Ogilvy rebrands, re-founds and breaks barriers to modernize; Paul O’Donnell Q&A

In the last few decades, it has been easy to see just how much the marketing and PR industries have changed and evolved.

Evolution has become a necessity.

It’s been an intense ride, with a crazy influx of new technologies, platforms, communication channels, strategies and changes to the average consumer/stakeholder’s behavior.

Young companies have had the advantage of being able to adapt quickly to these new changes, keeping up with new demands and shifts, but what about those who have been rooted by stone through time?

Most companies are staying steadfast in their ways, with concessions and adjustments here and there, but Ogilvy steps to the foreground with a new “re-founding” to show us that it can be done by one of the oldest and biggest brands in the industry.

We sat with Chairman & CEO of Ogilvy Europe, Middle-East and Africa, Paul O’Donnell, to discuss the re-founding, his time at Ogilvy and how he sees the industry growing.


Ogilvy’s rebranding has been undergoing for around 2 years, a massive undertaking for the company. But, what is the message behind the “re-founding?”


“I think that the message at the heart of this is a response to what we, and maybe others, [call] the great fragmentation in media.

It used to be the case, this goes back a long way to the 60s, when you knew all the media [people], you knew how to communicate, it was an algorithm that was pretty simple.

You put this much in there, you did effective advertising here, and sales growth came out the other end.

I don’t know any client, or any agency person who feels that confident that they understand the secret sauce or the algorithm anymore.”

When discussing further about the great fragmentation, including the fragmentation of media and the fragmentation of audiences, O’Donnell explains it doesn’t just come from the new evolving world of technology and social media.

It can also happen due to clients being too eager or aggressive in their efforts.

“I believe that the clients themselves are as guilty, if not more so, than agencies since the agencies tend to follow in fragmenting their own efforts. You know, as with each new opportunity, whether it’s social or public relations… they often just hire new agencies.”

They only want focused experts so they end up with, you know, 200 agencies working on this thing and how can you have a clear, coherent point of view when you got that many partners?

“So, I think there has been a fragmentation of agency-partner, fragmentation of effort, [with] activists attacking, with the need to reduce costs. They’re saying ‘I want to simplify things again, I need to get back to the core issues, I need to make my brand matter’ which is really where we’re really coming from.

How do you make that brand matter by circling the wagons and concentrating your efforts?

And there are a million things you can do today, across the 360 degrees as they say, [but] probably 15 or 20 degrees are optimal for any given client at any time.

If you have a broad enough understanding of that, a bit of humility and a trusted enough relationship, you can work with a client to get that 20% or 20 degrees of the mix you need to go through [for a great project].”




“Our challenge was to make it as easy for our clients to get help from us in doing that as possible. And to organize ourselves so we can also do that in a cost effective manner, because cost is also an issue for us.

So, what we have chosen to do in the new sort of re-founding of the business is to reiterate that we believe very much in Public Relations and influencers as being part of what we do. So is Advertising and Branding. As well as Customer Engagement and E-commerce. Those are the 3 things that we want to do.

We believe that we are developed enough in those areas to kind of bring them together in one business.

There will still be people responsible for them in the company, but [it will] allow us to bring that range of thinking more seriously to clients.”

So hopefully [we can provide] a faster, more integrated proposition but not a dumb one.

“Because the danger is that sometimes you integrate things, you sort of dumb them down. So, I’m very clear when I look at any market…

I think we can win more competitive pitches when we come in with an integrated approach.

If we do that, and we do it in an integrated way, I believe we’ll win.”

The Transformation

The market is currently very dynamic and always changing.

In a country like Egypt, economic constraints have become one of the elements we must consider during the decision-making process, and digital has become one of the solutions.

Digital marketing has completely changed the marketing landscape, both locally and internationally.

We asked O’Donnell about what the next step could be for the communications industry.

“I think we have a big opportunity for us and I think there is a big opportunity everywhere.

The first one is, having just done a re-founding which is a bit internally focused, it’s a logo and some words and some new colors if we are going to be honest about that. We need to make it mean something.”

We need to make it matter.

“So, for me, there are messages that I’m interested in us putting out to the marketplace.

One is that message of we believe in brands and we believe that by really understanding a brand and projecting a brand over a longer term, which is a better way to create value than just tactics or sales driven tactics.

I think there is a story, a good conversation to be had with clients about that. And not just with our traditional clients, new entrants, new players who want to build value in the long term.

I think the second issue is a very hot one for us, and that’s marketing transformation. I don’t know any of our major clients that don’t have a marketing transformation project on-going…

The third one is the whole digital transformation pace because I think those two are different. I think they are intersected, but they are different.

For 20 years we’ve been investing in digital, digitalizing different aspects of our business, because obviously the world moves on.

But I think we’ve learnt a lot.

I think we could do a much better job of partnering with our clients on those digital transformation journeys that exist…

And I think we could help clients get to where they want to get to sooner, and I think we’re hiding our experience under the bushel a bit.”

So, I’d like to be clear on that as part of a message that this new Ogilvy is very much about: digital transformation, marketing transformation and brands are at the core.


Digital as a spearhead, or part of an integrated plan?

O’Donnell shared his views on whether we should support directional thinking (using only digital or traditional media) or if we should be mixing traditional and digital, using all capabilities and tools we have to formulate an integrated plan.

“I think it depends so much on who you are, who your audience is, where you are, in terms of the channels available to you, and also your resources.

So, if I were to, tomorrow, start a small youth-orientated fashion business, I could probably get away with social media, and maybe some stunts as a means to tie those two together. I think it could be quite agile, because, I sort of know who my audience is.

They’re so well connected, I’m not sure I would need to go [traditional], just as traditionally people often used just PR as a means of starting their business.”

Once you start to have scale, and once you want to reach audiences that aren’t that easy to reach, or once you want to also send some other messages, like brand authority or price premium, then I think you need to use other communication makes [models/channels] like traditional advertising.

“You know, we were one of the first agencies to really embrace behavioral economics [using psychology and economics for insights on behavior] as a new way of thinking about the world. Where everything isn’t just rational economics, people behave very differently.

And we had this meeting last week in the UK.

[We’ve] had two noble prize-winning guys, Richard Taylor and Daniel Kahneman, in previous years attend the sessions.

The idea was the signaling effect of advertising.

Even if [advertising] is not very well-targeted to your audience, it actually suggests many things to them.

1 – You are probably not going to go broke because you can afford to buy advertising.

2 – You’re probably a premium brand in that sense.

So, I think, if you had the options and you had the budget, I would mix based on all the things I am trying to do.

I do think that today, many brands can begin with just some smart Public Relations activity tied into social platforms. And I prove it every day.”


Career and PR

Working at Ogilvy for 33 years, O’Donnell has adapted through multiple disciplines over the course of his time at the company.

Just after leaving a telephone marketing agency early in his career, which he says “…I hated the company, I hated the person that ran it, and it was just a horrible place to work,” he was able to find his way to Ogilvy through a lucky encounter.

“[I] then joined a training program called the BDMA at the time which is now the DMA, Direct Marketing Diploma.

And I went to the guy who ran it and said ‘look I’ve got a terrible job. I’m going to get a better one. I’d like to do the course, and when I get the better job’, and this showed my confidence, ‘I’ll get them to pay for it.’

And he’s like ‘Great! Come along, I’m sure you will.’

And I met someone from Ogilvy, who was running a B2B program… So, I joined after one meeting, I just joined the agency and stayed from then on out.”

Since then, O’Donnell has been successfully weaving through the company, helping build its legacy, even hiring current heads such as Michael Frohlich, Ogilvy UK CEO.

Yet, after all these years, he still seems enamored by the work the industry does.

“So, David Ogilvy used to say that Direct Mail was my first love and secret weapon. I started with that one but for me, PR was at least my third love and I think a secret weapon in building [my] capability.

But I think the overall way you can use influence and strategic PR beyond press releases and such, in terms of transforming brands with real agility, is a fascinating part of what we do.

And it is core, really, to everything we do today.”


Advice for the younger generation

Before leaving, the Ogilvy CEO dropped some advice for young professionals still trying to figure things out.

“I think that people say Millennials are greedy and are not better at investing enough time in the process, they require recognition and attention.”

I required recognition and attention when I was beginning actually, if I remember correctly, and I was only interested in stuff if I got some kind of return from it. Whether it was a positive engagement, fun, or something that was intellectually stimulating. I think that’s still true…

“And I do think that when you’re at the beginning of your career, you should try quite a few different things, I still think you should try and find quality businesses to work at.

Once you’ve zeroed in on roughly what you want to do, I would try to go for quality, I wouldn’t go for the most money in those times and I [would] build that experience and those relationships, because that’s what you can translate and cash in on later as you go through.

And I also wouldn’t be afraid to go into something and realize it’s not for me and jump out quickly and repop myself in another [job], because you still can when you’re young.

I think too many people in the past have been locked in because they did a degree in the subject, because they are in the degree program, and it’s not something they enjoy doing.

And no one should spend their life doing that when there are so many opportunities out there.

But I think that and being curious, that’s one thing that comes to me all the time.

Curious people tend to be successful.”

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