How Paul McCartney, David Ogilvy and the WWF ad account got me fired

In an excerpt from his new book, "Between the briefs", veteran copywriter Aubrey Malden recalls how his efforts to sign Paul McCartney to a WWF campaign landed him in hot water with his legendary boss, David Ogilvy.

One of the most disappointing, yet at the outset, the most thrilling charity account I worked on was the World Wildlife Fund. Ultimately, it got me fired.

WWF was conceived on 29 April, 1961 and David Ogilvy, my big boss at Ogilvy & Mather, was one of the founders. Although he said he had "retired himself" in 1975, he was the self-appointed creative head of Ogilvy and Mather worldwide. All creative directors of all Ogilvy & Mather offices reported directly to him. Amongst us, David became known as, "The Holy Spook".

Right now I was working on the WWF.

I had run the idea past our client that we get Paul McCartney to record a track for a WWF film that we had negotiated free airtime for, throughout Europe.

He agreed McCartney’s values matched exactly with those of WWF. He asked if McCartney would charge us. I replied we couldn’t afford it if he did; besides we were going to ask him to "do it for free".

And, as Paul McCartney was one of the wealthiest men in the UK, I didn’t think he needed the money; he was, as we could see from the organisations that he supported, a very charitable man. If we could get to see him we would brief him on what was happening throughout the world of WWF and let him write the song with no interference from us. I then went on to outline the thought that perhaps the song could then be sold to the public and spreading the word of WWF even further. We debated whether McCartney would want the royalties from the recording or whether he would donate those to WWF. I replied that would be up to McCartney, I just wanted him to do the song. Royalties would be a bonus.

Should we approach McCartney’s agent?

Absolutely not. His agent would not want McCartney to do anything for free. A 25% agent’s fee of nothing is nothing. McCartney might not want the money, but the agent probably would!

After some thought, either I, or the director of the proposed film (from Garrett’s) suggested we go round the potential problem via someone who Garrett’s knew quite well, McCartney’s chauffeur.

We briefed the chauffeur and waited.

Nothing happened.

We waited.

Nothing happened.

Then, after about three months the phone call came from the Garrett’s contact. "The chauffeur has managed to have a word," I clenched my buttocks, "and McCartney wants to do it!" He then added "and the royalties of the records will be donated to WWF, too." 

I sat at my desk, holding the phone away from my ear and gave a long, deep and extremely satisfying ‘phew’. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The adrenalin rush was enormous, almost matching my sense of relief.

"There’s something else,…" continued the voice, "…it’s the wrong McCartney."

"What do you mean, it’s the wrong McCartney?" 

"Linda. Linda McCartney. She wants to do it. Somehow, I don’t know how, the chauffeur mentioned it to her, in passing, and she says she wants to do it." 

I didn’t know what to say. So, just to fill in time while I thought it through I said, "So, what do you think?"

"What do I think? Well, what do you think?" shot back his reply.

"I think." I paused. "I think that we want Paul McCartney. Not Linda."

Now, in retrospect that was very stupid of me. Very pig-headed of me.

What on earth was I thinking? Linda was a member of Wings; she would certainly involve Paul, as he was, apart from being her husband, the band’s leader. So, Wings would almost certainly be the band that backed Linda and that would mean Paul would be doing it, anyhow, even if Linda composed the song and sang it solo. But, no, in my pigheadedness, I wanted Paul to say yes.

So I continued, "I think we want Paul McCartney. We need to work out how to say no to Linda." 

After a pause I added, "And that’s what I don’t know how to do." 

This actually was the least of my worries.

A note arrived from David Ogilvy, it was addressed directly to me: "Stop all work on WWF until you hear from me. D.O."

The "D.O." with no signature meant that this was David at his most officious.

What was going on? I called our local client but was unable to reach him. 

Then the second note, which arrived a couple of days later, made my heart thump even more. In fact, it seemed to split my heart into two, one half remained where it was, thumping away, whilst the other half went up my throat and into my head and was banging around inside it, whilst my pulse was hammering in my ears.

It read: "Using a pop star to promote a serious organisation like WWF was guaranteed to make me see red. I am coming to see you. D.O."

The "D.O." felt more like a "F.O." to me, although David would never countenance such language.

Eventually I got hold of my client. "What’s up?" he said.

It turned out he was so excited by the McCartney idea that he had mentioned it to a few high-flyers at WWF, and they, too, were excited, so in turn they had mentioned it to David.

And that is when the shit hit the fan. With the fan aimed directly at me, by David. 

Everyone else was ducking, with good cause.

David had very clear and heavily entrenched views and rules about advertising and how it worked. And one of his rules was you don’t get pop stars to make commercials about serious organisations. Fine for chewing gum. Not the WWF. My, how things have changed with Bob Geldof and the parade of stars that were used to promote Live Aid.

What David, a man who at that stage was around 70 years of age, and quite set in his ways, failed to comprehend was that Paul McCartney was no longer a long-haired hippy youth but a happily-married family man of around 40 years of age. He was a man of considerable standing; he was an MBE (and later knighted, Sir Paul McCartney). A man who passionately shared the same values as WWF and who had a massive following, no longer from the teenage idols with no spare cash in their pockets for WWF but from the all-important 40-plus target market who we were trying to persuade to donate a little of their income to WWF.

He also failed to realise that he was, like so many big bosses, surrounded by sycophants. Those within Ogilvy and Mather, and those within WWF. Although David professed to hate politics, "Fire incurable politicians!" and "I hate toadies!"; he just didn’t recognise it in those that sadly croaked "yes, yes," and "you’re absolutely right, David!" responses to everything he said. In short, they guarded him from reality. In fact, I remember having a conversation with Ingerborg ‘Borgie’ Baton, his head of typography for 35 years, whom David said was, "an angel and a genius". Borgie was visiting me in the Brussels office before David’s impending arrival. We were having a light lunch out of the office. 

We had just got to the inner-workings of the Ogilvy Empire. 

"You know David just loves visiting all his offices."

I sipped my wine and smiled.

"He says how good it is to see the top managers and the troops. How he gets a real feeling for what’s going on. And how honest and straight everyone is with him." 

"What?" I said, with a double-measure of surprise. "You’re kidding?" I added, almost spitting out my mouth-full of wine.

Borgie continued, "So, I said to David, ‘When you visit the offices you don’t think they tell you the truth do you?’"

"Oh yes," he said, quite taken aback. "Of course they do!"

"David, they DO NOT tell you what’s going on." (DO NOT heavily under-lined by her deep Danish accent). "They only tell you want you want to hear!"

She added that David was absolutely convinced that everyone loved him to bits, was very relaxed in his presence, were happy to debate with him (as long as what they were saying was what he wanted to hear). 

Borgie ended the conversation with David, by saying to him, very directly, "David, I hear the truth. Not you!"

He was not only non-plussed, but he was actually quite hurt that Borgie could suggest such a thing.

So I was encouraged to stick to my guns, for David also preached that he wanted people in Ogilvy & Mather "who grasped the nettle". Indeed, he describes the ideal characteristic of an Ogilvy & Mather senior manager as someone who has "guts, grace, charm, honesty, and someone with fire in their belly".

Well, I’d got most of that. So, I wasn’t going to give up.

I reached into a drawer in my desk and withdrew the confidential book that had a list of all the senior people in the Ogilvy and Mather world, their office and home numbers. I could even get David’s home number if I wanted to phone him.

I called the man responsible for WWF liaison in Switzerland and took a deep breath.

"Hi, I want to speak to you about the McCartney-WWF opportunity."

The voice at the other end was jolly and welcoming. "Hello Aubrey. I was expecting your call. You’re absolutely right about this McCartney thing. McCartney is right for the brand. It’s a fabulous idea." I felt much relieved. At last, here was someone who would speak out loud and back me up. Thank goodness for that.

"So you’ll back me then, you’ll talk to David? Thanks a million!"

"Absolutely not, Aubrey." His reply shot back like a bullet into my heart.

"I can’t back you. Look, you’ve opened a real can of worms here. WWF is his pet account. He was one of the founders. Getting McCartney is a really hot idea, but it goes against David’s rule, you know, the one about…" and then he changed his voice into that of mimicking a preacher, "…singing is for chewing gum and not for a serious organisation like WWF, and all that stuff."

"But," I insisted, "David is wrong. Terribly wrong!" 

"I know he is, but you’re not going to win this one. Sorry Aubrey, I wish I could, but I can’t help."

Then he hung up. Not abruptly; he probably said something like, ‘Good luck’, but I didn’t really hear what he said. 

I called a few other names in the ‘book’ and when I mentioned ‘McCartney’ I got the usual:

"Can’t help."

"Absolutely not."

Some were "not in" and others refused to return my calls.  

I turned to my client in Brussels.

"Aubrey, you are right. We are right. But I hear from everybody in WWF that David is like a bear with two sore heads. Your people are backing away, and, how do you say in English, ‘licking the bottom of David’. They agree with David. They have to. To agree with you would be career limiting.  David is being very stubborn."

Finally, adding a sack of salt to the wound, he summed it up simply, "they are terrified of the man."

I felt like I had been well and truly hung out to dry, and David would soon be giving me the hairdryer treatment: full heat, straight into the face.

And I wasn’t wrong. 

David arrived by train from Paris, and after the initial staff meeting and greetings we sat down to chat in the managing director’s office.

I hadn’t slept much, and it wasn’t because I was staying awake like some five-year old waiting up all night for the arrival of Father Christmas; I was awake because I was awaiting the arrival of David Ogilvy: The Holy Spook. I was awake because I was preparing my defense. "Look David you are a man in your 70s. You are cosseted by those who surround you. No one tells you the truth. You haven’t been out in the real world for years. You don’t travel much as you hate flying. So, you don’t see much. You are out of touch. Get out of that castle, into the street. Talk to the real 40-year olds.

"Get with it, man!’

Of course, thank goodness, I told myself on my second night of wide-awake sleeplessness, leave that tack alone. It would work better if you were more objective Aubrey, try something like, "I understand your concerns, David". The brief is, let us remind ourselves, to reach the affluent 40-year olds we need something or someone that can 'engage them’ and ‘resonate’ with them. Someone who they can look up to…"

So, there we sat in the managing director’s office. David was drinking tea and smoking our cigarettes, Dunhill tipped. He never had his own (he usually smoked a pipe anyway) and never carried any money ("A true Scot," said someone, "short arms and barbed-wire in his pockets"). 

After about 15 minutes of pleasantries, during which we were circling each other like wrestlers in the ring, David opened the conversational bout.

"You were guaranteed to make me see red." 

I fought back, "David, I understand your concerns…" 

He then butted in, "I will not have a drug addict selling the WWF."

"David, Paul McCartney…" 

"Aubrey, let this be an end to it."

And that was the end of it. A few days later I was told to resign. I should work my notice and leave.

Still reeling from the Holy Spook’s lack of willingness to debate (probably due to the fact he had consulted the sycophantic ones), and his ultimate power of, metaphorically speaking, "sending one shamefully to the guillotine," I received the ultimate insult. 

"Is that Aubrey Malden?" 


"I am Paul McCartney’s manager."

Hey! Buoyed-up I thought there might be some small glimmer of hope on the horizon of gloom. Could I go back to David with news, compelling news?

The Australian voice continued, "I understand you want Paul to do this thing for WWF?"

"Yes." I said expectantly.

"Fuck off ."

"Oh." Out came my stumbling remark.

"Yes. Fuck off. Fuck off. Paul has only done one piece of commercial music and that was for that Bond thing, Live and Let Die. He’s not doing any more." He said "that Bond thing" with some considerable distaste in his voice, and then he continued, "He’s not doing anymore. Do you understand?"

I understood, what he was saying, or the inference, "Don’t try any way to get Paul McCartney to do something for free, so I can’t earn my commission."

"25% of nothing, is nothing," I thought.

"Fuck off." Then the phone went down.

Some years later, when the wounds of being guillotined by David healed, I read that David had great faith in those people who say they can read people’s character from their handwriting (graphologists, I think they call themselves).

According to them, David’s handwriting revealed he was "impulsive, unpredictable, intolerant, assertive. Tough and tormented". 

He certainly was.

Those graphologists also went on to say he was also ‘sensitive and benevolent’ which I didn’t see until some years later when he wrote to me from his châteaux Touffou:

Dear Aubrey,
If you are ever in this part of the world, come to dine and to sleep.
I would like to see you.
Yours sincerely,
David Ogilvy

Aubrey Malden, an award-winning copywriter, is former chairman of the Marketing Society, former chief executive of McCann Erickson in Scotland, and creative head at Ogilvy & Mather, South Africa.


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