Why David Ogilvy chose RED

Written by Rob Hill, Chief Operations Officer, Ogilvy & Mather SA.

Why did David Ogilvy choose red, not blue or black or any other hue when he started Ogilvy? Is red a message about the kind of agency he wanted to build? Is the colour red a thread of DNA that he chose to shape his company?

There is no doubt that David Ogilvy never did much without research. He spent his formative years in advertising as a Gallup researcher. He left us with many instructions to do our homework. “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals,” he said.

So if David was as diligent as we know him to be and if he chose red specifically, it’s clear that he wanted to build a company that was ‘red by design’.

But what was it that David discovered about red that convinced him it was the right colour for his new company? This is especially curious given that in those days (post-war 1948), red wasn’t a fashionable colour. In fact it might have been a statement against fashion. According to Vogue archives, in the late 40’s, navy blue was the colour du jour.

If we do our research as David urges and try to understand his thought process, we find that red is a colour that is hot-wired into our subconscious with a range of symbolic, visual, psychological and physical meanings.

Red = Winning

British anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton of the University of Durham reached the conclusion that when opponents of a game are equally matched, the team dressed in red is more likely to win. Their research is based on a study of the outcomes of one-on-one boxing and freestyle wrestling matches at the Olympics.

“Where there was a large point difference — presumably because one contestant was far superior to the other — colour had no effect on the outcome,” Barton said. “Where there was a small point difference, the effect of colour was sufficient to tip the balance.”

In equally matched bouts, the preponderance of red wins was significant enough that it could not be attributed to chance, the anthropologists say. Hill and Barton found similar results in a review of the colours worn at the Euro 2004 international soccer tournament.

Red = Breakthrough

There is no doubt that David would have considered the science of red. He would perhaps have known that red, a primary colour and the first to emerge from infrared, is the hue that first strikes the eye and so has an extremely high impact. (This explains why it denotes “stop” in stop signs, brake lights and robots. Sir Giles Scott specifically chose red for the telephone box so it would be easy to spot).

Red, therefore, is the most breakthrough colour. No doubt this fact would have appealed to David.

Red = Risk

The expression “paint the town red” is said to date back to 1837 when the Marquis of Waterford and a group of friends ran riot in the town of Melton Mowbray, painting several buildings red.

Red is never safe. It is not a colour associated with the ordinary and everyday. It excites and energises.

Red signifies danger. It is commonly the colour of the fire fighting profession. Red indicates extreme danger on Western colour-coded scales. There is no middle ground with red. It is not the colour of average; it is the colour of extremes – cupid and the devil.

So risk is red. Red isn’t safe or comforting. It pushes us into the danger zone.

Red = Passion

Red is the colour most associated with human emotion. The human heart is red and in our business, as we know, the heart always trumps the head. Perhaps this is why red is the most passionate of colours, associated with love, courting and romance.

It is well-known that red evokes more passion. Red teams appear to have more fans around the world than blue teams. Even passionate language is described using red as a metaphor. In décor and interior design, red is a passion colour.

Red is a popular choice in high-energy areas such as business foyers. The phrase “red-blooded” describes someone who is passionate, robust and virile. Red isn’t always well-behaved. Red is unruly.

Red is associated with speed and agility and so it’s fitting that it should be the traditional colour of Italian racing cars. Ferrari’s red originated in the way the sport began, where each country was assigned a colour. Red was assigned to Italian cars, Green to English, Blue to France and so on.

Red = Attack

In Roman mythology, red was associated with the god of war, Mars, and the reddish planet was named after him.

Red is idealistic and denotes bravery. The first time red was used as a symbol for revolutionary struggle was during The French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet it was in Russia that the colour acquired its specific reference to liberation and new beginnings. Russian revolutionary ideology began to actively exploit the colour, combining in it the symbolism of blood, triumph, victory, hope and faith.

clip_image001Red was the colour of the Roman Empire. It has been said that Roman officers would wear red so that if they were wounded, it would not discourage their troops nearby. The tradition of wearing red was carried though by the British Red Coats.

When the British tried to colonise Africa, the Masai were one of the tribes that fiercely fought back. These African warriors wear red kangas and kikois, which represent power.

Red = Rare

Many painters have exhibited a fascination with red hair, possibly for the mystique it holds as an uncommon hair colour among humans. At most, two percent of the human race is redheaded.

Gustav Klimt explored red often in his work and Sandro Boticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, depicts the mythological goddess, Venus, as a redhead. There is little doubt that the red hood makes Little Red Riding Hood an infinitely more menacing and memorable story.

Red = Maverick

Red is also the colour we often associate with rebels, mavericks and round pegs in square holes. Karl Marx was possibly the world’s most famous red rebel. Richard Branson and his Virgin brand is another red maverick. Che Guevara, the revolutionary icon, also used red to signal his stance.

Red is also the colour of fame. This dates back to the time of Jahangir, the Mughal emperor from 1605 to 1627. It is said that he once paid a visit to his brother-in-law on New Year’s Day. To celebrate the event, his host carpeted the road between his house and the palace in rich velvets, so that the royal entourage would not have to touch the ground.

Hence the red carpet.

So in summary red, as the research shows, means: always active; always exciting; full of human emotion; high impact; always attracting attention; never safe; full of passion; not confined by rules; committed to society and a social conscience; agile and fast; always on the attack; brave; idealistic; mysterious; hot; winning, and most associated with selling.

So if this is what red is all about, it sounds like David Ogilvy set out to build an extremely exciting and passionate company, a company full of rebels and mavericks.

In 1948, when he made this choice, he wanted to stand out against the prevailing trends and set the tone for his new company. When he developed his red identity he set out to build a company with a uniquely challenging and creative culture.

I suppose the key question for us at Ogilvy today, some 60 years later, is do we live up to red? Are we as passionate, brave, rebellious, idealistic and breakthrough as our DNA demands? Are we on the attack? Do we move beyond safe? Do we evoke strong emotions? Are we agile? Is selling still central?

At our best, I believe we continue to be Red to the core.

We chose a true red find, our Ogilvy Graduate, Michael Stopforth, to design the marvellous infographic below to accompany Rob’s article. Enjoy.

red is negative2_EDIT

Monomaniacs & Ampersands

Ogilvy & Mather Logo

Recently Ogilvy restored Edmund Mather alongside David Ogilvyin the company name. The agency once again became known as Ogilvy & Mather.

So who was this man Mather and why is it important that he is immortalized alongside the legendary Ogilvy?

Edmund Mather, originally a Scotsman, can genuinely claim to be the founder of the first modern ad agency in 1850 in London. Forty years later, his son Harley went into partnership with Herbert Crowther, forming Mather & Crowther, and it was that agency which, in 1936, took a chance on a young David Ogilvy, sponsoring him to move to the USA to study the latest American advertising techniques.

In 1948, it was Mather & Crowther, as well as Samuel Benson, who provided the financial backing for the 38-year-old Ogilvy to start his own agency in New York.

That shop flourished into one of the giants of Madison Avenue and, in 1965, Ogilvy merged the agency with his original financial backers, Mather & Crowther, to form the global company, Ogilvy & Mather.

The firm went by that name (or the acronym O&M) for many years but in more recent times the zeitgeist was favouring the short and the snappy and so the word Mather fell off the company slate. We became Ogilvy.

I wasn’t privy to the discussion about reinstating Mather as part of our corporate identity, but I’m hoping the logic was as follows….

As a company Ogilvy & Mather isn’t one-dimensional. We’re about the work, but we’re also about making sure that the work works. We’re an agency that has both creativity and effectiveness baked into our DNA. We strive for excellence on both fronts. We aspire to climb the ‘twin peaks’. There is a serious duality in our culture which is reflected in the title Ogilvy & Mather.

To my mind, it is the aspiration to strive for excellence on both fronts that makes Ogilvy & Mather sustainable. It is the dualism that makes us enduring.

In a recent brilliant article in the NY Times, political commentator David Brookswrote; “the world unfortunately has too many monomaniacs — people who pick one side of any creative tension and wish the other would just go away”. He makes the telling point that “politics has become a contest of monomaniacs. One faction champions austerity while another champions growth. One party becomes the party of economic security and the other becomes the party of creative destruction. “

Advertising too has its fair share of monomaniacs. They are the people who reject imaginative creativity as irrelevant or a distraction to the job of selling. Or people who believe that creativity in advertising is a justifiable end in itself and that selling somehow gets in the way. Too often the discussion in advertising agencies is polarised. It is Suits vs Creatives. Client vs Agency. We see too much advertising that suffers from a dire lack of creativity and also a fair amount of work where undisciplined creativity leads to irrelevance.

As David Brooks points out; “the right course is usually to push hard in both directions, to be a house creatively divided against itself, to thrive amid the contradictions.”

When we’re at our best, this is what makes Ogilvy & Mather unique. It is our relentless resolve to strive for the ‘and’ that sets us apart as a culture. Not ‘both’ as in a compromise or a lowest common denominator, but excellence in the logic of our business and in the magic of creativity.

I believe we recognise, more than any other Agency, that our business will always be one in which healthy tensions between opposing forces (let’s grandly call it art and science) are fundamental to vitality and health. When one force triumphs, it inevitably leads to an eventual collapse.  In our agency, we’ve created a culture which embraces this tension.

In his important book, ‘The Opposable Mind’, University of Toronto Professor Roger Martin shows how the world’s best companies and leaders stand out because they’re able to deal with contradictions and embrace the tensions which exist between opposing concepts. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald also held this view, commenting that ‘the mark of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time.’

Ogilvy & Mather is at its best when we’re embracing the tensions that exist between creativity and strategy, when we comprehensively understand our client’s reality and business problems and strive to solve these in the most creative way. We thrive when we have deep insight confronting the best creative minds. We work optimally in the crucible of these opposing forces, when we generate a constructive embrace of conflicting imperatives.

So today, Edmund Mather has been restored to his place alongside David Ogilvy. While we know very little of what he really stood for beyond being the pioneering brain and moneyman of the first major agency, Mather serves as a metaphor as he rides alongside the creative genius of Ogilvy, ensuring that our corporate identity once again reflects the DNA of our company – the energy that comes from striving for excellence in logic and magic.

That is the power of the humble ampersand in Ogilvy & Mather.

Article by Rob Hill, COO, Ogilvy & Mather South Africa

More on Ogilvy & Mather’s History here


1) http://www.hatads.org.uk/cllections/agencies/18/Ogilvy/

2) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/27/opinion/brooks-the-olympic-contradiction.html?_r=0

3) “The Opposable Mind; How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking’’ by Professor Roger Martin published by Harvard Business Press.

David Ogilvy: The 8 Ogilvy Habits

og“If Ogilvy is to be gorgeous, wonderful, brilliant, fabulous, magical, beautiful, big and sexy, we must first be brave, idealistic, curious, playful, candid, intuitive, free-spirited, and persistent.” David Ogilvy

    Fear is a demon that devours the soul of an agency: it diminishes the quality of our imagination, it dulls our appetite for adventure, it sucks away our youth.
    How great we become depends on the size of our dreams. Let’s  dream humongous dreams, put on our overalls, go out there and build them.
    An endless trail of ideas floats in the ether. You will only see them if you are curious. For a start, we have to ask stupid questions like a pesky 6-year-old.
    The man loved a good joke, especially one with some ‘wind’ in it. All our art, all our science and all our philosophy have been invented by playful people, not serious people.
    We are a company of problem-solvers. Our job requires us to be brutally honest and totally dedicated to the truth.
    The creative director thought it was funny.
    The managing director thought it was funny.
    The chairman thought it was funny.
    The tea lady thought it was funny.
    The client thought it was funny.
    The client’s wife thought it was funny.
    The client’s butcher thought it was funny.
    Okay now, let’s research it to see if it’s funny.
    All our finest thoughts and best ideas are not the work of the logical mind, but gifts from the unconscious.
    Rule 1. There are no rules.
    Rule 2. Never forget rule one.
    Never give in. Never give in. Never give in. Never. Never. Never. Never.
    If the client kills your ad, do him a better one.
    If he kills that better one, do him an even better one.
    If he kills that even better one, do him your damn best one.

David Ogilvy