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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


The House That Ogilvy Built

The legendary advertising innovator David Ogilvy created an enduring organization using culture, integrity, and charm.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
Notwithstanding his reputation as a creative genius, it may well be that the best ad David Ogilvy ever wrote was not included in his classic work from the 1950s and ’60s — “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” with his black eyepatch, or the famous campaigns for Schweppes, Rolls-Royce, or Puerto Rico — but a “house” advertisement for his own company. Titled “How to Run an Advertising Agency,” it propounded leadership principles that apply to almost any business. People were still requesting reprints 10 years after it ran.

Ogilvy, who died in 1999 at the age of 88, was very much on the scene in 1963 when I joined Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, then a midsized agency with a large reputation. Over the next 26 years, I witnessed how he articulated and inculcated prin­ciples of management on which the culture of a major international communications firm could be built. After 1989, when I left the firm as chairman and chief executive officer and went on to serve as a consultant and board director with other companies, I saw how well many of those principles worked in other businesses.

But it wasn’t just what David Ogilvy said that made his principles special; it was also how he said it. Ogilvy communicated his principles in speeches and memos, then went beyond words, using quirky flourishes — like the Russian matryoshka dolls that directors found at their seats at one board meeting. Opening the nesting dolls, each smaller than the one before, every director found the same message typed on a piece of paper inside the tiniest doll: “If you hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If you hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.”

“Hire big people, people who are better than you,” Ogilvy demanded. “Pay them more than yourself if necessary.” Russian dolls became part of the culture.

So did Ogilvy’s penchant for eccentric terminology. Region directors were “barons.” Group creative directors were “syndicate heads.” Bright stars with management po­tential were “crown princes,” whose careers should be developed. At the other end of the spectrum were “barnacles,” those who were not contributing or were past their prime and had to be scraped off to keep the ship moving. They were often scraped by others, not by Ogilvy, who was admittedly better at principle than practice on occasion. (When one such barnacle was named to the board at Ogilvy’s insistence, a director commented, “When the music stops, we add chairs.”)

Ogilvy was more consistent in recruiting — for instance, in his directive to seek out highflyers. “Hot creative people don’t come around looking for jobs; they have to be rooted out like truffles by trained pigs. Do our trained pigs do any rooting? I don’t think so.”

Creating a First-class Business
More than anything else, the glue that held together the organization as it grew around the world was training. Ogilvy used the metaphor of a teaching hospital. “Great hospitals do two things,” he said. “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, it is to be respected above all other agencies.”

Ogilvy used training to indoctrinate everyone in what he believed about how to create advertising and treat people. There were training programs for every level and every discipline — new employees, midlevel staff, heads of offices, creative, media, and so on. After the entry level, training was positioned as a privilege rather than a duty. One had to get a good evaluation to be admitted. Those preparing to run an office took the Advanced Management Training program, featuring a 197-page manual,The Ogilvy & Mather Business Book.

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