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|July 26, 1999||
Former O&M (India) CEO Mani Ayer remembers the advertising legend who passed into the ages last week
My first contact with David Ogilvy was not in person. The Indian company that I was working with was a part of another organisation called S H Benson, which was a British agency. Ogilvy and Mather bought it over in 1971. As a result of the takeover, I was sent off to Australia to work with Ogilvy for a couple of years. I returned to Bombay as the managing director of O&M in 1974.
On my second day in office, there was a letter from David Ogilvy addressed to me. He was still the chairman of the worldwide company then. In that letter, he said, "We greet you on your return to India. We salute you on becoming the MD of O&M in India. I have heard a lot about you from Australia. I am sure it will be very difficult for you to relate all what you saw and observed in Australia to the conditions in your own country. I do hope that your Australian experience is going to stand you in good stead back in India. I wish you the very best."
Remember, I had never met him before. Of course, I had read about him a lot. I also had read his book, Confessions of an Advertising Man even before I became a part of O&M. So, a letter like that was a bit of a surprise. I did not expect him to write to me particularly because the company in India was a very small one and there was not much money to be made here. Those were the great days of socialism in our country.
My previous experience with S H Benson was totally different. They did not care much about our existence. They were happy as long as we were not a drain on their money. So, the letter from Ogilvy was a welcome change in the cultural difference between Ogilvy and the previous owners.
After that, he used to write letters, memos, handwritten notes, pencil notes occasionally, commenting on how we were doing. Generally they were brief and to the point. In those days, we were losing money. He kept track of all the arms of the company worldwide, about how they were faring. He was very encouraging in his letters. So, that was my first contact with David Ogilvy.
I met him in 1976 in New York where all the heads of the offices met. This was two years after I became the head of the Indian company. Because I had read his books and because I had been corresponding with him, I somehow felt I knew him although I had not met him before. So, when I was introduced to him formally, it was like meeting someone I knew.
At the meeting, all of us were given two minutes to say something about our country. At the end of it, Ogilvy thought Brazil's was a smart presentation and the presentation from India was the most civilised one! I still remember what I said, "Yes, we are a poor country but we have a lot of pride in our country and ourselves. Poverty does not mean that you should not be proud of your abilities. In terms of skill, we are second to none. What we really lack is technology. Today, it looks as though India does not count and India perhaps also feels it can stay inside the cocoon cutting from the rest of the world. But the truth is, even in India, we are going to need technology some day and that technology will only come from the West. And when that happens, the picture will change completely."
At the end of the meeting, he merely asked me, "Do you really believe that?" I said, "I believe it". He used to pull my leg thereafter asking me, "Are you still waiting for the technology to come?"
He was a very warm, very sensitive man, very observant, had great sense of humour and very quick-witted. He would pick your brains without you knowing it. The best quality about him was that he never pretended as though he had all the answers to everything and his word was the final word -- never. He comes through as very autocratic in his books but that is because he was very firm in his views. The way he put his views across, he was very overbearing sometimes. But he said that on the strength of his conviction and knowledge. He was willing to listen to your point of view. We got along very well.
Subsequently when he became the chairman of O&M (India), he used to come to India and spend 50, 60 days here. And we used to travel across the country by train. Thus, I got to know him very well.
He was a very good travelling companion and it was a strange kind of experience when you were travelling with him by train. Just imagine a two nights and one day journey from Calcutta to Bombay! It was very long. He would sometimes sit by the window, merely looking outside, and would leave you to read a book. But suddenly he would make a remark on something or the other or he would ask you a question or he would crack a joke on an incident that happened while travelling somewhere else in the world.
There were moments of silence and then there were times we talked for a long time. The train stopped at very few stations but he had this habit of getting down at every station during the day. He would alight every station and walk on the platform, and I used to feel very scared because in some stations, the train stopped for only a couple of minutes. Once I remember, he had to run and catch the train.
He was quite amazed at the fact that what looked like a rickety train, in fact, traversed right across from one end of India to the other and took us there safely! At least those days, accidents were rare. He felt the technology used by the Indian Railways was rather primitive but they functioned very effectively.
When he was in India, he had food at my place several times but he did not care much about Indian food. As far as food was concerned, he was a difficult customer. In India, he generally tended to stay a vegetarian and that was because he was told by many to remain so. Actually, the first time when he came, people told me that he would be a tough man to deal with, very fussy but I did not find him all that.
As long as he had some work to do, there was no problem with him at all. He was very fond of chocolates, cheese and mayonnaise. He loved mayonnaise so much that he could eat jars of it. And he liked boiled eggs. So, we used to keep plenty of chocolates, cheese, mayonnaise, boiled eggs and bottles of wine or beer!
He had a lot of feelings for India. He often wondered about the way people feel when they see advertisements of things they could not afford to buy. He used to feel very disturbed by the poverty, filth and squalor that he saw on the wayside. So we saw to it that he landed in Delhi and Bombay only during night!
He believed that Indians are a very intelligent race, that Indians lived in different levels. He used to say that India has migrated to the USA in a very different fashion, right from the top and not from the bottom.
When he came to India in 1982, he was 71 and had been a legend for decades. The ad industry in India looked at him in awe. Because he was held in awe in India, he felt he ought not to break the barrier and approach them.
He always liked the company of young people and he was not interested in the company of older people. He also liked the company of young women, beautiful Indian women. He was more interested in hearing what the young people had to say and not what I had to say! He used to pick their brains too. I have never seen him behaving rudely to others, never. Yes, he had his vanities. After all, all big menů.
He had a fantastic sense of humour and I think I can narrate a lot of incidents. Being a copywriter, Ogilvy did not have much regard for art directors. One famous story goes like this: in New York, one of the theatre directors was escorting a person to the lift holding him by hand. He asked somebody, "Who is that?" That fellow said, "He's blind. That is why he has been helped to enter the lift." Ogilvy said immediately, "Oh God, don't tell me this theatre director is going to have an art director now!"
He used to tell me quite often, "Nobody in his right senses would pretend to give you orders, least of all me. I can only make a few suggestions to you!"
The biggest quality of David Ogilvy, which was quite remarkable, was his willingness to share and disseminate knowledge. He also had the willingness to listen to what you have to say and then reorient his own thinking. I have not come across anyone like him, at least in this profession.
He was the only man who took pains to write what he knew because he wanted to share his knowledge. That is why he stands out. He was like a huge bloating paper, which has bloated a lot over the years and he was willing to share all that with the others. I have seen a lot of people who are brilliant but do not have this quality. He will definitely be remembered for the books that he has written, for his views and outlook.
I worked quite closely with David Ogilvy. I also worked closely with a man called Bobby Bevan who ran S H Benson & Hedges. S H Benson was England's top agency for many, many years. Bevan was a real autocrat, very snobbish, insular Englishman and Ogilvy was in awe of Bevan. Ogilvy told me once, "I was in awe of him but Bevan never took notice of me!"
Strangely, I worked with Bevan during my time in London and I developed a friendship with him too. That was before I got to know Ogilvy. So, in a way, I worked with two very creative, well-known people. Bevan was not a man who would share his experience or knowledge with you. He was an intellectual and came from a well-known family of painters and he preferred to live like an aristocrat.
But David felt that knowledge and discipline were the basis of everything. He strongly held the view that if you did not understand the past, you would be condemned to relive it. "So, why not understand the past?" he used to ask. He felt, if you understood the past, you would also understand what did not work and what worked.
He had no time for hype; he detested it. He had no time for superficiality either. He did not give much credence to people who go on researching everything from top to bottom although he began as a researcher. People know him as a copywriter but not many know that he was a researcher first. Still he said, research is illumination but it can't take decisions for you. Yes, he was a complicated man, very moody too. But his opinions about people were never frozen.
He was a creative man, basically a wonderful copywriter. As late as 1992 also, he told me that if anybody were to remember me, I would like him or her to remember me as just a copywriter. His visiting card said, David Ogilvy, copywriter.
But what made him a legend were his ideas. Yes, he was a man of ideas and he could communicate his ideas with telling effect. He also did it with great style. All his earlier ads had a lot of flair and style. And that reflected the man himself.
He had tremendous amount of style, flair and quickwittedness. If he walked into a room, automatically all people turned to him. There is a picture of him on one of the walls of my house. He stands outside his castle in Touffou in France. A bicycle is in the background. The picture was shot after he was back from cycling. There he stands, in a casual yet stylish way. The man had style!
Like every big man, Ogilvy had his own fads. He hated flying. He never liked people receiving him or seeing him off. He did not mind a car receiving him. He hated saying good byes.
I remember once we had lunch at Ritz in Paris and after that we were walking down to take a subway train. We just crossed the road and suddenly he said, "okay" and went off. Finished. He hated to say good bye.
After I retired from O&M and joined another firm, he wrote to me: "I envy you, as you have been able to detach yourself from O&M. Unfortunately, I can't. It is even worse, because they can do without me!"
Mani Ayer spoke to Shobha Warrier in Madras.
Mani Ayer's photograph by Sanjay Ghosh
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