A Legendary Ad Man’s Rules for Creative Success

20th century advertising legend David Ogilvy’s time-tested rules for success as found in his seminal 1961 book “Confessions of an Advertising Man”.

The Ogilvy agency is now one of the world’s biggest advertising and public relations firms.

It was started by a guy who didn’t have a college diploma or even an MBA.

David Ogilvy was an Oxford dropout who worked as a cook in Paris, a door-to-door salesperson, a researcher for George Gallup, a British Intelligence Service operative during WWII, and a farmer in Pennsylvania before becoming the King of Madison Avenue.

With just $6,000 in his bank account, he launched Ogilvy & Mather, a new advertising business that became “an instantaneous and spectacular success,” as he put it. From introducing the eye-patched “man in the Hathaway shirt” to making Commander Whitehead (who waxed poetic on the three qualities of an educated man) the face of Schweppes, Ogilvy landed some of the world’s biggest corporate accounts and helped create some of the most iconic (and manliest) ad campaigns.

Ogilvy would become regarded as the “Father of Advertising” for bringing uniqueness and innovation to a long-stagnant business. Though he despised the term “creativity,” which had become an overused buzzword by the mid-twentieth century, he recognized it as the lifeblood of a successful advertising business. In his best-selling book Confessions of an Advertising Man, released in 1963, Ogilvy references the study of personality researcher Dr. Frank Barron, whose findings on the nature of creative people, according to Ogilvy, matched his own:

People that are creative are extremely attentive, and they place a higher emphasis on correct observation (telling oneself the truth) than others.

They often represent half-truths, but they do it vividly; the part they express is the typically unacknowledged; they aim to highlight to the normally unnoticed via emphasis shifting and seeming imbalance in utterance.

They perceive things in the same way that others do, but also in ways that others do not.

They are born with a larger brain capacity, which allows them to keep more thoughts at once and compare them to one another, resulting in a richer synthesis. 

They are more energetic by nature, and they have a plenty of emotional and physical energy at their disposal. 

As a result, their world is more complicated, and they typically live more complex lives. 

They have greater interaction with the unconscious — with fantasy, reverie, and the realm of imagination — than other people. 

Ogilvy worked hard to select individuals who had creative abilities, which he thought were most likely to be found among the world’s “nonconformists, dissidents, and rebels,” and to foster a creative atmosphere at his firm. 

To that purpose, he established norms that shaped Ogilvy & Mather’s culture (albeit, as he points out in the amended prologue to the 1988 version of Confessions, the concept of “corporate culture” didn’t exist during his term as chairman). We’ve highlighted some of the greatest pearls of advice Ogilvy offers in the book below; these criteria for creative success still apply today, to both solitary entrepreneurs and those in charge of large-scale organizations. 

 

Combine the novel with the everyday, the artistic with the practical.

In today’s business environment, being a creative, unique thinker is pointless unless you can also market what you develop. Management will not recognize a good concept until it is presented to them by an effective salesperson.

When it comes to business, creativity isn’t a goal in and of itself – it’s a tool for achieving growth, income, and sales. 

Even a lone artist who believes in his vision and the nobleness of his skill longs to be seen, to have an audience, to be noticed. 

Creating innovative campaigns in the advertising industry necessitates imagination, but that creativity also has a duty to do: sell goods. Ogilvy’s diverse professional career had taught him the need of marrying unbridled creativity with a realistic, hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to packaging and presenting that creativity. He fostered a productive inventiveness. 

The problem started with the ad campaigns’ substance. He didn’t want them to be too conventional, but neither did he want them to be too highfalutin and esoteric to be ineffective. In the 1988 foreword to Confessions, he wrote:

People who consider advertising as an avant-garde art form are now infesting advertising companies, particularly in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. They’ve never made a sale in their life. Their goal is to win prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. They dupe their unsuspecting clientele into spending millions of dollars a year to flaunt their uniqueness. They aren’t interested in the things they promote, and they believe the customer isn’t either, so they mention very little about their benefits. They are, at best, just performers, and at that, quite poor ones.

Have you ever watched a commercial that was incredibly intriguing or emotionally gripping… only to realize a minute later that you couldn’t recall what business it was for? That commercial would be derided by Ogilvy as poor inventiveness.

The ideas that take off, that find an audience, a market, are “things that are familiar with a twist of originality,” as Allen Gannett said in our radio discussion about his book The Creative Curve. An concept can’t be so fresh that people ask, “Wut?” yet it can’t be so old and weary that it loses its appeal.

You still need to be able to market the concept to people after you’ve created art/content that reaches that sweet spot between familiar and unique. You must know how to advertise your work and put yourself out there. It’s just not true that excellent, imaginative ideas will sell themselves. In the podcast, Gannett said:

There was this wonderful research that tracked art students from the time they were in school till… It had been 15 years since they had graduated from art school, I believe. They discovered that at art school, the students who performed the best in terms of academics and peer perception were the ones who most closely resembled the ideal of an artist. They were dark, strange, and all that kind of thing. However, successful musicians ten years later… Actually, none of those youngsters were successful. The most successful artists were those who excelled in salesmanship, marketing, and public relations.

 

Whether it’s advertising your artwork on Instagram or selling ideas to a corporate customer, creatives need not just artistic but also sales abilities.

Stay (relatively) small and don’t (overly) delegate.

It’s easy to get caught up in the tangle of desks, divisions, and other big-agency accoutrements. What matters is the agency’s true motivating force, its creative potency.

Of many cases, the implied purpose in company is to become as large as possible. Obtain global dominance.

Despite the fact that Ogilvy’s objectives could not have been higher, he kept his agency far smaller than it might have been, and he did not regard expansion as an unqualified positive. 

Ogilvy “fired” 3X as many of his current clients as he was fired by them. Clients were often let go for not being lucrative enough, since he believed it was pointless to waste time and bandwidth on dead weight; “Concentrate your time, your intellect, and your… money on your accomplishments…” Support your winners and ignore your losers.”

Every year, Ogilvy rejects around 60 prospective new customers. The chairman’s lack of trust in the product that a corporation wanted his agency to sell was a frequent cause for this rejection. Ogilvy used all of the products he advertised and wouldn’t create campaigns for those he couldn’t personally stand behind, believing that it was “flagrantly dishonest for an advertising agent to urge consumers to buy a product which he would not allow his own wife to buy,” and that it was impossible to create an effective ad for something you couldn’t earnestly believe in:

I will not launch a client-mandated campaign unless I am confident in its fundamental soundness. When you do that, you jeopardize your agency’s creative reputation, which should be its most valuable asset.

Ogilvy also turned away prospective customers whose accounts would account for such a substantial percentage of his agency’s earnings that keeping the account would limit the agency’s creative freedom:

I’ve never wanted to build up a large enough account that I couldn’t afford to lose it. You commit to live with fear on the day you do that. Fearful agencies lose the guts to provide frank advise, and once they do, they become a lackey.

This is why I turned down an offer to compete for the Edsel account. ‘Your account would represent one-half of our overall invoicing,’ I wrote to Ford. This would make maintaining our independence of counsel difficult.’

Ogilvy & Mather did not go down in flames as Ford’s Edsel did.

The need to preserve creative control and consistency was Ogilvy’s key motivation for being small: he didn’t want his and his staff’ concentration and brainpower to be spread too thin:

Delegation has gone too far in some of the major agencies, in my view. Their senior executives have gone into administration, leaving juniors to deal with customers. This method creates enormous agencies, but it produces mediocre results. I have no desire to lead a massive bureaucracy. As a result, we only have nineteen customers. Although pursuing quality is less lucrative than pursuing bigness, it may be more rewarding.

 

Ogilvy wanted to be able to personally oversee each campaign’s success. While most firms had subordinates present campaign ideas to customers, Ogilvy preferred to do it personally because he wanted to be actively engaged and thought it made the pitches more memorable (“One orchestra looks like every other orchestra, but one conductor is not confused with another”).

While purposely limiting expansion may reduce revenue in the near term, maintaining quality positions a company for long-term development and longevity, which may result in greater revenue in the long run. 

What makes a “small” corporation will vary depending on the kind of business you run, but practically every firm could be leaner than it is now; many entrepreneurs thrive as “one-man bands.”

Keep Your Hand on the Tiller of Creativity

As a creative person builds a firm, he will unavoidably spend less time on the creative duties on which his company was formed and more time on the management, administrative, and executive chores that his expanding empire needs.  

However, and this is connected to the previous point about limiting delegation, the person who started the company should always have a hand on the creative tiller. This was a lesson Ogilvy acquired as a young apprentice at the Majestic Hotel in Paris under head chef Monsieur Pitard:

[Pitard] had to spend the most of his time at his desk, planning meals, reviewing expenses, and purchasing supplies, but once a week he’d emerge from his glass-walled office in the kitchen and actually prepare something. A number of us would constantly assemble to watch, enthralled by his virtuosity. Working for a top master was energizing.

I still create some advertising myself, following Chef Pitard’s lead, to show my copywriters that my hand hasn’t lost its cunning.

By maintaining a connection to the work that a company was founded on, a creative-turned-executive not only ensures that his subordinates are led by a boss who is competent in the area in which they labor, but also keeps his finger on the pulse of the very thing that his past, present, and future success is based on, as Ogilvy suggests.

Don’t rely on a committee to make decisions.

Nowadays, it’s fashionable to claim that no one person is ever to blame for a great advertising campaign. This focus on ‘teamwork’ is nonsense — a substandard majority conspiracy. 

If there’s one thing Ogilvy emphasizes throughout Confessions of an Advertising Man, it’s the futility of putting creative choices in the hands of a committee.

Despite the fact that the alleged strength of group brainstorming has persisted in popular culture, a meta-analysis of hundreds of scientific research indicated that people create more, and more creative and unique, ideas while working alone rather than in groups. When individuals are in a group, they tend to slack off, feel intimidated, and regress to the mean (the more talented members of a group default to the ideas of the less skilled).

 

A half-century ago, Ogilvy recognized this:

Some organizations cater to the current obsession of doing everything by committee. They extol the virtues of ‘collaboration’ and condemn the individual’s role. But no group can create an advertisement, and I doubt there is a single significant advertising business that isn’t the stretched shadow of a single guy.

Ogilvy saw that groupthink produces an unartful blending of diverse elements, a Franken-concept, cumbersome and unpleasant, rather than something meta, a synthesis of creativity superior to any one individual’s notion. “A lot of advertising and television commercials appear like committee meeting minutes, and that is exactly what they are,” he says. 

“Advertising appears to sell best when it is written by a single person,” Ogilvy noted, since an individual’s stream of creativity is most powerful when it is uncontrolled by a panel of dissectors who break it down to the lowest common denominator. As a result, he refused to engage with customers that insisted on making choices by committee, a point he emphasizes in a narrative about Ogilvy & Mather’s competition for the Rayon Manufacturers’ Association account. This prospective customer had three knocks against them: a limited budget, a large number of goals to meet, and, most importantly, “too many masters”:

I arrived to their headquarters on time and was escorted into an opulent committee room.

‘Mr. Ogilvy, we’re interviewing numerous agencies,’ replied the chairman. You have fifteen minutes to make your argument. Then I’ll ring this bell, and the next agency’s representative, who is already waiting outside, will come after you.’

I asked three questions before starting my pitch: 

‘How many of Rayon’s end-uses must be addressed in your campaign?’ Automobile tires, decorating textiles, industrial items, women’s and men’s apparel are the answers. 

‘How much cash do you have?’ $600,000 is the answer.

‘How many persons must approve the ads?’ Answer: the Committee’s twelve members, who represent twelve manufacturers.

‘Ring the bell!’ says the narrator. I went out after saying anything.

Constraints may help you unleash your creativity.

Though Ogilvy disliked the restrictions on creativity imposed by a committee, he was a firm believer in constraints in general. Indeed, he considered that certain constraints were necessary for unleashing people’s finest and most creative ideas:

When copywriters, art directors, and television producers join our firm, they are herded into a conference room and shown the Magic Lantern [slide show], which teaches them how to write headlines and body copy, illustrate advertisements, build television commercials, and choose the basic promise for their campaigns. The guidelines I propose are not my own ideas; they are the sum total of everything I’ve learnt via study.

Recruits respond to my speech in a variety of ways. Some people feel safe and secure under the leadership of a chief who seems to know what he’s talking about. Some people are apprehensive about working inside such strict guidelines.

 

‘Surely, these standards and regulations must result in uninteresting advertising,’ they argue.

‘Not yet,’ I respond. I then go on to emphasize the value of discipline in the arts. Shakespeare’s sonnets were written in a rigid format, with fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, three quatrains, and a couplet rhyming. Were his sonnets uninteresting? Mozart’s sonatas followed a similar structure: introduction, development, and recapitulation. Were they uninteresting?

Giving someone a totally blank slate may be paralyzing; standards and norms provide boundaries, acting as a conduit for creativity to flow more freely and effectively. 

Keep Hungry

When Ogilvy started his advertising business, he didn’t have much money or clout. But he set his goals high, aiming to land the General Foods, Bristol-Myers, Campbell Soup, Lever Brothers, and Shell accounts, which he finally did. 

He was able to do so by capitalizing on the one quality that the huge, established agencies lacked: “fire in the belly.” Ogilvy & Mather was new, motivated, lean, and agile, while rival agencies were complacent, entrenched, lethargic, and bloated. They were starving. They were in their “workclothes days or pre-adipose period,” as fellow advertising executive John Orr Young put it.

As Ogilvy notes, the established agencies were easy to pick off since his firm was at the top of its life cycle — “the inexorable pattern of rise and collapse, from dynamite to dry rot” — while his rivals were at the bottom:

Every few years, a fantastic new agency emerges. It’s ambitious, hardworking, and explosive. It obtains accounts from shady old firms. It performs well.

The years go by. The founders become wealthy and exhausted. Their creative sparks are extinguished. Volcanoes go extinct as a result of their eruptions.

It’s possible that the agency will continue to thrive. It hasn’t lost any of its initial vigor. It has a lot of connections. But it’s gotten out of hand. It results in drab, monotonous campaigns that rehash previous wins. Dry rot develops. To hide the agency’s creative bankruptcy, the focus moves to collateral services. It starts losing business to key new agencies at this point, cutthroat upstarts who work hard and put all their energy into their ads.

We can all think of well-known organizations that have been dormant. Long before their customers realize the reality, you hear disparaging murmurs in their halls.

Of course, after a hungry upstart firm has gorged itself on the dead corpses of established businesses, the key is to stay hungry. How can a now-successful, now-fat-and-happy company avoid becoming the complacent moribund corpse set to be consumed by the next hustle-heavy disruptor as the business cycle churns on? Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions. 

Staying thin, avoiding bloat, and delegating excessively all assist.

“Don’t bunt,” Ogilvy suggested, as does just pursuing new vistas and having one’s eyes set high. Aim towards the outskirts of the park. Aim for the immortals’ companionship.”

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is David Ogilvy advertising techniques?

A: David Ogilvy is a famous British advertising executive who was largely responsible for the creation of modern-day advertising and marketing. He has been quoted saying What matters to most people is not what you say, but how you make them feel.

What advertising guru said tell the truth but make it exciting?

What did David Ogilvy say about research?

A: David Ogilvy said that research is what you do when you dont know what to do. This quote is actually misattributed in a number of sources, including Wikipedia and the Wall Street Journal.