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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


The House That Ogilvy Built

Red-carpeted offices around the world were visible evidence of the culture. Other cultural standards were captured in a welcome booklet for new employees. There were sections on tidiness (nothing should be placed on the tops of file cabinets or on windowsills), customs (writing the word percent rather than using the % sign), and courtesy (answer your own phone). Also, “Paper clips are dangerous. When they are used to fasten papers together, they frequently pick up papers that don’t belong. Staples or bulldog clips are much safer and more efficient.”

Ogilvy built the culture as much by personal example as by philosophy. In 1959, Play of the Week, an icon of civilization on television, was at risk of being canceled. Broadcast on Channel 13, New York’s public television station, the show offered high-quality theater week after week — including works by such writers as Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, and Jean-Paul Sartre, with top talent. But the ratings were low, and sponsors were dropping out.

Ogilvy was looking for a television opportunity for his client Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (then known in the industry as “Jersey,” and later to be renamed Exxon). The company was headed by Monroe (Mike) Rathbone, who had become a friend. They worked well together. Now they had a chance to do a good thing together. Rathbone wanted to sponsor a television program that would reflect “Jersey’s” own high standards and prestige (it was the second-biggest industrial company in the world) and was not about to share the stage with TV spots for yogurts, bras, and denture cleansers. Ogilvy agreed and told the sponsors at Channel 13 he thought he could find a single company to underwrite the whole program — but only the whole program.

People at the agency and at Channel 13 went to work to persuade the few remaining underwriters to swap their spots for another program or simply cancel, so the show could go on. Company after company and agency after agency responded favorably — with one exception. Representatives of the agency Lennen & Newell Inc., which had bought one or two spots for the Lorillard Tobacco Company, balked at the request, arguing that they had made a good buy, their sole responsibility was to their client, and they would hold Channel 13 to its contract.

Ogilvy stepped in, calling a Lennen & Newell executive he knew. He went through the history of the project and made every argument he could think of, including an appeal to public spirit: It was “in the national interest” that Play of the Week should survive. The executive said he could not interfere and hung up. The program appeared to be doomed. Ogilvy sat for a moment, then picked up the phone and got the Lennen & Newell man back on the line.“

Go to your chairman immediately. Tell him that our agency will pay Lennen & Newell all the commission that will accrue [to Ogilvy & Mather] from Play of the Week sponsorship over the next two years. I will wait for your answer.”

Within five minutes, the executive was back. “You’ve got a deal.”

Gone were protestations of representing client interests. Gone were arguments about the value of the spots. Gone was any semblance of honor for the Lennen & Newell agency. But Play of the Week survived, its rescue front-page news in the New York Times. Life magazine said if there were a congressional medal for business, it should go to Standard Oil. The New York Post credited Ogilvy with the decisive role, saying his heroic save would “enshrine him in the hearts of the literate public at which he has often aimed his commercial arrows.” The tone was set at the top.

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