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


The House That Ogilvy Built

A Writing Culture
“It did not escape our notice that everyone in the upper levels of Ogilvy knew how to write — and write very well,” said the head of an agency newly acquired by Ogilvy. Discipline in writing was a mark of the culture. Ogilvy considered himself an advertising writer, nothing more. “If I were a really creative writer, like my cousin and great friend Rebecca West, I would probably prefer to seek fame as an author — instead of devoting my pen to the services of Rinso,” he said.

Being edited by Ogilvy was like being operated on by a great surgeon who could put his hand on the only tender organ in your body. You could feel him put his finger on the wrong word, the soft phrase, the incomplete thought. But he had no pride of authorship, and he could be quite self-critical. Someone found a personally annotated copy of one of his books in which he had written cross comments about his own writing: “Rubbish. Rot! Nonsense.” He would send his major documents around for comment, with a note: “Please improve.”

Ogilvy drafted with freshly sharpened pencils. Everything was scribbled out and rewritten and scribbled over again. He would go through a document and take out adjectives and adverbs, leaving only nouns and verbs, to make it clear — and readable. Short sentences, short paragraphs, no circumlocutions. Just as he expected the agency’s advertising to be clear and honest, Ogilvy expected clarity and honesty in memos, status reports, and plans. “The better you write, the higher you go at Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.”

Ogilvy took on culture formally in a dinner address to the agency’s directors and executives at Fishmongers’ Hall in London in 1985, saying he had just read a book on corporate culture and wondered if the agency had one. “Apparently, we have an exceptionally strong culture. Indeed, it may be this, more than anything else, that differentiates us from our competitors.” It starts with the working atmosphere, he said: “Some of our people spend their entire working lives in our company. We do our damnedest to make it a happy experience for them.

“We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble — with their jobs, with illnesses, with alcoholism, and so on. We help our people make the best of their talents. We invest an awful lot of time and money in training — perhaps more than any of our competitors. Our system of management is singularly demo­cratic. We don’t like hierarchical bureaucracy or rigid pecking orders. We abhor ruthlessness.

“We like people with gentle manners. Our New York office goes so far as to give an annual award for what they call ‘professionalism combined with civility.’ We like people who are honest: honest in argument, honest with clients, honest with suppliers, and honest with the company. We admire people who work hard. Objectivity and thoroughness are admired. Superficiality is not admired. We despise and detest office politicians, toadies, bullies, and pompous asses.

“The way up the ladder is open to everybody. We are free from prejudice of any kind — religious prejudice, racial prejudice, or sexual prejudice. We detest nepotism and every other form of favoritism. In promoting people to top jobs, we are influenced as much by their character as by anything else.”

A Living Legacy
David Ogilvy was, and to a large extent still is, the most famous advertising man in the world. He left a remarkable legacy, including a half-dozen campaigns, revolutionary at the time, that added an element of quality and taste to American advertising. But his legacy goes beyond the print ads and TV commercials he created.

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