PR could use a man like David Ogilvy

The public relations industry has founding fathers (i.e. Bernays, Page and Lee). And, lord knows, we've had builders (i.e. Hill, Golin, Byoir and, of course, Burson). But, we've never had a true leader or statesman along the lines of advertising's legendary David Ogilvy.


Adweek recently honored the iconic adman, who would have turned 100 this past week. In addition to being a prolific writer (his 'confessions of an advertising man' remains a must read for ANY marcom wanna-be), Ogilvy rose from rags to riches and changed advertising in a profound and fundamental way.

As Michael Wolff's profile states, Ogilvy arrived on the advertising scene just after World War II. But, saying he arrived is like saying a tornado visited Kansas. Ogilvy roared into Manhattan with an entirely new POV, a brand new set of rules and an idea of what an adman should be (name any PR executive who has accomplished even one of the three). In fact, Wolff likened Ogilvy to being the Steve Jobs of advertising.

Some of Ogilvy's seminal thoughts included:

 - 'The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Don't insult her intelligence.' (Note: The same holds true today, but for my gender. Just about every ad and commercial on TV insults the intelligence of men).

 - 'Bad advertising can unsell a product.' (Note: The folks at Comcast should take that piece of advice to heart before launching the next 'Comcastic' campaign).

– 'You cannot bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them in buying it.' (Note: the late Mr. Ogilvy would turn over in his grave if he read the headline of just about any press release announcing a new software product).

– 'Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters and rebels.' (Note: All three are an endangered species at holding company PR firms).

Ogilvy was also famous for calling the CEO of the holding company that eventually purchased his firm, '…an odious little shit.' Ah, such honesty.

The public relations industry finds itself in an enviable position today as social media continues to unwind traditional communications channels. As Ogilvy's advertising successors find their massive campaigns being slashed and burned PR, with its innate ability to 'understand the conversation', is in the perfect position to scoop up the billings.

But, make no mistake. We don't have anyone remotely close to a David Ogilvy to put it all in context and provide that rare mix of vision, rules and advocacy. I think there are two reasons why:

– CEOs of holding company PR firms are justifiably afraid to say anything that would undermine other marketing services within the conglomerate.

– CEOs of the large independent firms are too busy selling new business to step back and reflect on the larger meaning of it all.

Advertising was blessed to have had a David Ogilvy. He was in the right spot at the right time and elevated his profession to an art form. PR is at a similar crossroads. We have a rare opportunity to leapfrog the other professions and firmly establish ourselves as the 'go-to' medium in the second decade of the 21st century. All we're lacking is a gutsy, gifted visionary with a bully pulpit.

Maybe The Council of PR Firms should take a page out of the advertising playbook and place a help wanted ad. Here's my suggested copy.

'Wanted: A gifted leader with superb oral and written skills, an intrinsic understanding of the consumer mindset and a willingness to ruffle feathers as she/he elevates the PR profession in the process. Salary and perks negotiable.'


6 thoughts on “PR could use a man like David Ogilvy

  1. A gutsy, gifted visionary who can provide that rare mix of vision, rules and advocacy…what about Penchansky?

  2. Thanks Book. Much appreciated. I think you’ll really enjoy tomorrow’s Repman. It features a TV commercial that I think would make poor Mr Ogilvy turn in his grave.