Australia’s Mad Man and Ogilvy’s apprentice: the early life and times of Michael Ball

After 80 years Michael Ball lost a long battle with cancer this week. The right hand man to David Ogilvy who went on to establish the first Aussie international network with The Ball Partnership, spoke at length with Mumbrella earlier this year about his journey. This is part one.

Back in the day when Mad Men ruled the world, Australia had its own envoy who rose to the dizzying heights of Madison Avenue, the heir apparent to one of the most famous mad men of all – David Ogilvy.

To most practitioners of the art of advertising today the name Michael Ball may mean little, but the contemporary of the likes of John Singleton, Peter Clemenger and David Mattingly, was, and perhaps remains, the most influential and powerful Australian in the history of advertising. And all from the background of the son of a poor vicar from Eastbourne.


Michael Ball lived the era of the mad men – indeed, he had a hand in creating it – practicing a profession conducted in a haze of cigarettes and martinis, where creative brilliance expressed itself on the back of a napkin, not the screen of a Mac.

Ball died on Sunday having done his best to hold cancer at bay. In his later years he surveyed the world from his Sutton Forest, NSW, homestead, a rambling few hundred acres dotted with sculptures and prize cattle.

His journey was, by any standard, remarkable, from the great man Ogilvy himself to best mate Barry Humphries and even a chance encounter on the roadside with serial killer Ivan Milat. Ball was a storyteller, and had many stories to tell.

‘Top three’

From the very beginning, it’s clear that Ball was a man who backed himself and parlayed being in the right place at the right time into a spectacular career.

We met in his favourite restaurant in Moss Vale over a seafood lunch earlier this year, and he opened the conversation with a rapid correction to my suggestion that across 50 years he was perhaps Australia’s most successful advertising man.

Well, I’d go better than that,” he responded without hesitation.

“I think what you say is quite true in the sense that the business is unforgiving in that people are forgotten very quickly – and I think they probably should be too. Life is about change and the people who, when I started, were famous and became famous.

“Some of them, although very few of them, are still around and well known, like John Singleton and Peter Clemenger. They would probably be the two best known and still vaguely involved in the business. Both of whom are very good friends of mine. But I think, at the time, I would go so far as to say I would be certainly be in the top three if not the top at various stages.”

The beginning

Those stages began nondescriptly at J. Walter Thompson in Australia, before a move to Ogilvy brought him into Asia where Ball was visionary about the potential of the region, long before it was even a twinkle in the eye of the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell.


The unlikely career arc of Michael Ball began with a brief stint as a junior accountant with an insurance company, working out interest rates using compound fractions and reporting to a division boss who sat raised above the room on a dais, dressed in a visor and arm bands to keep his cuffs clean.

Informed he was doing well and in 20 years time could aspire to be sitting on the dais, Ball fled and, through the influence of his then girlfriend who was a born again Christian, found himself enrolled in theology at Melbourne’s Ridley College, bound for a career as a missionary – all at just 16 years of age.

Those theological studies consumed him for six long years, where his strength in languages shone, while he also completed an arts degree at Melbourne University and became senior tutor of New Testament Greek.

“The longer I stayed there the less I believed in any of it,” he recalls.

So I was seen by the church powers to be a prodigy and something very special to have done as well as I did, but not a conformist – I really couldn’t go along with all the rest of the bullshit.”

Regardless of his own views on religion his career came undone when, left to oversee the college one night in the absence of the Principal, he allowed his younger brother to celebrate his 20th birthday with a party.

“He invited some friends from the university to come and have party. People arrived from all over Melbourne carrying kegs of beer and record players and, God, every rule of the college was broken with gambling, dancing, screwing.

The principal’s car broke down and he came back and he found, in his terms, an orgy.”

With that, Ball’s career as a theologian came to a swift end as it was suggested he head overseas to prevent any further embarrassment to the local Bishop.

Ball’s trip to Italy opened his eyes – not the least the voyage over on the passenger liner Fairsky where there was “nothing to do other than drink or swim and chase girls”.

With his mate, Bruce Pollard, the pair had planned to make their way to France and study at the Sorbonne, but instead followed two girls they had met onboard to Perugia where they stopped for most of the year, occasionally attending university and riding about on scooters.

“I lived on 10 shillings-a-day for accommodation, food and it was just a magical time of life because we toured all over Italy,” he said.

He quickly picked up Italian thanks to a bout of hepatitis B which saw him treated in hospital in Perugia and translating English textbooks for two of Italy’s top liver specialists while recovering.

He finally made his way to London, stranded, with no money and no prospects.

“I applied to various shops to be a shop assistant and was turned down but I heard somewhere you could work as a member of the immigration department escorting young kids to Australia as part of the Big Brother movement and I went to Australia House and applied and got one of these jobs.

“I was given a ticket and marching orders to get to Southampton and board the ship in charge of 12 kids who ranged in age from 8-18 who were absolute vagabonds. They would go off in 12 directions at night and there was no way I could track them down and they got into all sorts of trouble and I got into trouble with the ship’s captain for not keeping these kids under control.”

Getting into advertising

Back in Sydney and with a fiance who’s strict Jewish father demanded he find employment before he would be deemed worthy of marrying his daughter, Ball found his way into advertising.

J. Walter Thompson in Melbourne was his introduction to the industry through a friend.

Bob Alcock, hired Ball as a copywriter and his true career had begun.

“I went to JWT and I had no idea what a copywriter was, I literally thought it meant copying out something that somebody else had written,” he said.

Handed the advice, “put a big picture, a big logo and you have a little bit of space to write some copy. I cottoned on to that pretty well.”.

“In the early days television was live and Graham Kennedy was the great guru of live television and I had to write ads for his show – Julius Marlow shoes was one of our big clients – and he (Kennedy) demand we write six different scripts and the best ones he would convert into part of his show and the rest were just ads.”

Source: J Walter Thompson

Source: J Walter Thompson

Ball went well at JWT, rising fast, when the rumour went around town he and Allcock were plotting a new agency Allcock & Ball.

“But Bob was a true blue Thompson person. You have got to remember in those years JWT was the international agency ahead of anything else.”

Ball’s true talent proved to be with clients and he made the step into account services where his ability to soothe angry customers proved its worth.

Getting the Melbourne cast of the musical West Side Story to dance on a carpet for a client proved a success, but also introduced him to one of the show’s stars, Rita Tanno and the pair were married in June 1961.

They soon moved to the US where Ball joined JWT.

Joining Ogilvy

In an era of heavily staffed offices, and with JWT having just lost a major piece of business in Shell, Ball found he had time on his hands and started to read publications such as Printer’s Ink, learning for the first time about other agencies.

He applied for a job with Ogilvy Benson & Mather and was hired instantly – it having stolen the Shell business from JWT.


“After a few months Shell said you have got our business in the US, we want you to open an office in Canada so you have the whole of North America.”

Ball did the math, and earning US$7,000 a year and with hundreds ahead of him on the promotion queue at Ogilvy in New York, put his hand up to head to Toronto.

“I got to Toronto as the first international transferee in Ogilvy & Mather history not knowing anything about advertising anywhere in North America. I could not have had less qualifications.

But, being in the right place at the right time if you are not stupid an asset.

“As we grew and we hired, adding people underneath me within a year I was deputy managing director. And we got a number of accounts that were English-based, particularly Unilever, Schweppes, Gilbey’s Gin and Shell, of course, was English.”

That saw Ball heading to London regularly, starting what would become a career of globetrotting.

The trips gave him a chance to learn about the London part of the agency, then named Mather & Crowther, run by David Ogilvy’s brother, Francis. He was readily accepted (having been born in England) as one of them, rather than a crude American.

“I was a proper person and became very friendly with the crowd, particularly David’s brother. He was an absolutely brilliant person, he used to write speeches for Churchill after the war.”

It was the beginning of the era of the multinational company and the decision was taken to merge the US-based Ogilvy with its UK sibling Mather and & Crowther to form Ogilvy & Mather to service clients in more than one country.

The move sent Ball’s career into the stratosphere.

“A: David hated flying, he was paranoid about flying. And B: I was the only person who really understood the London company so I became involved in the merger negotiations. Being in the right place at the right time.”

David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

Ball played peacemaker between David and Francis as the agency founders decided who would be the ultimate boss of the merged entity.

The English people thought I was English… and the Americans saw me as an American… so I was trusted by both sides.”

Back to Australia

In 1965 Ball was tasked with deciding how Ogilvy could enter the southern hemisphere so it could call itself a truly global agency.

“I took nearly six months off and I toured everywhere, starting in Tokyo, the Phillipines, right down to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and wrote proposals for each area as to what we should do. I felt we were very different to all the agencies and we should actually start agencies from scratch rather than buying local agencies.”

Ball planned to kickstart the growth in Australia because clients were asking for representation, but before he could enact the expansion plan, the shambolic operations of Ogilvy in Italy were revealed and Ball was designated Mr Fixit.

“So, guess who gets to go? Someone who can speak Italian and knows the Ogilvy culture. So David says to me can you go to Italy and sort this mess out?”

A year later and with Italy fixed, Ball returned home to Canada and announced the family were moving to Australia to launch Ogilvy’s local operations and spearhead the push into Asia.

Ball raided JWT – where he began his career – for talent, and the agency was up and running.

“I took a lease on a floor at 566 St Kilda Road which was out of town. In those days all the other agencies were in town and I said bugger that, why waste money on rent and we’ll get more space, parking all the rest. Of course, later on everyone went to St Kilda Road.”

“The key to success was to introduce a totally new idea, a vision of what advertising was about. Previously until then, and even today, so much advertising is sold on hunch and creativity and the sales ability of somebody in the agency to convert a client. David Ogilvy had been a researcher with George Gallup in the US and when he started the agency, he started it as the research director. He was not the creative director at all. He couldn’t get anyone to understand the importance of research.

“David was able to prove that you could improve the effectiveness of advertising by using proven methods. So what I brought into Australia was the idea of utilising research for a campaign. That may seem so obvious today.”

As the agency began to build in Australia Ball recalled rival Peter Clemenger asking to come to the agency to better understand just what it was that Ogilvy was doing.

“Just about every Thursday evening he would come down and bring his creative director or finance director – that was Ogilvy culture that you shared things – and that is why we are still great friends today.

“I respected Peter more than I did Singo. Singo had his market, Aussie, ya ya ya, chest thumping, which worked for some people – enough to carve out a business for himself, but nowhere where we were.”

That said it was Ball that introduced Singleton to Ogilvy, a move that finally saw Singo take hold of the agency in Australia.

Lessons from David Ogilvy

While he was building the business in Australia, Ball grew closer and closer to the agency’s founder, David Ogilvy, a man who had become a giant in stature in the world of advertising.

He harks back to his close friendship with comedian Barry Humphries and the importance of chemistry between people as the reason for his close ties with Ogilvy.

Barry Humphries was a lifelong friend of Michael Ball

Barry Humphries was a lifelong friend of Michael Ball

“It’s one of those things where chemistry played a role. David was 34 years older than me but there was this chemical attraction. We just clicked.

“I worked hard and late and David worked unbelievably hard and almost every evening when I was working in New York – nearly every week – I would go into his office at six or seven o’clock and would sit down and we’d review what I’d been doing. Certainly the people in New York saw David as sitting in an ivory tower and wouldn’t dare interrupt his day. But virtually every day I was in New York I would walk into his office and we would start talking. I found him the easiest person I have ever known to talk to.

Even more importantly David taught me to listen and never to tell a client here’s what I think until you know what he thinks. He was a fantastic listener.

“Later on when I was living in London and he was in France I used to go to his chateau at least once a month and we would sit and talk for two days. His two words I would never forget would be ‘go on, go on’. It didn’t matter what I was talking about.”

Ball and Ogilvy also bonded over being non-Americans in an agency full of them.

One thing Ogilvy hated, Ball said, was speaking to big audiences when pitching for new business.

“He’d say get me the key client, the prospect, for me to talk to. He said have you tried to make love in public? Go one-on-one and understand each other.”

Despite the deep nature of their friendship, Ball said that Ogilvy could be deeply cutting as well.

“You can have a fierce argument and then be good friends. I would fight for a point of view and he would fight. But at the end of the day, and sometimes it took months, we would end up great mates and respecting each other.”

The Mad Men cliche

Until he left Ogilvy to set up his own agency, the Ball Partnership in the 1980s, Ball was one of the most travelled business executives in the world.

“I used to go from Melbourne to New York every couple of months, flying Melbourne to Sydney, then going Sydney to Nandi where the flights were so infrequent they used to have an army band come out to greet the plane with girls in grass skirts. You’d be taken off to drink Kava all day. They couldn’t navigate at night. Then from Fiji to Tahiti. Then at night from Tahiti to Acapulco. Then to Mexico City, then to Houston and then Houston to New York. This was about two-and-half days.”

But when not flying, the world around Ball was every much the Mad Men cliche.

Mad Men was exactly correct except in one detail, which was in Mad Men everyone’ in their office had a bar. That’s not true. but we had a bar in the agency.


“We drank like fish, but you didn’t walk into a guy’s office and take a handful of ice. Everyone smoked all the time. David was a chain smoker, he had a pipe, cigar and cigarette all going at the same time. Our biggest clients were cigarette makers.

“In New York across from the agency was a bar called Ratazzis. A martini was $1. A steak $7.  Everything you ate and drank there was paid by the company. I would say without doubt, every day all of us, except David who was not much of a drinker, had lunch there or somewhere similar, with two martinis to start. If you had something to talk about or celebrate, it was three. If it was a four martini lunch you didn’t go back. But, you were actually talking for most of the time about business.

“We used to take clients to lunch and dinner and they expected a lavish level of entertainment and they got it. I was even worse in London.”

He recalled his first trip to London, a trip which began with pre-lunch drinks in the director’s bar, before heading off to Les Ambassador for a meal.

“We sat the bar of Les Ambassador cracking huge bowls of gulls eggs and drinking Dom Perignon till about three o’clock and had lunch and kept drinking. We got back to the agency about 5.30 or so.”

His account director went to sign a couple of letters, leaving Ball in the office bar again.

“In walked Francis Ogilvy. Francis was a magnificent boozer. So he said: ‘Toronto Ball, so we meet at last. Let’s have a gin and French (a Martini)’.

“Graham came back and other directors walked in and we were drinking until eight o’clock. Then Francis said ‘where shall we go for dinner? Claridges I think’. So down we go to the back lane where his Rolls Royce was parked. All the directors had Rolls Royces, although they got paid bugger all. Fringe benefits (Rolls Royce was a client). We get to Claridges and in the lobby they had an orchestra and Francis said ‘play Oklahoma’. So they they started the overture and he said  ‘I want the whole score.”

Claridges, scene of Ball's first London dinner with Francis Ogilvy

Claridges, scene of Ball’s first London dinner with Francis Ogilvy

The night continued with more martinis, champagne and then by 11pm they went onto the dining room where chairs were now being packed away.

“Francis said ‘we want pheasant under glass’. He was such a big customer they pulled everything apart. I’ll never forget getting back to the Savoy at dawn – my first day in London.”

While the lifestyle was lavish, Ball recalled how David Ogilvy himself  hated waste.

Ball organised a head of offices meeting in London and hosted the main dinner at Le Gavroche, one of the most expensive restaurants in London.

“It was at a long table and David was at one end and I was at the other end. David was fiddling with the wine list and he came down and whispered “order the cheapest wine”.

“So I called the wine waiter over and said what’s the cheapest wine you have got and he said a Spanish rioccha. ‘It’s not really on the menu but we could get some for you if you really want it’. I said I do and send it to the man at the end of the table and we will have Chateaux Margot.

Till just before he died David never forgot that story, he’d say ‘I’ll never forget that you bastard, I had to sit there drinking this terrible stuff’.”

The first half of Ball’s career was shaped by Ogilvy and he rose to run all of Ogilvy’s international agencies. To all intents and purposes it appeared Ball was the heir apparent to Ogilvy on his retirement.

But Ball saw an opportunity which became the Ball Partnership – Australia’s first international network and the second half of his career.

Read part 2 of Michael Ball’s life story here.


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