This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To order presentation-ready copies for distribution to colleagues, clients or customers, use the Reprints tool at the top of any article or visit: www.mbreprints.com.

Back to Previous Page

 Mail    Print   Share Share

So What Do You Do, Ken Roman, Ogilvy Biographer?

The former Ogilvy & Mather CEO explains the impact of his mentor's advertising credos on today's agency successes

By Matt Van Hoven - April 15, 2009
In advertising, the role of assistant account executive is about as low on the totem pole as you can get. That's where former Ogilvy & Mather CEO Ken Roman began his career back in 1962, but unlike his 20-something counterparts, Roman was 32 when he started. "I was probably the world's oldest assistant account executive," recalls Roman, now retired and focusing on writing. "A couple of lessons come out of this... never take a job for money or title. Never. You take a job that has two things: It's a great company or a great brand, and it gives you great training."

Rising to the top of Ogilvy & Mather was never in Roman's plans. He studied English at Dartmouth, and hoped to become a newspaper man. "The newspapers were going out of business," he says. "This was in the '50s." The best reporting job he could get at the time paid $35 per week, so when he got an offer to write advertising materials for a chemical company at $60 a week, he took it. "I spent 10 years succeeding at dumb jobs," he says of the roles he held in his 20s. "So I quit my job and started over at the very bottom." After working his way up the ladder, Roman retired in 1989, exiting as chairman and CEO of the agency. He spoke with mediabistro.com recently about the impact his game-changing boss David Ogilvy had on his professional development, writing Ogilvy's first-ever biography, and the need to direct the advertising industry away from holding companies during these economically challenging times.


Name: Mr. Kenneth Roman (Ken)
Position: "Chairman and CEO of Free Range Chicken."
Birthdate: September 6, 1930
Hometown: Boston, Mass.
Education: Dartmouth, B.A. in English, class of 1952
Resume: International Printing Ink Co., RCA, Allied Chem. Corp.
Marital status: Yes
Favorite TV show: This Week with George Stephanopoulos, 60 Minutes, Masterpiece Theater
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports section
Last book read: The Age of Heretics, by Art Kleiner
Guilty pleasure: Squash, gardening

You've written the first-ever biography of advertising legend David Ogilvy. Were you always a writer or, like Ogilvy, did you pick up the skill some other way?
I was always a writer. That is, I was a newspaper writer. I wrote for my high school paper, I was the editor of the daily newspaper at Dartmouth -- six day a week paper, pretty big deal. At the time I was editor-in-chief of this thing, the head of Young & Rubicam... sent his personnel director to see me. He said, "If you ever want to go into advertising, let me know and I'll make it happen for you at Y&R." I said, "Well, thank you very much, ah, but I'm not sure what I want to do with my life. I think I want to be a newspaper man. But there's one thing I'm certain I don't wanna do, and that's go into advertising." So much for career planning. I think of myself as a journalist, not a creative writer; so writing a book comes fairly natural to me.

You spent 26 years working with legendary ad mogul David Ogilvy, and later took over his agency, Ogilvy & Mather (pronounced MAY-ther). What are the most important things Ogilvy taught you?
The most important thing he taught me was not about advertising. He did some great ads, which were at the time [a] real breakthrough in print advertising. What he taught me about was leadership. That was the real message. Some people believe that the best ad he ever wrote was not the Hathaway shirt; or Schweppes; or Rolls Royce: It was a house advertisement called, "How to Run an Advertising Agency." Ten years after that ad ran, people were requesting reprints. And it laid out the principles of, 'How do you run a great services organization?' He was an instinctive business leader. He didn't go to any business schools; he didn't use mission and values statements the way corporate America does. He had memorable ways to inculcate principles which really, more than any other single things, involved people. How do you take care of people? A quick example: When Shelly Lazarus took over the agency, they had lost a piece of the American Express account, which was our largest account in the world. So David called her up and said, "How are you?" and she said, "Well it's tough, we lost a piece of business, and here's what we're going to do to fix the situation." He said, "No no, I didn't ask that. Clients come and go, there's nothing you can do about that. Are you okay? Because if you're okay, the organization is okay." With clients, it was about business: He became friends with them, he charmed them. He insisted his employees use their products.

"[Ogilvy's] central concept for the clients was, 'We sell. Or else.' If we don't sell, the client's not going to be healthy, and we're not going to be healthy."

"360 Degree Brand Stewardship" is the modus operandi at Ogilvy & Mather, essentially meaning the agency will use all the tools at its disposal to foster relationships between consumers and the brand. How did you arrive at this principle originally? Also, since many agencies observe it, how should they balance the clients' needs during these economically difficult times when an agency may need to conserve resources in order to survive?
That's not a line he wrote, and probably wouldn't have written, but the heart of it is right. He was the "Apostle of the Brand Image"; in 1955 he brought the whole concepts of brands into the business. He didn't write it, he took it out of an academic journal. Every ad is part of the investment in the brand. People later came and said, "360 degree means it uses all media, brand stewardship means the agency has to take care of the brand." His central concept for the clients was, "We sell. Or else." If we don't sell, the client's not going to be healthy, and we're not going to be healthy. And that came out of his days selling stoves door-to-door in Scotland, and in studying the great direct mail writers -- John Caples, copywriter Claude Hopkins.

Ogilvy's longest standing clients are Nestle (since 1956), Unilever (since 1954), and American Express (since 1962). What do you think is responsible for the longevity of these relationships, since few clients stayed with an agency for more than a year prior to O&M?
It's a misconception in the business that accounts jump around from year to year. The fact is that the advertising business is different than any other in one respect. It's the only business that runs its trade paper news in the daily newspapers. There's an advertising column every day in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times. There's no accountants column, lawyers or bankers either. People like to read about advertising, and so it's often filled with non-news -- Rogers Carpet Company in New Jersey changed its account. Well, have you ever seen a story in the newspaper about McKinsey winning or losing an account? Never, ever. So you have this impression of all these accounts moving around and in fact, most of the major agencies have had their clients a long time. From time to time you do lose them. You don't lose them because the creative gets bad -- you lose them because the relationship gets broken down. When you win new business, it's the total opposite. "We have some ideas that will build your business." That's central. You win business on creative, and you lose it on relationships.

"Today the business is much more complex -- there are so many media. At the same time, clients are squeezing the agency because they're under pressure. So the agencies are getting less money to do more work, and the luxury, if you will, to make sure an ad is perfect isn't there. "

"Big ideas" are central to Ogilvy's thinking on the ad industry. How would you define them, and do they occupy the same role in the agency's business these days?
The most important thing about a big idea beyond the fact that it is successful in building business over a period of time is that it lasts a long time. Ogilvy says a big idea has to last 20 years or more before you're going to consider it a really big idea. Somebody who has a great commercial or a print campaign that lasts a year or two and earns money, that's a good idea. And you'll take it every time. But a big idea is, well, Dove. It's what, 40 years, 50 years old now. That's an incredible length of time -- to have an idea that's so big that you can add line extensions [and] new products all under the umbrella of Dove. So it's not a limiting idea.

All because Dove contains 25 percent lotion?
That's right, one-quarter cleansing cream. Doesn't dry your skin the way soap does.

Are there any big ideas today?
You know I've thought about that. I've tried to come up with them. It's very hard unless you know the business. But let me show you the problem with the absence of big ideas -- and that's a real issue. You have an example right straight staring you in the nose: It's called Detroit; there are no big ideas in Detroit advertising today. You look at the commercials, you look at the print ads and they're talking about engineering and prices and there's no identity, as opposed to the introduction of Volkswagen in this country, by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency [now known as DDB]. God, that was an idea. Volvo, which stood for safety for years, that was an idea. The Rolls Royce and its engineering. Mercedes. You always saw a Mercedes on a test track, doing impossible things on the open road. You never saw Mercedes on a driveway; that was Cadillac. So those were ideas, "engineered like no other car in the world." You look at Detroit advertising and I challenge you to find me a campaign which has an idea; furthermore, the cars don't look like big ideas.

In the book, you mention how Ogilvy had exceptionally high standards, due in part to his parents' Scottish upbringing and his time as a sous chef in a premier restaurant in France. To what extent is advertising still a standards-driven industry? Should it be? Why or why not?
There used to be a saying that you could write a media plan on the back of an envelope. It was that simple. Today the business is much more complex -- there are so many media. At the same time, clients are squeezing the agency because they're under pressure. So the agencies are getting less money to do more work, and the luxury, if you will, to make sure an ad is perfect isn't there.

Advertising is an industry that often favors youthful inspiration over the wisdom that comes with age and experience. In what ways was this notion true during your tenure at O&M?
Age is a state of mind. Advertising has always been a business of young people, historically, all the way back. There's something about people coming in fresh. But there are a lot of very talented writers and art directors who go on well into their senior years, still doing great work. I think [Ogilvy] was going for the energy. It was not the age. It was the mental age, and the phrase he would use, "We're looking for people with fire in their bellies." I mean, think about that, "fire in their bellies." Well, a 22-year-old might have fire in his belly, but finding a 52-year-old with fire in his belly is going to be harder. [Ogilvy] wanted young people, in their attitudes.

What did you do to keep the agency focused on creativity?
I put two creative people on the board. And David said, "Well, what are you doing? What are those guys on the board for, they don't know how to read a financial statement!" I said, "Well, I don't know David, but it was supposed to be a creative agency." I just felt better with them here. They made enormous contributions. One of them came to a meeting, Hal Riney. Very talented guy [from] San Francisco -- a curmudgeon, a contrarian, strange guy, enormously talented. And he came to the first couple of meetings, then he didn't come to the next meeting. He sent a video tape of these two little puppets, and these two little puppets are visiting this thing called Ogilvy & Mather and they kept on talking about cash flows and margins and they said, "This must be a bank." Well, we looked at that, and he said, "You know, he's right." So we changed our board meetings, literally changed the agenda. The first thing we did... was look at the ads. Why isn't it better? Then we discussed the other things. That was a way that really helped us become much more creative.

Ogilvy & Mather has had its share of memorable campaigns. Which spots or campaigns do you consider major accomplishments of your career, and why?
American Express ("Don't leave home without it") has to be one of the great case histories. There's a message here. Advertising agencies don't take their ideas and go to clients and shove them down their throats to sell them. Agencies react to clients who give them big questions. The best advertising we've done is because a client asked us a big question or gave us a big challenge. When Lou Gerstner showed up with American Express as our client, he was told that the American Express card was kind of a mature business and that it wasn't going to grow. He was told that the travelers cheque business was a vestigial business that was dying, and the travel business, forget it. When he [took his business out of O&M] after 10 years, that business was growing 25 to 26 percent a year. He had added new products, new promotions, but he also got us to create campaigns for each of these and he gave us the funds to invest in building a worldwide business. In a few years, American Express was our largest client in the world, the most profitable client, our best creative showcase, our best way of recruiting attractive people. But it was a client who saw beyond the numbers to the big idea.

How did you get your start at Ogilvy & Mather? What was your exact role, and how did you progress to assume larger responsibilities?
I had this offer at Young & Rubicam, and I turned it down. At that time, the newspapers were going out of business. Have you ever heard that before? This was in the '50s. The newspapers were merging, and the best job I got offered was $35 dollars a week. And somebody offered me a job for a medium-sized chemical company for $60 a week writing their employee and customer magazines. I moved to an RCA distributor in Philadelphia. Ugh. I came back and worked for a big chemical company, I was the manager of corporate advertising. I spent 10 years succeeding at dumb jobs. At the age of 32, I said, "I'm on the fringe of the advertising business," -- corporate, industrial. So I quit my job and started over at the very bottom as an assistant account executive at the only agency in Manhattan that would hire me which was [then called] Ogilvy Benson & Mather. I was probably the world's oldest assistant account executive. And a couple of lessons come out of this. The first is never take a job for money or title. Never. You take a job that has two things: It's a great company or a great brand, and it gives you great training. All of these jobs I had were for companies nobody had ever heard of, and I knew more than the people there -- I was teaching them out of college. Nobody was teaching me. The other thing that happened, there were these people younger than me with bigger jobs, and that can make a person go crazy. So I didn't look left or right, I made a list of the 10 things I wanted to accomplish that year that would make a difference either in my own personal development or in my contributions to the agency, the client. And I worked at them all year, and at the end of the year I'd give myself a grade -- I never gave myself better than 70 percent. It enabled me to focus on what I could do to accomplish something. I did that for almost my entire career.

What did you enjoy most/least about leading O&M?
I guess winning a new piece of business is a great thrill. It shows you're a winner; people like working for a winner. You want to win new business in competition. It's very simple. What do you enjoy the least? Losing clients, or losing key people. Those are the things that just ripped me apart.

Would you take it personally?
Yeah, yeah I did. Which is why you want to pay attention to good people.

Today's economy is hurting many within the media world, including the ad industry. What advice would you give concerned Ogilvy employees if you were still leading them?
I'd probably say, we've been through this before, it doesn't last forever. We're going to try not to cut people too hard. The thing you try is to keep your costs down so you can hold people. In an ad agency business, there are only two major costs. One is people, one is rent. I moved Ogilvy from Fifth Ave. to Eighth Ave., to Hells Kitchen - -the first major building west of Eighth Avenue.

What would you tell Ogilvy & Mather Chairman Shelly Lazarus if she came to you for advice on where to take the company?
Shelly doesn't need me for advice. She knows how to handle WPP, and knows what David Ogilvy told her.

Why did you pursue a career in advertising, and would you today if you were starting over as a 23-year-old? Why or why not?
Because as I observed it, it appeared to be a business that used my skills: writing, leadership. College paper editors were good at dealing with a creative product and working with peers. You have to be a good leader early. Yes, I would do it again. It was a fun, exciting field -- and it still is.


Matt Van Hoven is editor of AgencySpy.

> Send a letter to the editor
> Read more in our archives