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Roman Times
A conversation with former Ogilvy & Mather chairman and chief executive Ken Roman.

What is the most important thing to understand about brand identity today?

I’m not sure that there’s anything new or special you should understand about brand identity today versus yesterday. Brand identity is brand identity.

There are more ways to express brand identity because of the proliferation of media — many more than there used to be. New media come in but old media don’t go away.

The other big thing is the fragmentation and segmentation of audiences. Technology enables you to reach people individually, and therefore you can have multiple audiences where you used to have only a mass audience. But what hasn’t changed is the clear, appropriate, relevant and compelling message involving brand identity.

Is social media a game changer for brand identity?

No. I don’t think it’s a game changer. I think it adds to the mix and enables you to reach more people with a message that’s relevant to them.

Every new medium enables you to reach more people. Go back to radio. When TV came in, everyone said radio was dead. Well, not exactly. I remember telling my media guys that we needed to reach people who liked country music, and they told me there were 22 different types of country radio stations.

So, talk about fragmentation — and this was 100 years ago. This will continue to accelerate. We’re going to wake up five years from now and say, my goodness, all we had was Facebook and LinkedIn and a couple of other things. We have 40 social-media sites now.

Which brands do you most admire for their strong identities?

One that I was pretty close to for a long time was American Express, which started in the travel business, then went into the travelers’ check business, then the card business.

They started with a green card, and then they added the gold card, a platinum card, a blue card, a debit card and a black card. Then they added a corporate card and a small-business card.

You see what they did? They proliferated those cards and the audiences. But American Express has, at its heart, a clear identity of its brand. They used to call it PSS — Prestige, Service, Security. That’s a clear statement of brand identity.

Did Amex’s use of media also change?

They pioneered cause-related marketing. That’s a medium. They tied in with the local businesses, so that if you used your American Express card they gave money to the San Diego Zoo, for example. Then they took that national by supporting the re-building of the Statue of Liberty. This was before social marketing by a long time. I’m an old fart, so you can discount at least 90 percent of what I say.

How did you get into the advertising business?

I didn’t intend to. I wanted to go into the newspaper business, but it was 1962 and newspapers were going out of business. I was 32 years old, with a wife and a young child, but decided to take a chance and started at the bottom at Ogilvy & Mather as an account executive.

I’ll put it another way. When people came in to me for interviews and said that they majored in advertising at college, I’d say, “You did what? You wasted a college career on something we could teach you in six to eight weeks!”

I was looking for someone with a well-furnished mind who had broad experiences. Advertising is a business about ideas and putting those ideas together to build bigger ideas. The techniques of the business are really simple, but bringing a broad range of knowledge, that’s a different game. So, I never liked hiring advertising majors.

Would David Ogilvy be happy with the state of brand-building today?

Well, first of all, he would be thrilled that we’re still talking about it. He put branding on the map. He gave a speech in 1955 about branding. He didn’t invent the word; he picked it out of an academic magazine and started giving speeches about it.

Would he have understood how it’s being implemented today? Not a prayer. David didn’t even use a typewriter. He wasn’t quite sure how to turn on his television set. What he did understand were the principles of a brand image and how you contribute to brand image.

He really believed in direct mail and direct marketing. That came out of his career as a salesman. He sold cooking stoves door-to-door in Scotland in the depths of the Depression. He said, “No sale, no commission; no commission, no eat.” He really believed in advertising for results.

He also believed in long copy. Do consumers still have the attention span for that?

He believed lots of facts were needed sometimes to make a sale. The principle was that if you’re going to spend a lot of money, you’ll want to read a lot about the product. Do you want to read a lot about your toothpaste? Probably not. But if you’re going to buy a very expensive car, you really want to know more about it.

He famously said, “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”

Isn’t that great? You wouldn’t lie to your wife, don’t lie to mine! Don’t insult her intelligence. He was, to some extent, the first consumerist.

What was the most important lesson you learned from David Ogilvy?

One lesson is that he really cared about people and he built an agency that really cared. We had the most productive culture at that place.

He also believed in putting the client first. We never put profit first. He believed in focusing on whether we were getting results for our clients.

What was he like to work with?

He was a fun guy. He was convinced that the best creative organizations were fun places to work. In the great scientific labs, he said the scientists were always playing practical jokes on each other. It was unpredictable working around him and it was fun working with him. People loved working there.

Do you have a favorite story about him?

There are so many stories, but here’s a fun one: At one point we bought one of the hottest agencies at the time, Scali, McCabe & Sloves. But Scali didn’t like reporting directly to Ogilvy & Mather, which was also their competitor.

So, at one meeting I turned to David and suggested that maybe we ought to have a different name for the parent company to keep these guys happy.

David looked at me and said, “It’s a terrible mistake to change a company’s name. I will fight it with every ounce of my breath!” He slammed his fist down, and then he said, “But if you do change it, you don’t need Mather.”

Who was Mather?

Mather is from Mather & Crowther, one of the agencies in England that put up the money to send David to the US to start an agency. We ended up buying them out after we got bigger.

What was David Ogilvy’s greatest contribution?

He changed the business more than any other single person, I believe. He brought brand image into the business. He proselytized for direct marketing. He campaigned for good taste in advertising.

He brought consumer research into advertising to the extent that the Advertising Research Foundation gives an award in his name every year. He is the only general advertising man in the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame.

So, I would make the case that he changed the business more than any other person. The concept of brand identity was launched by him and popularized by him, and I don’t think it has changed in its essence since. Nor do I think it should.

ken roman
KEN ROMAN is a former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. His biography of David Ogilvy, The King of Madison Avenue, was published in 2009. He has co-authored two business classics, How to Advertise and Writing That Works.

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