Wally Olins

Philip Orwell 15.04.24
Read time — 6 minutes

It’s been 10 years since we lost Wally Olins, a man whose brilliance shaped all of us. Here’s what the founder of venturethree, Philip Orwell, wrote at the time.

Wally shaped ALL of us. I don’t mean everyone in our company or even everyone in our industry. I mean everyone who has any sense of what a business or brand is. It’s easy now in an age of brand exuberance to forget that most client presentations used to start with a kill the shibboleths” on Why identity matters’.

None of that is necessary today. It’s widely fashionable to talk about purpose’ and values’. Just this morning, the BBC’s John Humphries quizzing Tesco’s CEO asked, People don’t seem to know now what Tesco is for?” That’s a question straight out of Wally’s playbook and that he certainly wouldn’t have hesitated to have an answer to.

Not singlehandedly, Michael Wolff and Walter Landor each played a major part too, he created a whole new way to look at and think about organisations, mainly business ones. He drew his inspiration not from the dry world of organisational theory, but from colourful figures in the worlds of economic history and psychoanalysis.

And colour was his trademark too. Colourful ties, colourful socks and most importantly, colourful language. Few of us who worked with him escaped a verbal beating (he would have had a better word for it) at some point or other. It was necessary. We all needed waking up. There was no point in maintaining a fiction to flatter corporate vanity, Wally taught us. People needed to be told the truth and the less varnished, the more effective.

Sometimes this could be quite an onslaught. BT, who hired Wolff Olins to drastically upgrade their image, got an early taste of this. What sort of company,” Wally railed at them, requires the people they are relying on to save them, to sign a contract that subjugates them to draconian penalties?”, waving the contract in the air and reducing BT senior executives to a stunned silence.

It was all theatre of course. And Wally was a master of the theatrical. When he removed his jacket at the start of a talk or mid-way through a meeting, you knew he was readying to come out fighting and, so long as you weren’t the one in the firing line, you could look forward to the pugilistic pounding that would follow. He was absolutely uncontainable, a man who knew his own mind and was utterly unafraid to share its contents with you. However alarming, punishing, provocative or purely entertaining that might be.

How the bloody hell should I know,” he screamed down the phone to a hapless reporter from The Sun who had tracked him down in Malawi to ask if he thought the leaked BT Piper logo could really change BT, I’m on an elephant in the middle of Africa.”

And he had this relentless undimmable marvellous energy. Even when Gaston Thorn, former president of the European Commission fell asleep during a presentation by Wally in Luxembourg, Wally pressed on with full vigour, knowing that when Thorn woke up, the shock of waking up to Wally would be reward enough.

It wasn’t always easy for the people around him to live up to his unyielding standards. His most senior colleagues were often labelled meek, weak or simply inept. One was damned as scrofulous”. He could laser in on human weaknesses and then play them back to you with a brilliantly funny turn of phrase. He never told jokes, only stories – and he was a quite brilliant storyteller, especially over dinner, preferably late evening in Madrid, and with a good bottle of wine.

There was an elegance to Wally. To the way he dressed, the cars he drove, the way he spoke, the way he behaved (when he wasn’t spluttering with fury about something). Not a pompous formal elegance, an unstuffy sophistication and urbanity, that made him such an appealing and endearing and one hundred percent human being. Challenged on why one would ask for marmalade in a taxi drivers’ greasy spoon, he said it was a triumph of breeding over environment”. Wally never pretended not to be well-bred, well-cultured and well-read: he relished being able to make connections that no-one else would even contemplate or be erudite enough to question. We could only learn and lionise. 

He didn’t beat about the bush. He told you what you needed to do and god help you if you didn’t do it. One client Chairman had the temerity to ask Wally after a pitch presentation (as they stood peeing next to each other) So, what do we do now?”. You give us the job, that’s what” answered Wally. And they did. 

Although he worked in a world of design and visual skills, it was never completely clear how much value he placed on these and whether he saw them as necessary, but secondary to a bigger purpose. One celebrated Wolff Olins’ designer was characterised as Absolutely potty. Quite disgusting actually. Probably goes for walks on Hampstead Heath with nothing on under his raincoat. Utterly brilliant though!” 

And he insisted that a partner was an emotional need, not a functional one” and his elimination of Michael Wolff from the firm was ruthless, although necessary and justified in Wally’s post-rationalised accounting. Together with his massive human warmth, he could be brutal, even a bully, and this revealed a deeper inner complexity that perhaps only Wally himself could properly explain. 

He was a bear of a man. A big loveable hugely entertaining bear. He had bear-like appetites, for work, for food, for ideas, for the company of intelligent young people, for travel adventures and for everything that could enlarge and invigorate one’s mind. 

So it really did seem that he would never stop. The plan was to keep moving, keep remaking himself in the same inimitable Wally mould, so that death could never catch up with him. And we all wanted to believe that. Believe that he could go on and on.

Our friend Tay Chong Huang said this morning that we are all Wally’s children.” We are. And there are hundreds, even thousands of us. And there will be millions. Wally taught us how to do what we do and through our work, we are passing that on every day.

Boiling it all down, Wally said we (human beings) only have two desires – to belong and to be different. 

We were lucky enough to belong to Wally’s mission and life journey, to ride on his coat-tails and hang on for dear life too. To be on the receiving end of his enormous generosity.

And we were also lucky enough to have some of what made him special rub off on us, so that we could stand out in our own different individual ways. 

To know Wally, to work with Wally, was simply the most unforgettable honour and privilege. No-one was bigger or will ever be bigger in our sphere. He was a colossus, he made us what we are and we owe him a colossal thank you.

London, 16 April 2014

Contact us+44 (0)20 7290 1950[email protected]
We use cookies. View our Privacy policy for details.