What I’ve learnt from David Ogilvy

Lessons about leadership, management, and yes, advertising, from one of the industry’s giants.

Jan Sramek
Jan 6, 2014 · 6 min read

Earlier this year, I read three books [1] by or about David Ogilvy. I started reading them with high expectations..only to see my expectations far exceeded by the genius of this man. I’m grateful for the many times I found myself smiling when reading the books, and so I thought I’d pay it forward and share the highlights.

[1] Ogilvy on Advertising, The King of Madison Avenue, Unpublished David Ogilvy.

Contrary to what one might expect, Ogilvy’s work and ideas cover topics far broader than advertising. Given the diversity of his views, any attempts at summarising his work (which is what I’d tend to do for other books) seem futile. Instead, I thought I’d group my favourite snippets from the three books into categories — after all, all of them are perfectly capable of standing on their own.

Leadership and management

On office politics: “Sack incurable politicians. Crusade against paper warfare.”

“The most effective leader is the one who satisfies the psychological needs of his followers.”

On morale: “When people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good advertising. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.”

On having fun: “Jerome Bruner, the Harvard psychologist, says that there has never been a great scientific laboratory where the people weren’t having fun. The physicists who split the atom in Niels Bohr’s lab were always playing practical jokes on each other. When people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work. Kill grimness with laughter. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.”

A great analogy for training your people: “Great hospitals do two things: They look after patients, and they teach young doctors. Ogilvy & Mather does two things: We look after clients, and we teach young advertising people. Ogilvy & Mather is the teaching hospital of the advertising world. And, as such, to be respected above all other agencies.”

How to run a company

  • Don’t overstaff your departments. People enjoy life most when they have the most work to do.
  • Set exorbitant standards, and give your people hell when they don’t live up to them. There is nothing so demoralizing 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.
  • 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.
  • Do your best to educate your people, so that they can be promoted as rapidly as possible.
  • Delegate. Throw your people in over their heads. That is the only way to find out how good they are.
  • Seek advice from your subordinates, and listen more than you talk.
  • Above all, make sure that you are getting the most out of all your people. Men and women are happiest when they know that they are giving everything they’ve got.

Environment and clusters

What your peers look up to and are trying to do matters. “In the 1950s, four men were independently trying to build professional service firms linking theory with practicality—Marvin Bower of McKinsey, David Ogilvy, Leonard Spacek of Arthur Andersen, and Gus Levy of Goldman Sachs,” writes Elizabeth Edersheim Haas in her biography of Bower. They shared philosophies, spoke of each other as role models, encouraged each other in breaking new ground, and shared an “unremitting drive to achieve excellence,” says Haas. “Inside both McKinsey and Ogilvy & Mather, everybody from the boardroom to the mailroom knew and understood what the firms’ values were, what the mission was, and ‘the way things are done here.’”


Know your customer’s business: “A zealous student of the business, Ogilvy claimed he had read every book about advertising—and disdained others who felt they didn’t need this knowledge. There were piles of books all over his house, most about successful leaders in business and government. He was interested in how they used their leadership. How they made their money. And particularly how rich people used their wealth.”

On dog-fooding: “..everyone in their agencies use their clients’ products. At one meeting outside the agency, the hypoglycemic Burnett went into shock and desperately needed an infusion of sugar. Someone mentioned a candy vending machine down the hall. Burnett roused himself: ‘Make sure it’s Nestlé.’”

Doing business

On B2B sales. It takes burning shoe leather to build a market leader: “Last year my partner Michael Ball flew 300,000 miles and spent 131 nights in hotels.”

On market sizing: “In Great Britain, there are twelve million households. One million of these own motorcars. Only ten thousand own Aga Cookers. No household which can afford a motorcar can afford to be without an Aga.”

On Google offices decades before Google: “It was Helen Resor who insisted that the agency’s offices should be decorated with antique furniture, each executive being allowed to choose the period he liked the best. She was said to believe that if their offices were more attractive than their homes, they would work longer hours.”

Steve Jobs wasn’t the first one to protect integrity of design from bozos: “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself. Any fool can write a bad advertisement, but it takes a genius to keep his hands off a good one. I had just finished showing a new campaign to Charlie Kelstadt, the Chairman of Sears Roebuck, when his Comptroller came into the room, started to read my copy — and took a fountain-pen out of his pocket. ‘Put that pen back in your pocket,’ snapped Kelstadt.”

Writing good copy

Keep it simple: “Ogilvy would go through a document and take out adjectives and adverbs, leaving nouns and verbs, to make it clear—and readable.”

Communication is hard: “Keep in mind E. B. White’s warning, ‘When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.’”

Ads exist to sell, not to win awards: “When I write an ad, I don’t want you to tell me you find it “creative.” I want you to find it so persuasive that you buy the product—or buy it more often.”

Don’t forget that most of your customers don’t live in London / New York / Hong Kong / Silicon Valley: “When copywriters argue with me about some esoteric word they want to use, I say to them, ‘Get on a bus. Go to Iowa. Stay on a farm for a week and talk to the farmer. Come back to New York by train and talk to your fellow passengers in the day-coach. If you still want to use the word, go ahead.”

On positioning: “My own definition is ‘what the product does, and who it is for.’ I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin.”


Ogilvy loved Big Ideas: “Unless your campaign is built around a BIG IDEA, it will be second rate. Once you decide on the direction of your campaign, play it loud and clear. Don’t compromise. Be strong. Don’t beat about the bush. GO THE WHOLE HOG.”

On recognising Big Ideas: “It will help you recognize a big idea if you ask yourself five questions: 1) Did it make me gasp when I first saw it? 2) Do I wish I had thought of it myself? 3) Is it unique? 4) Does it fit the strategy to perfection? 5) Could it be used for 30 years?”

Why people do things

Emotion, not reason: “Saying he was not in the communications business but in the persuasion business, he quoted Aristotle to make his case that people are persuaded not by appeals to their intellect but by appeals to their emotions and desires.”

Even the people who ran WW2 were “normal” in some sense: “He told me that when the Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals came into breakfast, they looked at the comic strips in the Daily Mirror before they read the headlines in The Times.”

Finally, Ogilvy respected and appreciated the genius of others when he saw it. A letter to the New Hampshire Vacation Center:

April 12, 1971


“America is alive and well and living in New Hampshire.” This is one of the best headlines I have ever read.

I offer humble congratulations to the man or woman who wrote it.
Yours sincerely,

    Jan Sramek

    Written by


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