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


The House That Ogilvy Built

Ogilvy personally attended every training program he could without flying, since he was terrified of planes and much preferred trains, even on trips of extraordinary length. He toyed with the idea of starting a school of advertising at the postgraduate level and proposed paying the tuition of employees who took courses in advertising at schools like Harvard. He believed there was an almost perfect correlation between the number of books a copywriter read and the quality of that writer’s work. When one writer said that he had not read any books on advertising, but preferred to rely on intuition, Ogilvy wondered, “If you were to have your gallbladder removed tonight, would you choose a surgeon who had never read a book on anatomy, but preferred to rely on intuition?”

Ogilvy’s constant goal was to make the business more professional and create an enduring institution. To further the image of profes­sionalism, Ogilvy referred to his executives as “partners.” On the advice of his banker grandfather, he adopted J.P. Morgan’s phrases — “Only first-class business, and that in a first-class way” and “gentlemen with brains” — as guiding principles for his agency.

Ogilvy on Leadership
Although Ogilvy disarmingly dismissed himself as a bad manager and brought in top executives to help run the agency, he was a remarkably instinctive leader. The “principles of management” that he wrote out for Ogilvy & Mather staff in 1968 apply more broadly than to advertising agencies.

  • On minimizing office politics: “Sack incurable politicians. Crusade against paper warfare.”
  • On morale: “When people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good advertising. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.”
  • On professional standards: “Top men must not tolerate sloppy plans or mediocre creative work.”

Ogilvy’s foreword for a recruiting brochure spelled out the high standards and humane attitude that he expected of his people. “We are looking for gentlemen with ideas in their heads and fire in their bellies,” he wrote. “If you join Ogilvy & Mather, we shall teach you everything we know about advertising. We shall pay you well, and do our damnedest to make you succeed. If you show promise, we shall load responsibility on you — fast. Life in our agency can be very exciting. You will never be bored. It’s tough, but it’s fun.”

Setting an Example
Soon after I joined the agency in 1963, I was called to the phone one evening while dining with friends. “I’m at the engraver’s looking at proofs of the coupon ad,” said the copy supervisor. “You know where the two color pages come together? They’re too far apart — there’s too much white space in the gutter. We can shave each plate one-eighth of an inch and bring them closer. It will cost $300.” I agreed the fix made sense but pointed out that this was not the main campaign, only a coupon ad, and this was just a test market. The change could be made later. “And the client has already approved it,” I added.

The reproof was swift. “David says [pause] it’s never too late to improve an ad — even after the client has approved it.”
“Spend the 300 bucks,” I agreed. I had never experienced such standards.

Ogilvy didn’t use the phrase “corporate culture” until years later, but that’s what he was nurturing. Dazzled as a youth by the red color scheme of his rich aunt’s chic household, Ogilvy adopted the color for the agency, first in his own office and then throughout the office halls. “It felt like the House of Lords after the dingy precincts of other agencies I’d inhabited,” says a former copywriter.

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