Confessions of an Advertising Man, 50 years on

“I believe in the Scottish proverb ‘Hard work never killed a man’, men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work.”

OgilvyIt’s 50 years since David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man was published. Originally intended to promote his agency before it was floated on the stock market, it firmly established the Ogilvy legend. The book’s million plus sales must make it one of the most widely read marketing texts.

Whilst the world has changed and changed again in the past 50 years, Ogilvy’s crisp, vivid writing hasn’t suffered with age. For the modern reader it’s less a “how to” guide, rather a portrait of an indefatigable self-made man and the age he lived through. His journey “escaping from obscurity” from Gallup researcher to Agency chief (by way of Amish farmer) entertains. It also reveals a few leg ups from establishment connections along the way.

Reading it you get a sense of a man who knows what he thinks and why, but also someone who is defining himself with every arch turn of phrase. The book is a performance. The self-created man, self-creating. In his own words:

“…if you can’t advertise yourself, what hope have you of being able to advertise anything else?”

Worth a read.

The advice which resonates most 50 years on is his chapter on how to keep clients:

“I never tell one client that I cannot attend his sales conference because I have a previous engagement with another client; successful polygamy depends upon pretending to each spouse that she the only pebble on your beach.”

“The head of an agency has so much on his plate that he is apt to see his clients only at times of crisis. This is a mistake. If you get in the habit of seeing clients when the weather is calm, you will establish an easy relationship which may save your life when a storm brews up.”

“It is important to admit your mistakes, and do so before you are charged with them… I seize the earliest opportunity to assume the blame.”

 “If you make yourself indispensable to a client, you will never be fired.”

The chapter on what make a great campaign also remains potent:

“Most campaigns are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives, and try to reconcile the divergent views of too many executives. By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing. Their advertisements look like the minutes of a committee.”

“The function of your advertising is not to persuade people to try to buy your product, but to persuade them to use it more often than other brands in their repertoire.”

“Scores of good advertisements have been discarded before they lost their potency, largely because their sponsors get sick of seeing them…You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a moving parade.. An advertisement is like a radar sweep, constantly hunting new prospects as they come into the market. Get a good radar and keep it sweeping.”

And finally, advice to the young.

“I still die a thousand deaths before every presentation…”

 “Most of the work you do in an agency will be routine maintenance. If you do it well, you will make gradual progress, but your golden opportunity will come when you rise to a great occasion. This trick is to recognise the great occasion when it presents itself.”

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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