The Day I Met David Ogilvy

Wednesday Sep 9, 2009

Now that we’re settling into the new building on 11th Avenue, I can’t help thinking this isn’t the first time we’ve been trailblazers.

When Ogilvy first moved to 8th Avenue in 1989, it was considered quite a bold move. Worldwide Plaza was thought to be so far west that Ogilvy provided a free bus to shuttle employees from Grand Central. (Just like the bus we have now on 11th Ave.)

I didn’t take the shuttle often, but one warm day in the summer of 1989 I did.  It’s a day I’ll never forget…

As I stepped on the bus that evening, I noticed quite a bit of commotion. I found a seat upfront and peeked behind me to see what all the ruckus was about.

And then I saw him.

Sitting not more than three rows back was David Ogilvy – taking the common shuttle bus to Grand Central. This was especially surprising because I knew that David had long since retired from day-to-day agency life and was comfortably nestled in his castle in France.

I remember thinking, “Doesn’t he have a chauffeured limousine for this?”

David wasn’t sitting alone. He was surrounded by employees and well-wishers hanging onto his every word.

As a young copywriter who had devoured Ogilvy on Advertising, I was dying to listen in. Craning my neck, I overheard bits and pieces of the conversation. ” When I first started the agency …”

As always, D.O. was the star of the show. I didn’t want to gawk, so after a few more glances back, I kept my eyes focused on the traffic in front of us all the way to Grand Central. I did hear a lot of laughter coming from behind me as the master adman gleefully entertained the troops.

Not more than 15 minutes later, we arrived at Grand Central. I quickly made an exit from the bus, but being early for my train, I decided to stop at Zaro’s and pick up a bread to have with dinner.

With a rye bread safely under my arm, I hurried to make my train. But a few hundred feet later, I stopped dead in my tracks.

There was a well-dressed old man – with red suspenders -  standing in front of me. He was alone. He looked lost. He was David Ogilvy.

I watched him carefully.  Gone were all the well-wishers who surrounded him on the bus. Now he was ten feet in front of me, looking slightly unsure of himself, deep in the bowels of Grand Central Station.

So what should I do? It took me only a second to decide.

I walked up to him.

I introduced myself, and explained that I was an Ogilvy employee. He took my hand warmly and smiled. He told me he was taking the train to visit his son in Greenwich, but admitted that he was having trouble finding the track. Could I help him?

Could I? Could I?  How often do you get the chance to help a living legend, someone whom you’ve admired for years – and someone who just happens to be the founder of your company? I told him to stay put and I would find the right track. Pronto.

As I ran over to the departures board, I’ll never forget the words he called out to me: “Make sure it’s an express. I don’t like those local trains!”

I flew to the board and found the train he was looking for. But as I backtracked through the sea of commuters, a horrifying thought occurred to me. What if he wasn’t there? What if I’d lost him?

But sure enough, as I rounded the corner, David Ogilvy was waiting patiently for my return.

We walked together to the train, his hand holding onto me lightly for support. He asked me what part of advertising I was most interested in. I told him direct marketing. He laughed and reminded me that he had always regarded direct as his “first love and secret weapon.”

In a matter of minutes, we were at the gate.

As he boarded the express to Greenwich, David Ogilvy stopped, looked back at me, and mouthed the words “thank you.” He then flashed the Ogilvy smile that I had seen in so many photographs.

It’s been 20 years since that day. But when I look up at the departures board in Grand Central and see the express train to Greenwich, I often think about my few moments with the great man. David Ogilvy forever holds a place among the immortals of advertising. But on that day, he was human like the rest of us, trying to find his way amidst the crowds and confusion of New York City.

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