Miles Young: How advertising can regain its swagger

Having stepped down from the industry after 40 years to become warden of his alma mater, New College, Oxford, Ogilvy & Mather's former global chairman and chief executive reminisces about the 'bad men' years, ruminates on today's challenges and proposes how adland can regain its swagger.

A few weeks ago, I spent two days in Canberra with Michael Ball. Michael was living with zest and courage well beyond his doctor’s expectations, but sadly has just succumbed to the cancer that had shadowed him for years. Over dinner, he described an early visit to Ogilvy, Benson & Mather. He arrived in the morning, checked into the Savoy, changed, walked around to the office, had a 20-minute meeting with the man who ran Shell, was taken to the bar for gins, was joined by Francis Ogilvy, who, at two o’clock, suggested lunch, ate lunch all afternoon, with many bottles of wine, adjourned to drink Dom Perignon till 11, moved at Francis’ direction to Claridge’s, ate "pheasant under glass", drank more claret, moved to a nightclub and, as dawn touched the Thames, stumbled back to the Savoy. Bad men!

In the late 1970s, joining Lintas: London, it still felt like that. I remember Les Bateman, the media director and my mentor, guiding me back to the office from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese after my first liquid lunch and saying: "Miles, please don’t forget the advice I’m about to give you." (Pause, while he gathered breath.) "Don’t ever phone or take a call from a client after lunch."

In those bad old days, salaries were low (I still have my first payslip from Lintas – at $2,800 per year, nothing like as much as my peers who went into the City). Perks were sky-high, as was the assumption of a glamorous lifestyle.

The first time I ordered a lunch from the client dining room, the chef (for it was he who was sitting in my office, notepad in hand) said: "And what will you be wanting for the centrepiece, sir?" I stalled, not knowing what to say. "The ice sculpture…?", he prompted helpfully. And so I learned that we did indeed have an ice sculptor – with a 48-hour lead time – who ravished our clients with his techniques. He also worked in lard and, during our failed pitch to the New Zealand Meat Marketing Board, sculpted a lamb. Our proposals seemed not to have delighted the clients, but that frisking lamb certainly did. 

My rotation started in typography, where a typo-grapher called Richard Hotten alternatively cajoled and shamed me into learning about type. Thanks to him, I became quite fanatic about it: to this day, nothing annoys me more than poor use of type. 

Soon, I was in front of clients. My father found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that a history degree was being deployed beyond the U-bend of the toilet or in the freezer cabinet of a CTN. 

But the glamour crept in. "My" first ads that hit a popular nerve were for Wall’s Cornetto ice-cream and were also the first time I saw the power of a strong creative team. I experienced blind panic when the flight to Venice with the product, packed with a finite lifespan that was running out, was diverted to Paris. The desperate hunt for dry ice in Paris with my client Phil Powell on the Saturday of a rugby international was a tough test. We were somewhat mortified to learn on our eventual arrival at the shoot after an epic journey by plane and train that our precious cargo was useless anyway: they preferred to use model ices. 

"Then I got a call from a headhunter, did what I have counselled hundreds of account managers not to do and agreed to talk" 

Dutifully, I went to the College of the Distributive Trades in the evening, and emerged with an M.CAM, though I confess to never having used those initials after my name.

Three years later, at Allen Brady & Marsh, I left the lush embrace of Lintas: this was a very different culture – rough and tough, Sparta not Athens. And Peter Marsh played a good imitation of Leonidas. Certainly, the exhilaration of winning pitch after pitch was more truly inebriating than all those pints of Marston’s, and I started to love new business – something that never left.

I love it because it’s a sport: it requires training, fitness, teamwork, peak performance on the day. Peter understood all those things intuitively, though he never grasped how to handle losing. And you need that too, as in sport. But I liked him, admired him and learnt from him. 

Then I got a call from a headhunter, did what I have counselled hundreds of account managers not to do and agreed to talk. So I met Mike Walsh at Ogilvy. Something clicked about the brand. Well, it must have done because I stayed for 34 years, till last month, when I joined the ranks of the chairmen emeriti, my living predecessors: Bill Phillips, Graham Phillips, Charlotte Beers and Shelly Lazarus.

Strangely, the first time the ABM new-business muscle was tested was on its own account, Guinness. Now at Ogilvy, I was given the pitch to "lead". Mark Wnek and Chris Monge did the work; "Pure genius" appealed more to the amour propre of a renascent brand than Guinness. We hired Gary Withers to simulate the brand experience in a video wall: probably the first time something like that had ever been done. The impact was immediate: the clients retired; decided; delivered the verdict there and then. Peter Warren swept us off to the White Tower to celebrate.

In the meantime, the world had drifted into deep recession. The ice carvers vanished forever. And the industry itself had survived an existential threat. It is difficult to imagine that, at one time, an apparently normal politician like Shirley Williams seriously considered banning advertising altogether – yet they did try. Ending the trappings of excess was one defence. Vigorous self-regulation was another. And finding a sober, responsible role as a creator of demand in a modern economy was another. But, in the process, something was lost.

A sense of importance, perhaps? We never were quite able to sit at the same table as the other pro-fessions, despite our own perceptions of our worth. And as the commission system that had provided the cushion for the bad old days disappeared, living on a tight margin became the norm. Unfortunately, one of the luxuries that went out the window was the luxury of thinking: the time and leisure to think, to initiate, to prognosticate – and to do so outside of a required reaction to a given brief. As a result, we have been on the back foot for a few decades. Fortunately, the good Lord has given us the digital revolution, and with it – I passionately believe – the means of reviving our business. 

At the end of August, in the baking Poitiers heat at the Château de Touffou, David Ogilvy’s place of retirement, and in-between parts of our executive committee meeting there – my last – I wondered what a very simplistic manifesto would be with which to do this. After all, we have nothing to lose but our lunches. "We have a world to win."

Château de Touffou: the mansion, David Ogilvy’s former home, continues to host meetings for Ogilvy executives

First, we must restore the primacy of thinking in our agencies. To me, this is inextricably linked to a total relaunch of account planning. Planning was one of those stratagems by which the agency business did survive: and thanks to its founders, notably Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King, it was built on a sense of the importance of effectiveness, of which the most important legacy is the UK’s IPA Effectiveness Awards. But, let’s be honest, they are really a UK phenomenon; they do not travel well. They have very little or no salience with most global clients. When I brought Tim Broadbent to Asia, he carried, at least for us, the thinking there but "effectiveness culture", as Tim liked to call it, is still only skin-deep and in a few places. Most global agencies have planning, but for few is it central to their mission. And while the Account Planning Group in London survives, the APG in the US shamefully failed to take root, and sensibly shut down in 2003. The result is a serious absence of real planning in the US and an excessive reliance on UK imports to fill the top jobs.

Many planners are really creative development or excellence catalysts – nothing wrong with that, but it is not what I am concerned about or what Pollitt and King meant.

The thing I’m proudest of from the last eight years is experimenting with a consultancy model, which seeks to claim new spaces  

Putting planning back into the thinking about business is what is needed. Why is this so important? Because we need to re-establish our relationship with chief executives. A global chief marketing officer recently told me that, in her view, this was probably her biggest requirement. As she put it, she needs "air cover". And, as an industry, we have forgotten how to provide air cover: we are very good at hand-to-hand combat. The discourse has become too self-absorbed, and the big issues – the role of business in society, or the value of branding – do not fall any more in many agencies’ capabilities. But it can be done.

The thing I’m proudest of from the last eight years is experimenting with a consultancy model, which seeks to claim new spaces. It requires a revisiting of some of the premises of the APG, though, rooted as that was in an advertising view of the world, and founded as it was by advertising people: expanding it to "big planning", which understands the world of influence, the nature of customer relationships, not just consumer response, or the behaviour of shoppers – and then marries these to the techniques of enquiry and the discipline of measurement.

Second, we must reinvent "integration", that tired old word that refuses to die but never seems adequate either. Back in the early 1980s, I led a team working on the Campaign for Independent Financial Advice, which was one of the very first attempts to bring these siloed disciplines together strategically, and where we had to make up the rules as we went along. And that is, amazingly, still the need, more than ever so as a result of the digital revolution. 

Why is it so apparently difficult? I can only applaud the digital pure-plays for what they have brought to the party, but I suspect that they also have helped perpetuate the notion of playing in silos: be it an analogue silo, a CRM silo, a public relations silo – or, for a while, most sedulous and seductive, a digital silo. Some of those pure-plays are now morphing into main-play: they get it. But many advertising agencies don’t get it, still. Some don’t need to. Bob Greenberg recently told me that he thought one of the reasons was that there was still so much "bad" market share still to be won in the discipline formerly known as advertising. 

The result is that much integration remains "shallow": "deep" integration is far, far rarer than it should be. Ironically (depending on your worldview), it is more evident in markets like China than in the old ones. It’s driven by a digital-at-heart mindset, which is in turn so enabled by the more flexible and inventive Chinese technology platforms. Try arguing that at the Association of National Advertisers, and take your parka with you. 

I’m very optimistic, though, because I believe that the business will, if it wants to survive, see itself as a content producer in the broadest possible sense of word – "content" meaning "communication so good that you want to share it or spend time with it" in the definition I use. We are no longer purveyors of simple messages we lob out to passive audiences. We live or die on whether consumers want to enter our eco-systems or not. If you’re really building and decorating an ecosystem, it’s quite difficult not to do it in an integrated way. And this new integration represents the final break with the commission system, when we were the agents of the publishers. Now we need to think of ourselves as a different type of publisher.

Meanwhile, I suspect our industry is often just too busy coping day to day to worry enough about making itself more important or exploring the future.

And it has problems aplenty to confront. 

Are we creative "mad men" or are we "maths men"?

It is not diverse enough, for sure, especially in its global centre, the US, where a historical conspiracy between "old boys" and "bros" has been very difficult to dismantle and which, with the broader male bias of STEM, has failed to improve in the digital age. We need to be more female, more LGBT and, in tomorrow’s world, more Muslim. 

Nor is it truly global. Trust me, I’ve spent more than half my career in Ogilvy in Asia fencing, if not fighting, with HQ; and the last eight years trying to make HQ culturally neutral. And, now, excitingly, our business is becoming much more local – not flat as the crypto-academics advised us, but decidedly bumpy, as the multinational corporation faces the locals, not other peers, as their biggest competitors. This is a pivot our industry also has to make. But there are not so many enablers around, though hopefully there are some signs that the road-warrior style of global leadership may not be the most sensitive or useful for the future.

And, finally, there is the perennial question: are we creative "mad men" (the nice bit that’s left over from the bad men) or are we "maths men" (the ones who measure for a living)? Do we run on dopamine or on algorithms? My own experience from the role I am leaving is that this is one of the falsest zero-sum games ever contrived. We are both, and refuge in either exclusively is the timidity of small minds.

Together, madness and maths are what makes our industry what it is. The joy is seeking the links, the commonalities, the perspectives that add from each to each. It’s not the way we are conventionally trained but it is the definitive success factor and the liberating power for the future.

The sun is retreating slowly over Touffou. The heat abates, and with it my own appetite for reflection, which moves from the languid to the decidedly feeble. I walk past the rambling roses to dinner, and with a rising thirst and (with no apparent sense of cliché) recall: 

"They are not long the days of wine and roses
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, 
Then closes within a dream."

It’s been a very, very happy dream.
Thank you.

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