Timeless Wisdom from David Ogilvy

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ogilvy-timeless-wisdom_book-cover-smallHe was the founder of legendary ad firm Ogilvy and Mather and is widely considered the father of modern advertising. David Ogilvy was a pioneer of a new breed of advertising. Commercials that didn’t ask something of the viewer, but instead, gave them something. A laugh. A provoking thought. A few moments of entertainment. Information-rich, “soft sell” ads that didn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. These were sales messages that didn’t call attention to themselves; at the time, it was advertising heresy.

As a copywriter, Ogilvy crafted concepts that had big, big ideas. He dreamed up “The Man in Hathaway Shirt”, as well as now classic campaigns for Dove, Rolls Royce, Guinness, Puerto Rico and so many others. Even back in 1950, he was decades ahead of his time. His “The Guinness Guide to Oysters” is one of the earliest and most successful examples of what we now call “native advertising”.

In 1962, Time magazine called David Ogilvy “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry…the creative force of modern advertising.” Truly, he was the first great Mad Man.ogilvy-timeless-wisdom_chateau-de-touffou

David Ogilvy died in July 1999 at his home, the Château de Touffou, in Bonnes, France, but his ideas endure.

Perhaps the most prescient and entertaining book of his wisdom, The Unpublished David Ogilvy (Crown Publishing Group, 1987), is a compendium of his lectures, letters, memos, speeches and lists first collected by his family and colleagues as a seventy-fifth birthday present. One of our favorite chapters is called “Principles of Management”, based on a 1968 guide he wrote for managers of Ogilvy’s worldwide offices.

“If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Ogilvy was big on hiring major talent. His criteria:

“The paramount problem you face is this: advertising is one of the most difficult functions in industry, and too few brilliant people want careers in advertising. The challenge is to recruit people who are able to do the difficult work our clients require from us.

  1. Make a conscious effort to avoid recruiting dull, pedestrian hacks.
  2. Create an atmosphere of ferment, innovation and freedom. This will attract brilliant recruits.”

He eschewed office politics, grandiose but meaningless language and boors. He recognized that many companies were destroyed by internal politics and had sage advice for how to avoid them:

  1. "Always be fair and honest in your own dealings; unfairness and dishonesty at the top can demoralize [a company].
  2. Never hire relatives or friends.
  3. Sack incurable politicians.
  4. Crusade against paper warfare. Encourage your people to air their disagreements face-to-face.
  5. Discourage secrecy.
  6. Discourage poaching.
  7. Compose sibling rivalries.”

Being even more blunt, Ogilvy put it this way:

“Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.”

Ogilvy frequently advised “Never be hard upon people who are in your power”. He understood what truly motivates people. In his words:

“The best way to “install a generator” in a man is to give him the greatest possible responsibility. Treat your subordinates as grown-ups — and they will grow up. Help them when they are in difficulty. Be affectionate and human, not cold and impersonal.”

He also believed in the democratic nature of ideas, and Ogilvy hated pigeonholing people based on their role within his company:
“Senior men and women have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers, and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get.”

But although Ogilvy believed in respecting his staff and smothering them with encouragement and kindness, he was no pushover. In fact, he drove his staff to work ferociously hard:

“I believe in the Scottish proverb: Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.”

Ogilvy was a big believer in the power of humor:

“Kill grimness with laughter. Maintain an atmosphere of informality. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.”

In a section on nurturing up-and-coming creative talent, he offered sage advise for his creative directors:

“The management of manpower resources is one of the most important duties of our office heads. It is particularly important for them to spot people of unusual promise early in their careers, and to move them up the ladder as fast as they can handle increased responsibility.

There are five characteristics which suggest to me that a person has the potential for rapid promotion:

  1. He is ambitious.
  2. He works harder than his peers — and enjoys it.
  3. He has a brilliant brain — inventive and unorthodox.
  4. He has an engaging personality.
  5. He demonstrates respect for the creative function.

If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.”

Ogilvy had a lot to say about creativity. His philosophy still influences the industry today:

“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

“Cleverness doesn’t sell products and services. Original thinking in marketing is great, but not just for the sake of being witty or clever. If you aren’t thinking about connecting with your audience, building trust and selling your products or services when you sit down to write marketing copy, you need to reexamine your motivations.”

“Don’t just create content to get credit for being clever — create content that will be helpful, insightful, or interesting for your target audience.”

He had an innate understanding of the difficulty of the creative process, and he encouraged his creative teams to live expansive, open-minded lives:

“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.”

And finally, this. One of our favorite Ogilvy quotes; as much a philosophy about life as it is about business. It’s an approach we strive for here at First Entertainment, and we believe our efforts to live up to this lofty goal are a major reason we’ve been able to truly set ourselves apart from the other millions of financial institutions out there. So simple, yet incredibly powerful when practiced religiously:

“Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ballpark. Aim for the company of immortals.”

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