The King of Madison Avenue

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[Note: This review originally ran in Advertising Age on February 19, 2009, and is reposted here by kind permission]

There are three questions one can justifiably ask of a biography: 1) who the hell is this joker anyway, 2) why is he so important that a book was written about him, and finally, 3) what’s in it for me (or said another way, what can I learn from his life so I don’t screw up in quite the same way?).

For people in advertising, the answer to that first question is fairly easy. He is the man behind the Hathaway shirt ads. Behind the Schweppes ads. Behind the Rolls Royce ads. The man who created Ogilvy & Mather. The answers to the other two questions are more challenging.

To get there, it helps if we divide Mr. Roman’s book into three parts: “BOM” (Before Ogilvy & Mather), “Anno Agency”, and “Post Partum”.

“BOM” is full of the classic David Ogilvy mythology that has floated around for almost a century. His Celtic heritage, his English public school education and his brief career at Oxford. His work in the British secret service and as a chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris. Selling stoves door-to-door in London and working with George Gallup in Hollywood.

And then the agency begins. And with it, “The Anecdotal Guide to David Ogilvy”. For, as Mr. Roman points out early on, everyone has a “David” story (or at least, everyone of a certain age, I suppose; I know I do), and Mr. Roman has been comprehensive in his collection of them. There’s David picking up the eyepatches on a whim on his way to the Hathaway shoot. There’s him admonishing copywriters from his Rolls Royce, or charming the Amish at his farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Or creating the “one quarter cleansing cream” claim that Dove would use for decades. Or buying a castle in France. And on and on.

That old copywriter F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there were no second acts in American lives; Mr. Roman’s problem with Mr. Ogilvy’s life is that there was no third act. As his involvement in the agency he built waned between the twin millstones of the “creative revolution” and “merger mania”, David Ogilvy was at a loss. And so is Mr. Roman. As such, the last third of this biography drifts, with long sections on the agency going public and WPP’s eventual acquisition of O & M. And while this is interesting history, one finds Mr. Ogilvy a bit player in the dramas – weighing in from France via memos, and making now famous pronouncements on Martin Sorrell’s stature. But clearly on the sidelines.

Indeed by the time Mr. Roman reports on Mr. Ogilvy’s death in July of 1999 at the age of 88, the “King of Madison Avenue” seems an ironic title at best.

So why write a book about David Ogilvy? Because even though most of the people making advertising today could not pick him out of a police line-up, he did change the industry. He, probably more than his heroes Rosser Reeves and Claude Hopkins, made this an industry of intelligence; where smart people could do smart work for which they could be respected. “Mad Men” is not far off the mark when Pete Campbell’s father dismisses him as a mere pimp in an early episode. And you thought being compared to Darrin Stephens was tough.

As such, Mr. Roman’s book can definitely be read as a history of the evolution of Advertising in America in the 20th century, using the life of David Ogilvy both as a connecting thread but also as a vehicle for showing Ogilvy’s impact. Is that what Mr. Roman intended? I’m not sure.

Because there is an unfortunate superficiality here. One would like more about the how. One would have liked Mr. Roman to use his unique access and perspective to provide deeper critical discussion of the work, of how Ogilvy got there, and what it’s lasting importance is. One could argue, I suppose, that this would make the book less appealing to the general public. But let’s be serious – the public cares a lot less about us than we wish they did. “Mad Men” notwithstanding.

And finally, what can we learn? I think a couple of things. First, that we should never underestimate everybody’s need for a “reason to believe”. Ogilvy sold that to his clients with his personal mythology – that he was going to give them something new because he was something new. And he used his famous research – which, it should be noted, had not one whit of bearing on the Hathaway shirt or Schweppes advertising – to help them believe in the work. Give people a reason to believe. Meet them halfway.

The second thing is to keep your eyes open. Part of Ogilvy’s genius was that he understood how advertising after World War Two would reflect – and in a sense, take the place of – the one-on-one salesmanship he understood. Unfortunately, when the nature of the relationship between buyer and seller began to change, Ogilvy’s work began to suffer as well. Mr. Roman does a good job of capturing this.

But perhaps most importantly, one cannot get to the end of Mr. Roman’s biography without a determination to live a life beyond advertising. Mr. Ogilvy was at his most fascinating when he was bringing the curiousity that made his life before advertising, in to advertising. That he should have somehow forgotten this, ending his years as an ornament for an agency he no longer recognized, is tragic.

Or, to paraphrase another Celtic writer, “Cast a cold eye, on life, on death; ad man pass by.”

The King of Madison Avenue by Kenneth Roman was published by St. Martin’s Press on 01/06/2009– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here, – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

 

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