FEATURE1 May 2008

Ogilvy on research – Research on Ogilvy

We asked Virtual Surveys’ Jon Beaumont to review BBC Four’s documentary on the life and work of David Ogilvy. Does the research business still have lessons to learn from this most gifted of ad men?

I knew a little about David Ogilvy having read ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’, but was keen to know more about the ‘father of modern advertising’. ‘Original Mad Man’ on BBC Four did not disappoint.

It was a portrait of Ogilvy’s life, presenting a restless man who came late to a career in advertising, but whose creative genius and search for perfection led to greatness, both for his agency and himself. Interestingly, his thinking and philosophy, although focused on advertising, can still be applied in the field of market research today, particularly the lessons illustrated in the programme and detailed in this article.

It featured a revelatory mix of archive footage of Ogilvy, along with reminiscences from family and colleagues.

The early underachiever
Ogilvy was born in 1911 and grew up in poverty in Scotland. His father was a failed businessman, his mother ambitious, eccentric and highly intelligent. Both influenced him: his father’s failure drove his desire for success, aided by traits inherited from his mother. The programme featured some fantastic footage and soundbites from Ogilvy, including a description of himself growing up “to think I was a boob”.

The serial careerist
You get the sense that Ogilvy’s unhappy youth spurred him on to seek happiness and intellectual stimulation through a succession of diverse careers. ‘Original Mad Man’ (derived from Madison Avenue) successfully described these careers as lessons learnt, each underpinning Ogilvy’s later philosophy in advertising. It was fascinating, illuminating and inspirational, particularly for a market researcher.

Lesson 1: “Perfection at all costs”

Ogilvy’s first job was as a chef in France and it was here that Ogilvy learnt that perfection, hard work, excellence and discipline were all key ingredients to success. I think it is fair to summarise these qualities under the banner of “rigour”, which was fundamental to Ogilvy and advertising, but equally as important in market research today. It should be the bedrock upon which we conduct and deliver great research. Note: the “perfection at all costs” lesson is slightly at odds with Ogilvy’s own writing – see box overleaf. My guess would be that he strove for perfection, but actionability would trump it.

Lesson 2: “Respect the customer”

From France Ogilvy returned to Scotland to take up a job selling Aga cookers. He was a natural salesman and analytical in how he sold, leading him to author the Aga sales manual, still hailed as the best of its kind by Fortune Magazine. To Ogilvy “the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence”. I currently see this philosophy driving the development of Research 2.0 initiatives such as online communities. These offer a more collaborative, engaging and respectful way to work with customers.

Lesson 3: “Research! Research! Research!”

In 1938 Ogilvy went to America to work for Gallup. Shelly Lazarus, current head of Ogilvy & Mather, suggested that this period in his life meant “he never stopped thinking ‘what does the consumer think?’” To this day the ARF David Ogilvy awards celebrate market research and its ability to guide the creation of advertising that taps into consumer needs and desires. The programme was a reminder that what we do as researchers has a pivotal role in improving our lives as consumers.

Lesson 4: “Predicting what the consumer will want next”

Ogilvy developed research at Gallup that could foretell the success of a film according to a number of factors including its stars; he had witnessed the predictive power of research. Unfortunately, Ogilvy was pushed out of Hollywood by the stars who felt threatened by his findings. As researchers we need to realise that not all stakeholders will like the results we deliver. Our best defence is rigour and what Ogilvy called “intellectual honesty”.

The father of modern advertising
What impresses about Ogilvy’s entry into the world of advertising is his unflinching self-belief and the extent to which his earlier experiences moulded his unconventional but highly effective approach to advertising.

When Ogilvy set up his own small agency in Madison Avenue the USA was experiencing the biggest consumer boom in history. Ogilvy, a minnow among whales, had a clear vision on how to succeed in the boom. He sought “gentlemen with brains”, and set himself what seemed impossible client targets including Shell and Lever Brothers.

Ogilvy pioneered a soft-sell approach, stressing consumer benefits, infusing products with personalities and seeking what he called a burr of singularity, a big idea. The burr of singularity that propelled Ogilvy into the limelight was his ad for Hathaway shirts. On his way to the photo shoot, Ogilvy stopped off at a chemist, looking for something to make the ad “pop”. He found it – an eyepatch for the “man in the Hathaway shirt” to wear. It drew the reader’s eye, suggesting intrigue and glamour. (If you take a look at the photo of Ogilvy on the previous page, you can see the ad on the wall behind him).

Ogilvy used creative flair and homework (research) to make advertising that sold products. This ensured that Ogilvy & Mather grew rapidly throughout the 50s and 60s, creating memorable campaigns for clients such as Campbell Soups, Rolls-Royce and Shell (one of his original targets). Market research agency owners or managers would do well to study Ogilvy’s route to success.

By combining intellectual rigour with creative flair, by not fearing to be different and by aiming high, he generated his own success.

He hired great people and treated them well, but was quick to criticise and even fire if they did not meet his exacting standards. Even his own son was not immune to his father’s fastidious attention to detail: his letters home were returned with errors highlighted in red ink.

By the mid-1960s Ogilvy had moved into management and by the early 70s had “retired” to a chateau in rural France (although he was still involved in Ogilvy & Mather as Chairman and Father Figure). He died in 1999.

Ogilvy said: “I’d like to be remembered as a copywriter who had big ideas. That’s what the advertising business is about, big ideas.” Well, that’s certainly the impression I got of him from this informative and entertaining programme: a man whose first 40 years were training for creating the big ideas in advertising. A man whose life experiences translated into an intense passion and genius for creating great advertising that, like him, will be remembered and revered for many years to come.

Ogilvy on researchers
‘David Ogilvy – Original Mad Man’ prompted me to return to his seminal ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’. Ogilvy truly valued research, but he cites nine gripes he has with researchers. These are worth considering as they are still relevant. He complains that researchers….

1. Take too long to answer a few simple questions: “they are natural slowpokes”

2. Cannot agree on methodology

3. Are too interested in sociology and economics, not advertising (this is specific to Ogilvy’s field)

4. Have little or no system for retrieving research which has already been conducted

5. Are too faddish; some techniques are useful, but still go out of fashion

6. Use graphs that are incomprehensible to laymen

7. Refuse to undertake projects which they consider imperfect, even when the project would produce actionable results. Quoting Winston Churchill; ‘PERFECTIONISM is spelled PARALYSIS’

8. Lack initiative i.e. only do what they are asked for

9. Use pretentious jargon

In the first episode of Mad Men (now half way through its run on BBC Four) Madison Avenue creative Don Draper needs to come up, by the next day, with something big for his client Lucky Strike. It’s 1960, the Reader’s Digest is suggesting a link between cigarettes and disease, and Draper has nothing to pitch. Enter market research. In a series whose other characters are subtly realised, market research is embodied in a cartoonish psychoanalyst in a frump suit. She looks a little like Rosa Klebb, apparently on leave from Russia With Love. With a clipboard.

Her report is unusable but its horrified rejection by the Lucky Stripe chiefs sparks a lightbulb moment in Draper. As everyone marketing tobacco is in the same boat, “This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want.”

Out: the reductive, discredited science in the Klebb figure’s report. In: Draper’s spontaneous – perhaps meaningless – insight.

Later, we see a viewing facility try-out of a failing lipstick brand. On one side of the glass are the women respondents puckering up into the mirror; on the other the ad men, frat party voyeurs gargling bourbon. But two of the women are looking through the glass with wiser things on their minds. Will their new, different takes on sex and ambition damage this early-prototype glass ceiling? Mad Men is less interested in examining that tension than it is in immersing itself in the sheen and movement of the imagined times.

Stefan Leszczuk

May | 2008