#169 David Ogilvy (The King of Madison Avenue)

Episode Summary

What I learned from reading The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising by Kenneth Roman.

Episode Notes

What I learned from reading The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising by Kenneth Roman. 


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One characteristic of geniuses, said Einstein, is they are passionately curious. Ogilvy’s great secret was an inquiring mind.In conversation, he never pontificated; he interrogated.

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. He was interested in people — people who had accomplished remarkable things.

Reading Ogilvy’s short autobiography is like having dinner with a charming raconteur.

His Scottish grandfather is portrayed as cold — hearted, formidable, and successful — and his hero. 

When you write a book about advertising, you’re competing with midgets. When you write an autobiography, you’re competing with giants.

He took the occasion to remind everyone that he was not a big shot at school. I wasn’t a scholar. I detested the philistines who ruled the roost. I was an irreconcilable rebel — a misfit. In short, I was a dud. Fellow duds, take heart! There is no correlation between success at school and success in life.

If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope do you have of being able to advertise anything else?

Although he entered advertising to make money, Ogilvy had become interested — obsessively interested — in the business itself. He said he had read every book that had been written on the subject, and, as a young man, had reason to believe he would be good at it and would enjoy it. Since American advertising was years ahead of advertising anywhere else, he decided to study the trade where it was done best.

Nobody, at any level, should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times (Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins). Every time I see a bad advertisement, I say to myself, “The man who wrote this copy has never read Claude Hopkins.”

In print, it should lead with a headline that offers a consumer benefit. Often it should rely on long text packed with facts. “The more you tell, the more you sell,” as he would later preach.

David also learned something about writing from his time in the intelligence service. Stephenson was a master of the terse note. Memos to him were returned swiftly to the sender with one of three words written at the top of the page: YES, NO, or SPEAK, meaning to come see him.

Here Ogilvy describes himself as of the day he started the agency: “He is 38 and unemployed. He dropped out of college. He has been a cook, a salesman and a diplomat. He knows nothing about marketing and has never written any copy. He professes to be interested in advertising as a career and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year. I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

Like De Gaulle, he felt that praise should be a rare commodity lest you devalue the currency.

He had a near psychopathic hatred of laziness in all its forms. He was the least lazy person I have ever encountered. His advertising philosophy was shot through with intolerance of sloth. Lazy people accept mediocrity, which he hated.

You cannot bore people into buying. Committees can criticize advertisements, but they cannot create them. Compromise has no place in advertising. Whatever you do, go the whole hog. You can’t save souls in an empty church.

American Express built its business in part with an effective direct mail letter that started: “Quite frankly, the American Express Card is not for everyone.”

I am a lousy copywriter. But a good editor.

My crusade is in favor of advertising which sells. My war cry is: “We Sell. Or Else.” This has been my philosophy for 50 years, and I have never wavered from it, no matter what the temptations have been.

Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.


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