Why Ogilvy’s Paul O’Donnell is leaving advertising for the sherry business
Outgoing Ogilvy EMEA chairman Paul O’Donnell discusses his career at the storied agency, and why he’s left to start a sherry business.
Paul O'Donnell, the outgoing EMEA chairman of Ogilvy / Ogilvy
A lot has happened at Ogilvy in the 37 years since Paul O’Donnell first joined. In 1985, the agency was still independent of now-owner WPP, and still guided by the legacy of founder David Ogilvy. O’Donnell, the agency’s outgoing EMEA chairman, who departed at the end of May, has enjoyed “a rich and fulfilling experience,“ he tells The Drum, having traveled the world and “helped grow brands and businesses in just about every market“.
With goodbye bashes in various markets wrapped up, he is moving on to new ventures beyond advertising after almost four decades with the company – namely, bringing fine Spanish sherry to thirsty consumers.
Asia Pacific expansion
O’Donnell rose through the ranks at Ogilvy back when global agencies still considered Asia a developing market. He helped to change that impression at the company during a long stint in Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong. He later served as president of Asia Pacific.
He tells The Drum that the chance of international travel was what convinced him to move to Ogilvy from Mitchell Bogle in the first place. ”One of the things that really appealed to me about the company was the international network and I felt that, after five years in London, while I was still young and single-ish it would be good to go somewhere else.”
After a move to San Francisco fell through, he was asked to head out to Jakarta. ”People much less knowledgeable, even in advertising circles, about the geography of the world. I remember one of the directors saying to me: ’There’s a job in India or something that sounds like the sort of thing that you’d be interested in.’ I got the file and found it was actually Indonesia.”
Working primarily on the agency’s Toyota account, O’Donnell helped scale up Ogilvy in Jakarta by hiring local talent. ”We got it up and running in about three months; they asked me to stay another three months and, after that, I went backpacking for three months.”
Following his Indonesian mission, O’Donnell was tasked with turning around the agency’s Singapore office by bringing up-to-date techniques from the UK to the city-state. ”We had a lot of fun, won lots of awards, had some great client relationships... and I think we also showed that direct marketing thinking was much more relevant to the broader marketing mix than the sort of very narrow direct mail, catalog-type stuff that people had imagined it as and that was being done in Asia at that time. We had a lot to say.”
Further gigs followed, including a move to Hong Kong to run the agency’s largest office in the region and spearhead WPP’s Asian acquisition drive. When Ogilvy rebranded itself as OgilvyOne Worldwide, O’Donnell led the charge from Hong Kong – a significant moment for its Asia Pacific business as it began to blend creative with its direct marketing expertise. ”The Ogilvy business in Asia is really strong – the emperor is far away and the hills are high,” he says, adding that its distance from the traditional center of gravity and any received marketing wisdom has been a benefit to the business over the years. ”If you want really good thinking, there tends to have always been a bit more innovation and open-mindedness in Asia, as opposed to the more entrenched markets.”
Sea Containers move
A move back to the UK in 1999 came with a new brief for O’Donnell – to begin rationalizing the agency’s sprawling London offices into an efficient organization.
Ogilvy’s offices in the redeveloped London Docklands had not been a success, he recalls: ”[Canary Wharf] was a desert for agencies. [Sir Martin Sorrell] tried to get out of it, but they couldn’t break the lease. It was a laughing stock; they only had one restaurant.”
Meanwhile, WPP’s other creative agencies were spread out across the capital. ”At one point we had 12 businesses in the Ogilvy group in London. We had Coley Porter Bell in Victoria, we had Ogilvy Action [later Geometry] and Ogilvy Healthcare in Paddington, and a few other bits dotted around. It was chaos.
”You’re trying to build an integrated structure where you work together as a group, build some culture and engagement and a sense of scale in the business, and the London traffic meant it was easier for me to visit Paris than it was to get from Canary Wharf to Westbourne Terrace [in Paddington].”
The long campaign to unite Ogilvy’s realms ended with the opening of Sea Containers House, its current headquarters. O’Donnell notes the advantages of being an early mover on the property, which afforded it some influence with the developers. ”We agreed to take the two top floors and suggested putting a roof terrace on top of it. So we had some real input on how they develop the building.”
Consolidating the agency’s real estate footprint saved it cash in the short and long term, and gave it something of a head start on agencies downsizing their physical spaces in the wake of Covid. But with the necessity of an office under question, will Sea Containers continue to pay dividends?
”I don’t think you can really, really be one integrated enterprise unless you’re actually together,” he argues. ”That’s not just the voice of someone at the end of their career; you need to be together. Perhaps not five days a week, but maybe three. You need to be physically together to make a real contribution to this business.”
The fino life
After leading Ogilvy’s UK business, and later the entire European, Middle Eastern and African operation from 2014, O’Donnell is eyeing up a new world of business to break into – a significantly sweeter one.
Sherry, he says, has a really interesting story. ”The history of it, the breadth of product in there... you have some of the sweetest and the driest wines in the world all produced in the same place.” It’s a story, he believes, is yet to be capitalized on, compared to Scotch, port, bourbon or mescal – booze with a similar cultural connection, but with a much larger commercial footprint.
”It hasn’t managed to have a great resurgence, unlike so many other spirits. So there’s a great story to be told there and brought to an English-speaking audience.” First, he’s setting up a brand – Sherry Afficianado – from his home in Andalucia, with a series of short films exploring the wine and its culinary applications. ”Following that, I want to find some e-commerce and tourist angles into the region.
”Hopefully, I can put my marketing and communications skills to use.”