David Ogilvy

Six pearls of wisdom from ‘The Unpublished David Ogilvy’

David Ogilvy has always been one of my marketing heroes, and I devoured his book Ogilvy on Advertising, a must-read for anyone in the marketing world. When Ogilvy turned 75, in 1986, his colleagues put together The Unpublished David Ogilvy, based on his letters, speeches and interviews – and it more recently became published as a book. From reading it, here are six thing unmissable bits of advice.

1. The five characteristics that suggest potential for promotion

Ogilvy says it’s important to remember to promote and recognise up-and-coming talent. He sees the five characteristics of top talent as:

  • being ambitious
  • working harder than peers
  • brilliant brain (“inventive and unorthodox”)
  • engaging personality
  • respect for the creative function

2. Companies should encourage those who innovate

“The best leaders are apt to be found among those executives who have a strong component of unorthodoxy in their characters. Instead of resisting innovation, they symbolise it – and companies seldom grow without innovation.”

More profoundly, he says that “The great leaders I have know have been curiously complicated … Howard Johnson, the former President of MIT, has described this trait as ‘a visceral form of spiritual energy which provides the element of mystery in leadership.'”

3. Hard-working delegators are good

“We admire people who practice delegation. The more you delegate, the more responsibility will be loaded upon you.”

Is he speaking in favour of those people who just go to meetings and push all the work onto other people? Nope – in fact, the same memo that quote comes from starts with: “First, we admire people who work hard. We dislike passengers who don’t pull their weight in the boat.”

4. Set exorbitant standards

“Set exorbitant standards … There is nothing so demoralising as a boss who tolerates second-rate work … When your people turn in an exceptional performance, make sure they know you admire them for it.”

People really like working part of a marketing team that is collectively seen as first rate – and that is delivering commercial success.

5. How to lead a team

Ogilvy says: “The best way to ‘install a generator’ in any man is to give him the best 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.”

Elsewhere he writes: “Don’t let your people fall into a rut. Keep leading them along new paths, blazing new trails. Give them a sense of adventurous pioneering.”

6. Advertising should contribute to your brand image – but it has to deliver sales

In a speech to the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1955. Ogilvy said that advertisers should avoid being “greedy” by going after segments with their advertising when those segments do not fit the positioning. “We hold that every advertisement must be considered as a contribution to the complex system which is the brand image,” he said.

More curiously, in that speech he is dismissive of some of the thinking for which he is perhaps most associated. He says:

“I must admit I have changed my mind … when I first arrived in this country eighteen years ago, I bought the wicked old Chicago philosophy, as practiced by Claude Hopkins.

I used to deride advertising men who talked about long-term effect. I used to accuse them of hiding behind the long-term effect. I used to say that they used long-term effect as an alibi – to conceal their ability to make any single advertisement profitable. In those intolerant days I believed every advertisement must stand on its own two feet and sell goods at a profit on the cost of the space …”

That speech did not stop Ogilvy, the following year, writing in his company’s New York staff newsletter a list of “most useful” books that had, as number one, Claude Hopkins’s Scientific Advertising. Nor did it stop during the rest of his career championing the Hopkins-style approach of measurement and evaluation.

Was the speech a wobble? And was the “wicked old” meant to be jovial, among an audience of rivals? In fact, a decade later, a more confident Ogilvy wrote the foreword to a new edition of Hopkins’ book, supportively saying:

Forty-two years after Hopkins wrote this book, almost everybody would agree with the following conclusions:

“Almost any question can be answered, cheaply, quickly and finally, by a test campaign. And that’s the way to answer them—not by arguments around a table …

“The only purpose of advertising is to make sales. It is profitable or unprofitable according to its actual sales.

“Ad-writers abandon their parts. They forget they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause.”

By the time Ogilvy wrote Ogilvy on Advertising in the 1980s, and as direct marketing had come of age, his views were strikingly clear. He wrote to colleagues explaining what he had written in the book: “You may feel that the book errs on the side of being … pro-cash register … I wrote what I really believe. My last will and testament.”

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