It was 1986 and I was on the fast track: 28 years old and a newly minted corporate officer, Vice President/Director Financial Analysis at The Ogilvy Group, Inc. (“TOG” – then the NASDAQ and London Stock Exchange listed parent company of the most renown advertising agency in the world, Ogilvy & Mather, and several other advertising agency networks, as well as a few sizeable enterprises specializing in alternate marketing disciplines). With 321 offices, in 49 countries and a blue-chip client roster to die for (Unilever, American Express, Shell, Seagram, Boeing, etc.) there was billions of dollars annually running through TOG’s bank accounts.
My main job responsibilities were to plan and manage TOG’s global cash position, bank relationships, and credit facilities, as well as perform and coherently distill in-depth analysis of our competitors; not to gloss over special projects frequently tossed my way by mentor, Chairman/CEO, Bill Phillips.
A typical workday, by choice, was 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., in a cramped, windowless, and roughly 12-by-12-foot office, located in TOG’s World HQ, at 2 East 48 St. in New York City.
One evening, a bit past 7 p.m., I had just put the final touches on a report promised to John Gill for the next morning. John was TOG’s CFO, the boss who hired me into the company two years earlier and about as fine a gentleman as you will ever meet. I knew he had long since headed home to his family, and I’d likely beat him in the next morning but just in case this was going into his in-tray right now.
By my calculation, I had about 20 minutes to race the mile from 48 Street and Fifth Avenue to the Port Authority (42 Street and Eighth Avenue), to catch the next bus heading toward my New Jersey apartment. If I missed that one, I’d have to wait another 40 minutes or so for the next, exploding my evening ritual of a quick five-mile run, late meal, 11 p.m. TV news, sleep, repeat. An outdoor period of solitude and endorphins would be forfeited to an indoor one of masses and impatience.
I threw on my overcoat, grabbed the report, picked up my briefcase and darted out of my office in the direction of the in-tray on the desk of John’s secretary, to be followed by a sprint to the elevator. Three steps into a full head of steam and WHAM!!! I collided, chest-to-chest, with another human being.
Remorse and athletic reflex were set off immediately. Simultaneous to thoughts of “oh no, I’m an idiot, hope I didn’t hurt this person,” I dropped both the report and briefcase, seized fistfuls of shirt and yanked. Fortunately, I prevented the final descent to the floor but in view of the body slam, violent levitation, and replanting, I was not expecting gratitude.
Winded, disheveled and six inches from my nose, the victim’s face came into focus. Panic joined contrition. Standing in front of me, tucking in his shirt and giving me the “are you insane” stare, was our founder, the name the office doors around the globe, David Ogilvy. Gulp!
I’m thinking, “This cannot be happening … man lives in a castle in France … he hates to fly … never met him and this is howdy-do … oh good lord, pack up Jim, you’re done…” At the same time I’m trying to apologise. An initial bout of the “um, er, ums” was mercifully replaced by a chorus of “I’m so sorry.” To my amazement, equilibrium regained, he smiled, stuck his right hand out and said “I’m David Ogilvy. Pleased to run into you.”
I took his hand and shook it, not too firmly, and said something like, “I know who you are…I’m really sorry…wasn’t expecting anyone to be coming around the corner…you all right…” He kept smiling and responded that he was fine and glad to see such vigor late in the day. Then asked my name. I replied, “Jim Treacy.”
Then the most amazing thing happened. His response even more unexpected than his incredible graciousness, “The remarkable young fellow who authors those excellent cash papers … let’s sit in your office and chat a bit, if you have time.” I’ll never forget it and happily complied.
For roughly 45 minutes, David Ogilvy and I sat in my tiny office chewing the fat. He insisted I sit in my desk chair. He sat in a guest chair, wedged in the four, or so, feet of space between the front of my desk and an office wall. Here are some of the topics we discussed:
- He demonstrated that he knew my career background and asked about my upbringing, education, personal life, etc. Warned me that the quest for work-life balance is challenging.
- The importance of cash flow in a business: I commented that it is the lifeblood of a company, know it and know the state of the business. He retorted something like, “let’s see if this board director knows what he needs to.” He peppered me with questions on some issues from my most recent papers for the board. He’d read them, closely!
- He saw my surprise and said I should return the favour by reading his book “Ogilvy On Advertising.” Feeling comfortable, I told him I had read all three of his books (“Blood, Brains & Beer” and “Confessions of an Advertising Man”). The quiz began, and thankfully I passed. “Well done. You know, not enough of our account and creative people have read those, and if they did you’ve outscored most of them,” he said. My chest swelled. Aside: “Ogilvy On Advertising” is one of the great business books of all time, particularly Chapter Four on leadership and hiring.
- Then he told me in his heyday running the company he would occasionally roam the halls in the evening, to see who was still around, what they were working on, sit and talk with them a bit, etc. He said it helped him keep a pulse on the business and in fact that was what he was doing this evening “when you nearly killed me.”
With that he looked at his watch and said, “This was fun but I must be going. I’m due for late supper at Bill’s (CEO, Phillips) place and am afraid you’ve put me a bit behind. Do you know where he lives? If not too inconvenient, perhaps you could walk me there? I get all jumbled up sometimes and it’s been a while since I’ve been in New York…”
Happy compliance continued. Bill lived in Museum Tower (15 West 53 St., just off Fifth Avenue), a short walk, no matter; at that point I’d have accompanied David Ogilvy to the ends of the earth if he needed a guide.
On the way he baited me, asking my view on an issue I fortunately was aware he and Bill disagreed on. I told him, “No dice…I know you disagree with Bill on that one. If I agree with you he’ll hear about it at dinner and I’ll be in big trouble, and if I agree with him you’ll be more likely to tell him about the dolt who nearly pancaked you.” He belly laughed, “Good for you, well played.”
With that we were in front of Museum Tower. He thanked me and I him, adding a “Good night, Mr. Ogilvy.” He said I could call him “David,” but I was never able to do that.
The next morning, sometime around 8 a.m., Bill stuck his head into my office and told me, “David, enjoyed his time with you last evening. Thanks for that and for walking him over to my place.” The CEO came out of his way to thank me for something that was 100% my pleasure, amazing! The Ogilvy company culture of civility was inspiring.
Follow Jim Treacy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jimtreacy
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