- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

By Kenneth Roman
Palgrave Macmillan, $27.95, 304 pages

A couple of days before I sat down to write this review, I happened to be surfing on TV when I came across a channel I had never seen before, devoted entirely to the German car manufacturer Audi. Even in a world of niche marketing, the idea of wall-to-wall programs devoted to an up-market German marque still seems a tad extravagant. (I have to admit to being biased, as I happen to have found that Audi drivers are the most arrogant and discourteous people you are likely to come across on Britain’s roads. But that is another story.)

As I was feeling curious (and a little lazy, I must admit) I lingered a while, long enough anyway to watch the beginning of a documentary entirely devoted — believe it or not — to the making of a new TV commercial for one of Audi’s latest cars. I have a horrible feeling that I was one of about four people in the entire United Kingdom tuning in to witness what turned out to be an extended interview with the two “Creative Directors” — young, eager, dressed in downtown chic — who had devised a concept that had something to do with drawing comparisons between the sleek car and a series of cardboard boxes. I am shamefully vague on this point because my eyes glazed over after the first minute or two. Is there not something odd about an industry that takes itself so seriously that its practitioners give themselves the sort of grand, auteurish airs that used to be reserved for Orson Welles?

David Ogilvy, you sense, would have been just as irritated as I was. A details man, he took a dim view of young guns who put clever, showbiz techniques ahead of the business of making a sale. So infuriated was he by the rise of the “creatives” during the unbuttoned 1960s that he banned staff at his company, Ogilvy & Mather, from entering the rather smug awards dinners that are such a staple of the contemporary business. Instead, as Kenneth Roman records, Mr. Ogilvy launched his own prize, which honored results rather than aesthetics: “If you, my fellow copywriters or art directors, want to win the award, devote your genius to making the cash register ring.”

Mr. Ogilvy published a best-selling guide to his profession in 1962. “Confessions of an Advertising Man” is still regarded as a white-collar miniclassic even today. And with “Mad Men” bringing the era of cigarette-fuelled brainstorming sessions and martini lunches back to the small screen, Mr. Roman — former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather — could hardly have chosen a more propitious moment to celebrate the career of a man who was the embodiment of an industry.

Mr. Roman stops short of raising Mr. Ogilvy to the very highest level of the pantheon: He grants that position to the much earthier figure of Bill Bernbach, the soft-spoken Brooklynite who married a sharp eye for detail to a laconic turn of phrase and helped spread the gospel of Volkswagen and many other companies. He was the Picasso of the business, says one admiring executive, in a phrase that exemplifies some of the problems with this book. Advertising may be an important element of the world economy, but we all know there are larger things in life, and Mr. Roman’s hyperbolic, not to say solipsistic narrative becomes wearing after a while. The tone is set in an extraordinarily flat-footed introduction which, as a pitch for its subject, deserves an F-minus. After an opening line that informs us that, in case anyone was not aware, Madison Avenue is synonymous with advertising, Mr. Roman includes a reference to a French magazine that drew up a list of the 30 men who had made the greatest contribution to the Industrial Revolution. David Ogilvy came seventh, although his backers had the good grace to allow Edison, Einstein, Keynes, Marx & Co. to take precedence. A couple of pages later we encounter this:

“One characteristic of geniuses, said Einstein, is that 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.”

Er, yes. Mere mortals, I suppose, would never have thought of doing that. Fortunately, Mr. Roman’s tale gains momentum later, especially after he has ploughed through the obligatory part about family origins, private schooling and Oxford (where Mr. Ogilvy failed to distinguish himself). Restless and ambitious, the young man eventually crosses the Atlantic, uses some networking connections conferred on him by his cousin Rebecca West and begins the slow process of conquering Manhattan. An early stint with Gallup proves a crucial experience, providing a grounding in the unglamorous business of market research.

The Hathaway shirt company was to become one of the early beneficiaries of Mr. Ogilvy’s eye for detail: His fabled man with the eye-patch was to become the stuff of New Yorker cartoons. And if he did not invent the notion of brand image — he admitted to borrowing the idea from an article in the Harvard Business Review — Mr. Ogilvy emerged as its most compelling and charismatic champion. All the while, he worked at an obsessive pace, even returning to the office during theater intervals and leaving his poor wife to fend for herself for the rest of the evening.

It’s a pity there is not more of that sort of evocative “Mad Men”-style detail. But Mr. Roman is, inevitably perhaps, more interested in the mechanics of the industry rather than emotions. Given Mr. Ogilvy’s workaholic tendencies there was probably little scope for more psychological analysis in any case, although the appendix does include some of the great man’s pithy memoranda and notes.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and blogs for the Spectator at www.spectator.co.uk/clivedavis.

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