Thirty Years with David Ogilvy

By Deborah Ference-Gray

In January 1990, I was 35 years old and had not one moment of real estate experience. Through friends’ kind recommendations, David Ogilvy agreed to meet with me. That day, I stepped through the red door at David Ogilvy & Associates, 75 Arch Street, not realizing that I would be doing that every day for the next 30 years.

If you didn’t know that David Ogilvy was “somebody,” one look at him and you assumed he must be.

With blazing blue eyes, he had the looks and voice that movie stars, not to mention politicians, covet. His bearing was aristocratic; his manners, impeccable. He was endearing in his boyish charm; awesome in his commanding presence. He had star quality, but he had more than that. He had a gift, and it was real estate.

In 1990, when I joined DO&A as a sales associate, the Greenwich real estate market was still in the doldrums of the 1987 crash. Things were slow, and you were lucky if you sold one or two houses in a year. The bottom was November of 1991. After that, small sales, like tiny pockets of air bubbling to the surface of a stagnant pond, indicated signs of life in the market. The recovery had begun, and by the mid-1990s, the market had returned.

At that time, I had a client, Mary Waterman (one of the three original Breast Cancer Alliance women, sadly) to whom I’d been showing houses. She remarked on how our listings at DO&A, while the same square footage and on comparable pieces of land in comparable locations, were priced significantly higher than other listings, and she wondered why. Thinking quickly for an explanation to this new question, I blurted out, “Beauty is expensive.” Then, having a memory flash of a moment when our office came to price a house I was about to list, I said, “It’s the Wow Factor. If David walks into a house and says, ‘Wow,’ the price goes up 15%.” No one said ‘Wow’ back then. It was cartoon language like ‘Bam’ and ‘Pow.’ But David said it, and it made a difference.

Some agents were disgruntled by David’s aggressive pricing of listings: Pitching a listing and promising a higher price usually meant that agent would get the listing. And it did. David had more listings than any other broker. And not just more listings, but better listings.

David knew everyone worth knowing, and everyone worth knowing either knew him or wanted to know him. Those people of those days had beautiful homes, not the preferred grey boxes of today, or houses decorated by someone else, but filled with treasures from their travels, or reflective of a happy, full and accomplished life. And those houses were the listings of DO&A. They were beautiful, they were in the best locations on the best pieces of land, they were expensive, and they were bought and sold at a staggering rate.

In those heady days, David was our fearless leader. His fiduciary responsibility to his clients was paramount, and he sought to obtain the highest and best offers for them. He drove the market. Pushing the prices of listings, and getting them; often selling them himself. People turned to him and trusted him, and he got the job done.

There are things about the way David did business: Always discreet; Always polite. In 30 years, he never breached a confidence, and I never saw him even come close to losing his temper. One afternoon, we saw him standing with a client in our parking lot. The client was expressing frustration at something, and the angrier this fellow got, the calmer David got, clasping his hands in front of him, tilting his head with a pleasant look on his face. It was classic David. When he came into the office after that, I commented on how it seemed he was being given a difficult time, and how calm his reaction was. “Always polite,” was his cheerily disciplined answer.

That was the thing. At his core was kindness, caring, patience, understanding, and he brought those personal qualities to his professional life and to every transaction. He didn’t ‘try’ to be any of those things, he simply was those things.

David, having been in the business of real estate for more than 40 years, knew every house in town and its history. At DO&A, we had a card catalogue in which was kept every transaction of every house going back to 1985, and which he has in his office to this day. Unique to David, I believe, because of his vast knowledge, was that if he referred to a house, it was never referred to by its address, it was referred to by its former owner—if you owned the house now, it wasn’t referred to by your name, but by the former owner’s name. It wouldn’t be referred to by your name until you moved out. We all followed his example and it expanded our knowledge base.

Real estate has always been a central topic of conversation in Greenwich, and wherever David went, cocktails parties, fundraisers, reunions, he was at the center of every conversational group. People couldn’t get enough of him; they wanted the inside story on the real estate market and no one knew more or was more fascinating than David Ogilvy. People gathered around him and were mesmerized by the information and insight he imparted. One felt elevated, privileged, to be in his orbit.

Every Friday morning at 9:30 we had our office meeting. Getting up from our London-made mahogany desks, we’d gather in the conference room to discuss every listing and what needed pricing, showings, advertising. DO&A ads were unlike any other. Like his father, David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather (the King of Madison Avenue; e.g. Hathaway shirt ad), David knew marketing. Our photographer was the best; our copy, written by David, was the best; our placement was the best. I wish I’d taken notes from those meetings. One thinks those days will last forever, and doesn’t realize there is a mortal treasure in one’s midst. Imagine going to work every day and being able to admire and respect the person one worked for, knowing he was infinitely smarter. It was amazing. It was a privilege.

At our unofficial Christmas dinner recently, I had the pleasure of sitting next to David. We lamented about how things have changed in real estate; the market, the people, the advent of Zillow. I said how glad I was that he had had his career during the Golden Age of Greenwich real estate. What I should have said, and wished I’d said, was that he created that Golden Age, probably single handedly. In his career, he personally had more than $3 billion in sales.

In their outpouring of sympathy today, people kindly say that David was the penultimate gentleman. Yes. A legend. Absolutely. But he was more than that. He was the King of Greenwich real estate.

I daresay we will not see his like again.

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