I first met David Ogilvy at the Asian Advertising Congress at New Delhi in 1982. His speech was titled ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’. He spoke on how Asian advertising was making enormous strides and how Americans would be caught napping. After his talk David left the mike and strode to the other end of the huge stage at Vigyan Bhavan. Then the questions began. To answer each question, he would traverse the stage towards the mike at the far end and make his way back again. It was just his ploy to get enough thinking time for his response (!)
One day we were informed that David Ogilvy was coming to Chennai! What?! The Ogilvy office in Chennai was in the shadow of the LIC building on Mount Road. It was an old structure with high vaulted ceilings, Burma teak floors and stained glass panels above huge windows. Operation clean-up and spruce-up commenced on the double. I even borrowed a couple of canvases from Thota Tharani to liven up the reception area.
The visit went off like a dream. One of his favourite commercials, for Train Matches, was created by the Chennai office. And it figured in Ogilvy International’s best 100 commercials. David’s one comment about the office: “It looks like a cross between a church and a barn’’.
During this visit he was accompanied by his wife Herta, who approached me with a special request. David needed a new pair of shoes, and could I accompany her? So off we went shopping and came back empty handed. The biggest available size was too small. David’s foot size was 14!
My wife Minnie and I invited David home to meet our friends and he had a most enjoyable time. He was extremely charming and affable and the ladies were totally fascinated. Our apartment on the 8th floor had a marvelous view with the PoonamaleeHigh Road traffic streaming below. It’s the poor man’s Manhattan I quipped to him, then a resident of the Big Apple.
On his second visit to Chennai, he came by train from New Delhi. (He hated flying). We drove him to Fisherman’s Cove in a hired Mercedes. On the way, he abruptly demanded that we stop the car. “Ask this man to drive carefully or I’d rather walk!” We then proceeded at a sedate pace, being overtaken by virtually everything on the road. David was happy, the chauffeur was mortified.
Whenever we had a meal with David in a restaurant, he would ask for a cigarette or a brandy with the words “Bring me the cheapest”. That was Scot frugality for you, or may be he didn’t want to tax his Indian hosts. (We of course ensured that only the finest VSOP reached the table.)
Since David was closely involved with World Wildlife Fund, we decided to take him to the Kabini Wildlife Park near Mysore. Naturally we went by train. At Kabini, Minnie and I were surprised and delighted to meet up with friends from Chennai…Ravi Mammen and his wife Meera. We lost no time in clambering aboard a jeep and venturing into the forest. Wild boar, bison, elephants had David riveted. On the way back disaster struck… a punctured tyre. We didn’t have a spare tyre or a walkie- talkie. It was getting dark. We were apprehensive. I started looking for handy trees to climb in the case of any eventuality. Our guide suddenly jumped off holding a wicked looking machete.Had he spotted a predator? No, it was only to chop and remove a fallen branch! Then we heard the welcome sound of a rescue jeep coming our way. A relieved Ravi Mammen proclaimed that the resort would soon be getting new tyres courtesy MRF.
Talk about coincidences. At the resort, David bumped into a lady who lived next door to his chalet in Switzerland. He promptly relieved her of a cigarette. Watching this transaction, Minnie pounced on David and grabbed the cigarette! Minnie had been advised by Herta & Co that David was not to smoke. “She’s like a mother hen!” David told the perplexed lady. We went bird-watching in the early hours. He liked one of the pictures I took of him in the boat and announced that it was the best picture of him ever taken. It was featured in Viewpoint, the Ogilvy magazine. I was suitably chuffed.
When I requested him for an inscription in my copy of Ogilvy on Advertising he wrote: ‘To Mohan, with profound respect’. I was touched beyond belief.
We had a standing invitation from David to visit him in his chateau in France. On a couple of our holidays in Europe over the years, Minnie and I would check to see if David was likely to be in France. On those occasions he happened to be traveling elsewhere. One year we were going to Cannes for the Advertising Festival. So we called up David to know his travel plans. “I am staying put. Come right over”, he said.
We took the Train à Grand Vitesse from Paris to Poitiers. At the station we were pleasantly surprised to see David’s wife Herta. She had come to see off some visitors and to receive us. We then drove off to the castle and were welcomed by the Lord of the Manor. Over the next four days we led a fairy tale life. The chateau that was first built in the 12th century reigns over a hundred acres with a river running through it. The al fresco lunches featured fresh fish from the river, ice cream with strawberries from the garden and estate bottled wine. Our bedroom was far larger than our entire apartment in Chennai. “Are you comfortable?” asked David solicitously. The chateau was a protected monument and no alterations could be made to windows, fireplaces and the roof by the owner. The slate roof would be renewed by the French authorities once every two hundred years! During our private tour we were shown the chapel and the dungeon. “The dungeon is for art directors who use reverse type” hissed David with a suitably sinister expression. On particular days, tourists would be permitted to visit the ‘public’ areas of the chateau on a guided tour.
One day he decided to go to the town. “You drive”, he said as he tossed me the keys to a Mercedes … “they don’t let me drive these days!” I gulped as I took the wheel. I had never driven an automatic, never driven a left-hand drive car and never driven on the right side of the road. I didn’t have an international drivinglicence either. However the drive went off uneventfully. In the town David took us to see some quaint sights including an exquisite church. Passersby and shop owners greeted Monsieur Ogilvy warmly. We then picked up some cheese and headed back.
David was forbidden chocolates but he would have some secreted away. On one occasion when Herta was out of sight, he beckoned us to his library and slid out a couple of volumes and unearthed some contraband chocolates. We enjoyed them with childlike joy and conspiratorial smiles.
After four unreal days it was time to depart. “Stay on” we were urged. David accompanied us to the station and waited till the train came in. He hugged us and turned away abruptly saying “I can’t bear to say goodbye”.
David, we are honoured, blessed and privileged to have known you, a true prince among men.Long live the Prince!
(Written by Mohan Menon, former Board Member, Ogilvy & Mather. This article appeared first in the Hindu Business Line on 23rd June 2011 to mark the birth centenary of D.O.)