Into Asia and life after Ogilvy: the latter life and times of Michael Ball

Michael Ball, who died this week, helped build Ogilvy & Mather into a global powerhouse. But his time there was merely the first act. In part two of his interview with Mumbrella, Ball discussed founding his eponymous agency and life beyond advertising.

Michael Ball had spent his life travelling the globe, helping to build Ogilvy & Mather from an American and European-centric business into a true global network as vice president of Ogilvy & Mather International.

Along the way he had become Australia’s highest-earning executive in 1984, reportedly pocketing $550,000 and outstripping the likes of resources mogul John Elliott and TNT managing director Sir Peter Abels, according to Australian Business.

Read part 1 of Michael Ball’s life story here.


Life after Ogilvy

He kept driving the international efforts of Ogilvy and then created a second network, Meridian, which was to operate as a house of conflict for the parent agency. Having missed out on the top job after David Ogilvy’s retirement, the decision proved to be the doorway to a second act in his career that in the eyes of many was a match for the first.

“I had the idea of setting up a second Ogilvy & Mather brand, which would be exactly Ogilvy & Mather, would have exactly the same disciplines, people, training, structures, resources and we just happened to call it Meridian because we were on the meridian. And also it meant in the dictionary “moment of supreme excellence”.

“Ken Roman (Global CEO of Ogilvy) for the first time came out to Asia and saw Meridian and said ‘fuck, this is like Ogilvy & Mather’ and I said ‘exactly, you’ve got it in one. It’s supposed to be’. He said, ‘well we can’t have that, there’s got to be only one Ogilvy & Mather’.

I said ‘look, you dope, the whole idea is to tell the client you are in the network you are still the same. He said: ‘It doesn’t matter, we are going to sell Meridian’. So I thought, ‘well, fuck, if you’re going to sell it I’m going to buy it. Which I did.”

The move meant while the agency had an Ogilvy & Mather heritage it could not position itself as Ogilvy & Mather and so was born the Ball Partnership.

“I said the positioning I want to see us being in is a partnership like a law firm where you have a senior lawyer attending to your business and when that senior lawyer is full you get another senior lawyer.

“Have a flat layer of senior people dealing with senior clients and sharing their values – hence, partnership. So we called it the Ball Partnership.”

Ogilvy retained a 40% stake in the business, but the group cut off all access to resources, saying the new network was viewed as competition.

“I couldn’t get any money to expand, I couldn’t offer any training programs or advancement.”

A lifeline for the future of the agency came from Peter Scott from WCRS in London which had also hooked up with Jerry Della Femina in the US and Euro in Europe.

“He said, ‘we aren’t in Australia and Asia, and that’s where we want to be’.

“Peter Scott offered access to the world – really, as much money as we wanted and globalisation at a period where that was all the go. So I sold it to them. Ogilvy made more money from its 40% than it ever made in anything else in its life and I joined the board of WCRS and moved back to London.”

It was the mid 1980s and, aged 50, Ball had launched an entirely new career, having already accomplished more than any other Australian advertising man up to that point. The network across Australia and Asia continued to grow – one of the few success stories in the region for what was, ostensibly, an Australian business – albeit owned by the French.

However, Ball was beginning to get restless and cut a part-time deal with Euro.

That was the stupidest thing I ever did because you can’t work half-time in an advertising agency. What does that mean? Nine to 12,12 to five, Monday til Wednesday lunch? Either you’re in or you’re out, so I ended up working full-time for half-pay.

“And I didn’t like the French that much anyway. So I’d had enough of the advertising business and retired.”

Outside advertising

Ball joined the board of David Jones and started working with a number of government corporations.


“I don’t regret a minute of selling out to Euro because I made quite a lot of money out of it and I think the better people did well there.”

One of the elements of Ball’s professional life that some would cast as a failure, he lists as a success.

Even though the marketing communications holding company group Totam never got off the ground, Ball was adamant it was a success.

Totam was built as a vehicle for a selection of independent agencies to come together in one group with the aim of floating but, unlike similar ventures Photon (now Enero) and Blue Freeway, it never made it to market.

Ball’s idea was that small agencies that would never see the value of their investment could extract the value through the group approach.

“I would put that as a success. I would put it as a success because I saw two things. I saw number one people overstating their performance and projections by a mile. When you hear that same story time and time again, you think, ‘hang on, this is a time bomb that is going to go off’. And you know that the ones who wanted to sell were the worst ones; the best ones didn’t want to sell.”

He pulled the pin on the idea before it was fully-formed, with some of the assets going to STW (Now WPP AUNZ)

“(Photon founder) Tim Hughes called me up from Photon and asked, ‘why don’t we merge the two together, and I said, ‘yeah, two piles of poo’.”

The Bradman Museum was a passion for Ball

The Bradman Museum was a passion for Ball

Beyond the advertising world, Ball’s second life was one devoted to philanthropy, most notably his support for the Bradman Museum in Bowral, which he helped turn into a Cricket Hall of Fame after discovering no such thing existed outside the ICC’s own version.

His work turned a Museum from a display with a few bats and balls into a true multimedia experience with interviews with greats from the game.

“Can you believe that Lords, you name it, had no interviews with with any cricketer? Here we have interviews with people – many of whom are gone, impossible to recreate.”

The museum was one of Ball’s proudest legacies.

His time on the board of the National Trust was another area of pride, being part of a push for the Trust to celebrate culture and not just the built environment.

Ball also helped advise on the sale of Australia’s airports, getting a taste of the world of infrastructure that he would have never seen in his previous life.

“We thought we did well and we managed to get above the guidelines we were given by the government, but frankly we could have made a shitload more money if we had been tougher,” he reflected on his experience.

“It was fascinating to be on the other side of the fence and selling multi-billion dollar assets, which is something I could never have done in advertising.

“David Jones was another fascinating thing because it was then owned by Adsteam who wanted to sell it first as a private trade sale or to float it. That was something else. I walked into a meeting there one day and they had so many bloody advisors they didn’t have any seats left. It was a really amazing experience and I’d never done that before at that level of brokering – selling a company.”

Reflections of an advertising man

Even as he left advertising, Ball remained forever interested in the field and in the companies in which he carved his colossal career.

He continued to see Ogilvy as one of the great advertising brands.

“It has a great client base, quite a few of which are multinational. In its training, which still exists there for its people, and its culture is pretty good.”

Ball liked former Ogilvy global CEO Miles Young who has just stepped down

Ball liked former Ogilvy global CEO, Miles Young, who recently stepped down

He reflected on his “great respect and admiration” for former Ogilvy CEO, Miles Young, who stepped down from the role in early September.

It’s still a good agency and it has some great assets new management in David Fox, ‘Foxy’, who is a good man, and it’s really a question of converting those assets into new business and excitement and culture.”

Of the man who came to own the business that he played such a pivotal role in helping to build, Sir Martin Sorrell, Ball had clear views.

“It speaks for itself, the record. Here was a guy who was the finance director of Saatchi & Saatchi, who said, ‘why am I doing this for Saatchi, why don’t I do this for myself?’, and he’s bigger than Saatchi and bigger than anybody in the world.”

When it comes to The Ball Partnership, which became part of Euro RSCG, initially, and now Havas, he admits he never had much time for Euro, but he spoke fondly of Havas’s Australian boss, Anthony Gregorio, and the way the business has evolved.

“I never had great respect for the company, Euro, but they have done better than I thought they’d do,” he said.

“The local guy, Anthony Gregorio, is a top guy and I think they have done very well here and in various other markets.”

Ball lrated Havas' new generation of leadership in Anthony Gregorio

Ball rated Havas’ new generation of leadership in Anthony Gregorio

Ball looked back on his time in advertising, from the rise of the Mad Men era, the power of TV and the dawn of the internet age and said that while many factors had attracted his attention as major shifts in the industry over more than 60 years, globalisation had the most impact.

“The idea that the world is one market would be, I think, the single biggest environmental factor,” Ball said.

His experience in Asia was also defining for the man as he saw the impact that Asia, and China in particular, would have on the world as it developed its consumer markets.

Ball’s short book, ‘The Long March to Consumerism’, captured the way in which he had seen China evolve from the mid 1970s.


Getting caned with Dame Edna

Throughout his life Ball was forever travelling, learning and building.

But one of the central elements of his being was the close friendship he struck with comedian Barry Humphries – the creator of Dame Edna Everage – as a kid at Melbourne Grammar School.

The pair remained in touch wherever they were, often conversing daily.

“I was, as Barry describes it, an ‘acolyte’ – he’s two years older than I am. Somehow, and I don’t remember how, I hung around Barry and his set who were non-conformists. That was the big thing.

“The little thing was Barry hated sport and it was obligatory to play a sport – football in the winter, cricket in the summer. You had to get your name ticked of, so Barry would put on his football shorts and go out and get his name ticked off and then went back to the locker room, got changed and went home.”

Eventually staff got on to the scam and locked the locker rooms after everyone was changed.

Barrie Humphries as his alter egos Dame Edna and Sir Les

Barrie Humphries as his alter egos Dame Edna and Sir Les

“Barry asked me, ‘would you take my clothes up to the toilets – the dunnies as we would call them – so when I’ve been ticked off I can go up and get changed and go home?’

“I did this regularly, as we went to school with a Gladstone bag – stuff all his clothes in and hang around and wait. One day I was waiting in one of the dunnies and Barry was getting changed and there was hammering on the door and the school captain shouting ‘the game’s up Humphries!’.

“So we both got caned.”

Given the chance to reflect, Ball found it difficult to consider his life anything but amazing even as he saw the end of the road in the distance.

“I have had the luckiest and best time in history, in the whole of world history, from the time of my birth til now, there has never been a better time in the world,” he said.

“There was never a better time to live than the time I have lived because it’s been an exciting, developing world. There’s been this tremendous growth of business, media, excitement, change. I have no regrets about anything. Thank God I was here at that time and had these experiences.”

Read part 1 of Michael Ball’s life story here.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.