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Sunday, 18 January 2009

New David Ogilvy biography out now - Tells you what his biography failed to

If you’re interested in perhaps the most influential advertising man ever – which you surely should be - read The King of Madison Avenue, by Ken Roman.

Few people knew David Ogilvy better than Ken, a former CEO of the Ogilvy Group who worked with him for 26 years, and spent several more researching this book, which you can get from Amazon.

You cannot divorce the nature of a man from his achievements. Anyone interested in what made Ogilvy tick - his oddities (quite a few), his failures, his weaknesses, his strengths, his worries, his ambitions, his likes, his hates - will find them here. (He once said to me, by the way, “I may not be a good lover, but I’m a damn good hater.”)

I devoured half the book at a sitting. Besides being well-written it tells me all the things I wanted to know that David’s autobiography - Blood, Brains and Beer - didn’t. That curiously impersonal book disappointed many people, because it dished absolutely no dirt whatsoever.

Why his own book failed

David said he knew it would never do well because “when you write about advertising you’re competing with midgets. When you write an autobiography you’re competing with giants.” The truth is, though, that you want an autobiography to tell you about the face behind the mask, warts and all. That one didn’t; the new one does.

For me, who only knew him in the twilight of his career, the book was full of interest. I always wanted to know about David and women. (The way he left his first wife was extraordinarily unkind – and crazy). I wanted to know what exactly he did in the secret service during the war – and indeed why he never fought. I wanted to know the exact relationship he had with his brilliant elder brother, Francis. I wanted to know whether he worried as much as I do.

Claude Hopkins and John Caples may have made more impact on the nature of advertising and direct marketing. Albert Lasker made far more money. Many think Bill Bernbach’s agency was more “creative”. But nobody – to my mind – had such an influence on so many people.

By no means original

This is even though many of his ideas were not at all original - though he certainly was one of a kind, believe me.

The headline of his most famous advertisement, for Rolls Royce, was almost identical to one run many years earlier by another car maker, Pierce-Arrow. Other people talked about the brand and its image before him. Others – going back to the 19th century - pointed out that advertising should be about selling, not showing off. And still yet others trumpeted the importance of research.

But nobody took these thoughts and theories, reflected on them, elaborated on them, explained them and proposed them so memorably, persuasively, and with such style.

I only ever met two geniuses. Charlie Chaplin was one. David Ogilvy was the other.

Chaplin I literally just met, very briefly, when I was doing publicity for a film. A small man with bright eyes, buried in a navy blue overcoat and a big white scarf, accompanied by a beautiful wife.

But I worked with David Ogilvy for quite a few years towards the end of his career. Indeed, Ken’s research was so diligent he sat me down for an hour in a pub in Mayfair and asked for my reminiscences. Others knew David better, but I got to know him quite well and had some good times with him. This book brought him back to life for me. But it also tells you a great deal about the development of advertising, how to build a successful business –and what bloody hard work it is.

Read it. You can get a good deal on Amazon.co.uk, through it's not yet in stock. If you buy it with Ogilvy on Advertising at Amazon.com you get a healthy discount. And if you haven't read that, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, no: I am not an Amazon affiliate or even a Ken Roman affiliate; I am a financial nincompoop (nice word, eh?)

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