With cigarettes, seductive secretaries and two martini lunches, television’s hit series Mad Men has distilled life on Madison Avenue in the 1960s into a colorful package—but one that only tells half the story. Longtime Nantucket summer resident, Ken Roman, former chairman of the legendary ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, describes life as a real mad man working for the greatest ad man of all time and inspiration for the TV series, David Ogilvy.
With an early taste of media as the editor of Dartmouth College’s newspaper, Roman packed his bags and headed to the world of public relations. At the age of thirty-two, he landed a job at
Ogilvy & Mather, initially working on the General Foods account. As he rose through the ranks, Roman’s team managed brands that included American Express, Huggies, Dove, Shake ’n Bake, Maxwell House and Barbie.
According to Roman, working for David Ogilvy was inspirational. Roman recalls how Ogilvy had a gift as a manager by taking simple messages and making them unforgettable. He recounts a meeting where Ogilvy dramatized his desire for his team to hire people better and smarter than they by bringing out a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls. Opening the nesting dolls until the smallest doll appeared, Ogilvy made the point that when managers hire beneath them, the quality of the employee continues to shrink. In another meeting, Ogilvy expressed his disdain for committees: “Search your parks in all your cities, you’ll find no
statues of committees.”
So impressed was Roman with Ogilvy that he decided to write a book about his management style and
colorful past entitled, The King of Madison Avenue. Listed as a top ten read by Business Week, Roman’s account explores the genius of David Ogilvy as well as taking the reader into the glory days of advertising. The following is an excerpt from Roman’s book, which describes
the life and times of America’s original mad man.
TO UNDERSTAND THE MAN, one has to grasp first that Ogilvy was an actor. There was a theatrical delivery to his cul- tured English accent. He had a sense of center stage and a sure instinct for the memorable gesture. When he spotted his octogenarian client Helena Rubinstein getting out of her car near a puddle, he ran across the street to lay down his jacket for her to walk on. He made his points with dramatic flourish and often dressed for his parts. At black-tie events, he might show up in a kilt. “Perhaps a bit of self-advertisement,” he explained. “If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope do you have of being able to advertise anything else?”
He had the actor’s gift of entrances and exits. Instead of coming into a conference hall while the chairman of another agency was speaking, Ogilvy waited until the man had finished and gone, so all eyes would turn to him. A speech consultant considered his showmanship in so little need of improvement that if he came to her for help, she’d tell him, go home! He was driven around New York in a Rolls-Royce before many were around. It was quite a show.
Ogilvy was not above embellishing his picaresque life story. He told the head of British American Tobacco that his first job had been with BAT. A few months later, he told another CEO that his first job had been with that man’s company. It was all part of selling himself. Ogilvy’s trouble, wrote Printer’s Ink, is that “he is overcome by an irresistible impulse to say what he thinks will make good listening or good reading. The impulse makes him add things, so he never tells the same story twice: it’s almost the same—but it has been adorned a little.” Like any actor, he wanted to give himself better lines.
One characteristic of geniuses, said Einstein, is they are passionately curious. Ogilvy’s great secret was an inquiring mind. In conversation, he never pontificated; he interrogated. At dinner with a copywriter and her husband who worked in the oil business, Ogilvy quizzed the man at length about the oil situation in the Middle East. He queried the 15-year-old daughter of
an executive about playing the flute in the school band. “How many flutes? How many piccolos? Why are there always so many more flutes than piccolos?” A woman who sat next to him at dinner said that by dessert, he knew more about her than her mother. At another level, he was an inveterate gossip. He would pump people for information. “Give me the dirt.” “What do you think of Blank? Is he up to the job?”
A zealous student of the business, Ogilvy claimed he had read every book about advertising—and disdained others who felt they didn’t need his knowledge. There were piles of books all over his house, most about successful leaders in business and government. He was interested in how they used their leadership. How they made their money. And particularly how rich people used their wealth.
He knew a lot about a lot of things, and used his knowledge to establish a common ground with a wide variety of people. Talking with the British Philatelic Bureau, a
client in London, Ogilvy asked, “Tell me, what ever happened to George V’s stamp collection?” He loved Mozart, Brahms, and the Baroque composer Henry Purcell, and went often to New York Philharmonic orchestra concerts. Once he corrected a creative group on their use of a line from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Another time he put a prospective hire at ease with a discussion of abstract painting and politics in Czechoslovakia. But “culture” bored him. His comment on an agonizingly long French documentary film: “My bum fell asleep.”
Like most snobs, Ogilvy loved to name-drop. According to him, one of his friends in Chicago was a former king of Yugoslavia. He enjoyed telling colleagues he was going to dine with the king. “If there’s anything David likes, it’s royalty,” says a friend, “ and a king is best.”… Almost everyone felt that his wit and charm outweighed his occasional rude- ness. “He was famous for his eccentricities,” conceded David McCall, one of Ogilvy’s successors as the agency’s copy chief, “but it was the orthodoxy of his working mind that made him an irreplaceable pioneer in a
business that needed him badly.”
Reprinted with permission by Kenneth Roman.