The Father of Advertising: The Early Years of David Ogilvy

In 1975, he was called by Time Magazine “the most sought-after wizard in the advertising industry.” David Ogilvy wasn’t always the advertising wizard he later became. From serving in the army as a British Intelligence officer, to being a traveling salesman, to working as a hotel chef, Ogilvy took the long road to success.

That road began on June 23, 1911, when David Mackenzie Ogilvy was born in Surrey, England, to a financial broker and classics scholar. He studied at Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland, after which time he won a scholarship to study history at Christ Church College in Oxford, England. The scholarship was badly needed, since his father’s business was suffering the effects of the depression.

However, Ogilvy would never graduate from Christ Church, and in 1931, he left Oxford for Paris, where he became an apprentice chef at the Majestic Hotel. Although he admits to learning discipline and management working as a chef, Ogilvy says of the experience, “If I stayed at the Majestic I would have faced years of slave wages, fiendish pressure, and perpetual exhaustion.”

After one year in Paris, Ogilvy knew it was time to move on. With that, he returned to England, where he was hired by AGA to sell their cooking stoves door-to-door. For the first time, Ogilvy began to shine. His success in selling AGA stoves to everyone from nuns to drunkards made his employer take notice; Ogilvy was asked to write an instruction manual for other AGA salesmen. “The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA cooker” is still hailed by Fortune magazine as “probably the best sales manual ever written.”

At the time the manual was published, Ogilvy’s brother, Francis Ogilvy, was working for the London-based advertising agency Mather & Crowther. Francis showed the manual to his bosses, who promptly hired Ogilvy as one of their account executives. In 1938, Ogilvy persuaded the firm to send him to the U.S. for a year; he would wind up staying much longer.

Ogilvy immigrated to New Jersey, where he went to work for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute. He would spend the next three years traveling the world on behalf of Gallup’s clients. It was during this time that Ogilvy claims to have learned the importance of meticulous research methods and an adherence to reality.

Ogilvy’s career was climbing. But, at the onset of World War II, Ogilvy left Gallup to work with the Intelligence Service at the British Embassy in Washington. Again, Ogilvy excelled in the position, using his knowledge of human behaviour and “applying the Gallup technique to fields of secret intelligence.”

Following the war, Ogilvy purchased a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife lived among the Amish. He enjoyed the atmosphere of “serenity, abundance, and contentment,” but after a few years of admittedly limited success as a farmer, Ogilvy moved back to New York. He had worked as a researcher, a chef, a salesman, and a farmer, and he was now ready to try something new. New York would prove to be the perfect setting for Ogilvy to flourish in.

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