The Marigold Man & the Ad Man
How two icons found a connection through marigolds and philosophy
by Kenneth Roman
For both men, it was always David, never Dave—although D.B. and D.O. were acceptable appellations within their companies. The two men were giants in their respective spheres: David Burpee, dubbed The Gardener’s Gardener by Time magazine, son of the founder and head of W. Atlee Burpee, the world’s largest mail-order seed company; and David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, creator of iconic campaigns for Hathaway shirts, Schweppes tonic and Rolls-Royce—the most famous advertising man in the world.
Marigolds Brought Them Together
Gardening brought them together for a brief interlude in 1972. They were kindred souls, passionate about their businesses, both keen gardeners, but above all, relentless promoters.
Burpee was the market leader in vegetable and flower seeds sold through mailed catalogs and in racks placed in gardening centers. The company had been acquired by General Foods (GF), Ogilvy & Mather’s largest client, as part of a strategy to diversify beyond packaged grocery products into “leisure time” activities.
As management director for the GF account at the agency, I was charged with building their business—and ours. So, with the acquisition of Burpee, I was off to Doylestown, Bucks County, Pa., to win their advertising account.
Our big idea was a Green Thumb Plans Board: an ad-hoc team of agency people who liked to garden. At the new business presentation, we paraded their expertise with photos and a precis of their horticultural credentials.
One bio was key to our winning the business. Gene Grayson, a tough-talking, black-bearded creative director, wrote: “I love gardening. I love it more than sex. No, on second thought, I love sex more. But it was close.” The Burpee people quoted that back to us for years.
It didn’t hurt that David Ogilvy wrote David Burpee from his chateau in France.
“Dear Mr. Burpee:
“My firm Ogilvy & Mather is a candidate for appointment as your advertising agency.
“If this comes to pass, I shall be extremely happy, because I too am a gardener. I have been a Life Fellow at the Royal Horticultural Society for 39 years.
“My wife and I have just returned from visiting some gardens in England. The Old Roses at Sissinghurst and at Savill Gardens were glorious beyond description.
“We spend our summers here in France, where we have 95 different kinds of rose—about 700 plants. The star today is Mermaid—6 of them rampaging up a 15th-century stone wall, and covered with flowers.
“I hope you will come and visit here—whether or not you hire Ogilvy & Mather.”
Both men were inveterate showmen.
Ogilvy had bought a farm in Intercourse, in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, in 1946. But the newspaperman who interviewed him when he bought it was skeptical: “We never thought of him as a farmer. He was a man who lived on a farm.” His aunt never considered him much of a gardener: “You only grow things for show.”
What Ogilvy cared about was selling, derived from an early stint in Scotland selling cooking stoves door to door, at the depths of the Depression. The lesson was indelible: “No sale, no commission. No commission, no eat. That left a mark on me.” It informed his philosophy of advertising: “We Sell. Or Else.”
He knew how to steal a scene, and he was driven around New York in a Rolls-Royce when they were still a rare sight. On formal occasions, he often donned a kilt. “If you can’t advertise yourself,” he proclaimed, “how can you advertise for your clients?”
Burpee’s promotional talents came into play when a root disease struck his best-selling sweet-pea business in the 1920s. The sweet pea was America’s favorite annual, and Burpee was its home. He pinned his hopes for a replacement on the marigold, which had many but not all the characteristics of the perfect flower—easy to grow, pretty, adaptable to hot summers, long flowering, lasting in bouquets, long stems for cutting.
“Burpee swiftly set about making the marigold over into a glamor girl,” his biographer wrote, “as calculatingly as a Hollywood mother grooming her pigtailed moppet to be ready for the big chance.”
And he was determined to do it before the rose growers succeeded in their campaign to name the rose as America’s national flower. D.B. attacked with a marigold blitz through the ’50s and ’60s. He delivered oversize marigolds to the White House and named varieties ‘First Lady’ and ‘Mamie Eisenhower’. He named a ‘Mr. Sam’ marigold for Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a ‘Senator Dirksen’ marigold for Everett Dirksen, for his remarks on the Senate floor on behalf of “native” marigolds: “Native in character—grows and thrives in all 50 states.”
He hired pretty girls to stand on the steps of Congress, handing out cards. On one side:
“SALUTE THE ROSE! The National Floral Emblem of England”
On the other:
“SALUTE THE MARIGOLD! For the National Floral Emblem of the United States of America. The Marigold is a native of the American continent and of NO where else in the world. The American Marigold is not the Native Flower of any other country.”
The Washington Post reported a Burpee win: “Rose Party Has One Thorn: Marigold Mars Rosy Glow.”
Still, he lost the battle when the US Senate anointed the rose in 1985. But his promotional efforts had made the marigold America’s most popular flower, its visibility further boosted by a national contest to develop a true white marigold—with a prize of $10,000, big money in 1954. Eager gardeners submitted seeds for testing each year for more than 20 years until the company itself finally developed a white marigold in 1975 (and awarded the prize money to a California entrant as a consolation). The contest was a PR coup.
Winning the Account
Burpee did assign its advertising account to Ogilvy & Mather, and Ogilvy visited his new client. He charmed Burpee’s head gardener, telling him, “In my next life, I want to have your job.” The gardener melted.
David Burpee died in 1980, at 87; David Ogilvy died in 1999, at 89. Both had built strong brands—a concept Ogilvy was first to champion, in 1955. Both their companies had been sold to others, but their names were still on the door . . . and in D.B.’s case, in the garden.
This story is an excerpt of a feature in the November/December 2017 issue of Horticulture—order a copy and read the whole story. The author, Kenneth Roman, a former chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, is also the author of a biography of David Ogilvy and a Life Trustee of The New York Botanical Garden.