid his brother. But what we feel as children cannot be eradicated.

2. He was well-read, cultured and never stopped learning.

He had a good knowledge of music and art.

One room in Chateau Touffou was lined with books.

I was childishly proud when a friend told me recently that one of my books is now prominently displayed there.

I recall asking David whether he had read them all. He said he had.

He had an eye for new ideas. Most people lose this sense of enquiry quite early on; once they succeed to a certain degree they feel no need to keep learning and collapse into happy sloth – usually mixed with unjustified conceit.

I recall, on more than one occasion, him sending me things to comment on. One was a copy of Maxi-Marketing by Rapp and Collins. He asked me what I thought, and later wrote a recommendation for it.

Later, he sent me a newsletter written by Gary Halbert, the copywriter, and asked me what I thought about that. (I thought it excellent).

3. He worried constantly about money

Shortly after I got to know him my wife and I visited him in his chateau for the weekend.

I was vastly impressed by Touffou. It is one of the loveliest chateaux in France

“What a glorious place,” I said to David.

“Have you any idea how much it costs to run?” he replied. Then he went on about how much it cost to put on a new roof.

No matter how famous or celebrated he became he never lost his fear of poverty.

He rang me up one day in about 1992 and said, “I’m terribly worried about money. Do you think we could do some seminars together? What about getting me some speaking engagements?”

I was astounded, though obviously very flattered and I said, “David, look – don’t worry. Somebody will always want you to come along and pay for you to cast a cloak of respectability over their activities”.

This worry about money made him very stingy in small ways.

When I made the video with him in Paris, he kept bumming cigarettes off the cameraman.

Afterwards he invited me to lunch. After the meal he asked the waiter, “Est-ce-que vous prenez American Express?” (“Do you take American Express?”)

The waiter replied, “Non, monsieur.”

Ogilvy said, “Oh dear, we’ll have to pay cash – have you got any money?”

So I had to pay for my own meal.

On another occasion he bought me dinner. He asked if I was having a starter. I got the strong impression he thought this was needless extravagance. When I said, “Yes”, he said, “Well, hurry up then.”

From what people have told me he was very careful with his expenses. Ogilvy and Mather paid, not David.

4. He was funny

On the second evening of that first visit to Touffou David’s wife Herta asked us what we would like for dinner on Sunday – she was going to Paris and wanted to get the cook to prepare something.

I said that as we had seen a hare when we were driving into the chateau, we could perhaps have hare.

Herta said it was very hard to get hare but suggested rabbit – ‘lapin à la moutarde’.

David said, “I hate rabbit; rabbit will never be served here while I’m alive. When I was young, we used to have rabbit all the time.” (It was very cheap then).

The next night the rabbit appeared.

David turned to me accusingly and said, “This is your doing.”

5. He was childish.

On one of the times I went with my wife to visit him at Touffou, we arrived in a low-slung bright red sports car with a roaring engine.

When we pulled up outside the chateau David was terribly impressed and said, “My goodness, what’s that?”

My wife said, “It’s a Lotus Esprit Turbo”.

Next day he asked her, “Will you take me for a ride in your beautiful car?” So my wife took him off for a ride to the nearest town.

When they got to the centre he asked her how to wind the window down and she told him which button to press.

He then waved in a rather lordly fashion to a man standing nearby.

My wife asked him who he was waving at. He said, “That’s the local mayor; he hates me.”

6. He could be polite in a quite old-fashioned way.

On our first visit, at the end of the first evening I was mildly astonished when he asked his wife, “Aren’t you going to turn down their bed?”

He walked us over the tower we were sleeping in – an old hunting lodge of Francois 1 – and offered to do so.

I think we managed on our own.

7. He could be unforgivably rude.

When in India I was taken to a very good restaurant in New Delhi. My hosts told me that when David was there they brought out the chef to meet him – partly because David had been a chef when young.

The chef asked him what he wanted.

“Cornflakes,” was the reply.

He came out with this trick more than once. Ken Roman, who wrote his biography, thought it was a way of drawing attention to himself.

8. He was acutely conscious of the impression he made

I once went to Paris to make a video with him for an audience in South Africa.

He had been asked to go there, but refused because he had strong feelings about apartheid. I said I would go with him and be his producer which he agreed to.

Jerry Pickholz, the CEO of Ogilvy Direct, asked me to persuade David, which surprised me.

I asked, “Why me?”

Jerry said, “He loves you.”

This was a huge surprise to me – the first I knew of it, to be honest.

I think David did have intense likes and dislikes, and I am lucky he never went off me.

Anyhow, I wrote and asked him if he’d make the film. As a kind of joke I said “I’ll come and be the producer”. So I flew to Paris to make the film.

First, he took off his jacket to reveal his red braces. Then he said to me, “You know why I do that? So they won’t think I’m an old fart.”

9. He had strong views on racism

The reason we were making the video for South Africa was that David refused to go there whilst apartheid was in force.

I once asked David if he had any regrets, looking back on his life.

He said, “Yes” and said that he was once President of the United Negro College Fund – a very important charity in America which, incidentally, has the best slogan I’ve ever heard: “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste”.

He held this position for a while but told me that he couldn’t stand it because there was so much squabbling and politics and he gave it up. In retrospect he felt he should have continued.

He then told me something that happened in his childhood.

His family were visited by an African bishop whom he found absolutely enchanting – “I adored him”.

He remembered sitting in the bath with his sister and asking her to pinch him so that he would turn black.

I thought that he never lost this childish way of thinking, which I think many creative people possess.

Part two tomorrow.

About the Author

Drayton

In 2003, the Chartered Institute of Marketing named Drayton one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.

He has worked in 55 countries with many of the world’s greatest brands. These include American Express, Audi, Bentley, British Airways, Cisco, Columbia Business School, Deutsche Post, Ford, IBM, McKinsey, Mercedes, Microsoft, Nestle, Philips, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Unilever, Visa and Volkswagen.

Drayton has helped sell everything from Airbus planes to Peppa Pig. His book, Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, out in 17 languages, has been the UK’s best seller on the subject every year since 1982. He has also run his own businesses in the U.K., Portugal and Malaysia.

He was a main board member of the Ogilvy Group, a founding member of the Superbrands Organisation, one of the first eight Honorary Fellows of the Institute of Direct Marketing and one of the first three people named to the Hall of Fame of the Direct Marketing Association of India. He has also been given Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Caples Organisation in New York and Early To Rise in Florida.

4 Comments

  1. greg waggett

    Delightful.

  2. Ogilvy was very generous and supportive. When I started my newsletter Subscriptions Strategy in 1993, I sent a copy to him, knowing he had given enormous praise to Drayton’s book. He sent me a kind letter from Chateau Touffou saying he knew nothing about the subject, but thought the idea was tremendous. So I used his name and that word in all my promotions.

    Not that any of my target market – publishers – knew who David Ogilvy was…

  3. Craig

    Wonderful insight Drayton!

  4. I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and without
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    that not enough people are speaking intelligently about.
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