Silence and fury.

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David Ogilvy wrote one of the most famous car advertisements of all time.  An ode to the near silence within a Rolls-Royce, practically every aspiring copywriter knew the headline off by heart.  I know I did.

Many years later, as we faced the fire of the Audi account squad, Martin and I remembered this and presented a variation, fully aware of the original gem. It was intended as an affectionate homage, riffing off the Ogilvy block. We thought the in-joke might appeal.  In truth, the Audi 100 desperately needed some personality, the one member of the Ingolstadt family to have suffered a charisma bypass.  Our ad was approved, despite the clumsy use of the non-specific ‘thing’ word. It ran once or twice in The Observer.  In the photo, it’s actually me sitting in the driving seat.  I wore that noisy 1980s jacket for years afterwards.

Herr Becks

A few days later, John Bartle received a scribbled note through the post.  The writing was scratchy and angry.  There was no doubting who had sent it.  The ‘Page 10’ in the book mentioned is dedicated to that self-same Rolls Royce advertisement.

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Eyebrows shot up around Bartle Bogle Hegarty.  We really hadn’t intended to raise the great man’s ire.  Those capital letters spoke of intense irritation.

David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy in Touffou.

I never actually met David Ogilvy.  I wish I had. I never did find out if he really was that angry.   Twenty years on from that note, I joined the London office of Ogilvy and Mather in Canary Wharf.  Not long after – in one of advertising’s stranger quirks – I became acting managing director of his agency.  I’m not sure he would have recognised it.  Across the O&M offices sprinkled throughout the world, a fanatical devotion to his every word held sway. Each reception was plastered with his quotes, constantly invoked to support all manner of conflicting managerial initiatives.  I’m pretty sure he would have hated their doublespeak interpretations.

There were some brilliant people and moments of real accomplishment.  However, a cocktail of separate companies within the same building made for a cat’s cradle of a business, complicated by reporting lines to different clients, in different countries, and to different ‘hub’ Ogilvy offices.  The sense was often of wrestling with an enemy within, rather than tackling the challenges from without.

In my eight years at the London branch of O&M, one joy was the opportunity to mentor small groups of WPP Fellows.  Across Sir Martin Sorrell’s 400 companies, some 15 to 20 stellar graduates were awarded places each Spring.  They would spend three consecutive years in three of those companies, sometimes changing discipline,  often changing continents.  It made for one of the best career start schemes ever.

The young men and women were selected after multiple interviews with pairs of interrogators. Meeting the shortlisted final forty or so candidates, I was convinced any one of them could have run a country.  Had the roles been reversed, I might just have scraped in as a janitor.

The programme was run by Jon Steel.  WPP’s strategic director, the idea was that he’d manage the Fellows “in his spare time”.  The countless hours he dedicated were hewn from a schedule that left little room to scratch his nose, let alone do normal things, like sleep. Steely was a modest god, blessed with an avuncular manner. He still is.  To this day, I have never heard anybody deliver bad news, a negative critique or a flat rejection as acceptably or empathetically.  You’d dial him in to tell you there are only days left to live.

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Hugh Baillie and Jon Steel in mafia pose, Touffou.

Jon decided that one stop-off during the WPP Fellows’ extraordinary 36 months of induction should be Chateau Touffou, in South West France.  David Ogilvy bought it in 1966.   An 12th Century, moated castle near Poitiers, immaculately restored by his widow, Herta, it is almost as formidably elegant and enchanting as she is.

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Herta and a WPP Fellows tour.

I travelled there with the Fellows, by coach, from Farm Street in Mayfair.  The journey took eleven hours. (Jon viewed the road time as valuably bonding.) The briefing for the pitches that were to happen over the following  days began as we drove away at 5.30am.

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Rory Sutherland. A wiki selfie.

Various luminaries, such as the wonderful Rory Sutherland, the incisive John O’Keeffe or the mind-expanding Tim Hollins, would fly in to help mentor or deliver inspiring talks. I heard Jeremy Bullmore, the sage of J. Walter Thompson and advertising’s greatest philosopher, repeat the same speech, word for word, in separate years. I would pay to hear him deliver it twenty times more.

Between these talks and the hours of debate, diligence and despair, the Fellows were summoned to fabulous four-course meals, lunchtime and evening, lubricated with steady rivers of red wine. By the evening of day three, the assembled would greet the groaning cheese board with the haunted look of religious martyrs. Most would still succumb.  There might not be any sleep ahead, but perhaps there was space for a little more Ă©poisses.

Come the last morning, hollow-eyed and light headed, the teams would present to the invited panel, including the senior client from the business in question.  21st Century marketing presentations would bounce off the 12th Century walls. In the last, sleep-deprived hours beforehand, coherence occasionally proved elusive and egos sometimes clashed, but the majority were eye-wateringly good. Jon and the panel would deliver their verdicts, champions were celebrated, the less successful consoled and, with a flurry of goodbyes and sincere thank-yous to Herta, everyone would depart.

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For my final visit to the chateau, I was housed in the tower across the courtyard. After sitting with my quartet, wrestling with their project through a long night, I crept back for a couple of hours’ sleep. Placing my elderly wristwatch on a chair by the bed that was easily four hundred years old, I stared blearily up at the dark ceiling. In the pre-dawn gloom, a reminder of David Ogilvy’s acute powers of observation slipped gently into my brain.

At 6am, the loudest noise in the Medieval castle came from the ticking of my grandfather’s watch.

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