Five Business Lessons from David Ogilvy

Travelling through Bavaria by train on a recent holiday I took the opportunity to read Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy, an advertising executive widely lauded as the ‘King of Madison Avenue’.

For those unfamiliar with Ogilvy’s background, he founded Ogilvy & Mather in 1948 and laid much of the groundwork for the agency to become the success story we know and admire. Ogilvy & Mather were the leading ad shop of the day and have continued to sustain and build upon that success - today the agency works almost exclusively with blue chip brands and are a key part of Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP.

Ogilvy on Advertising was published in 1983, towards the end of Ogilvy’s glittering 40 plus years in the industry, but it has certainly stood the test of time. Given the prevailing “cult of youth”, it’s important to seek out and gain the perspective of people that have helped develop, lead and shape an industry. Indeed, many of the lessons Ogilvy shares are widely applicable, such as the attributes which lead to success, the difference between fads and genuine change, as well as how to build a winning organisation.

The book is an insightful read and five business lessons stood out:

1. It’s all about results (and sales)
Early on in the book Ogilvy stresses just how essential it is to focus on and deliver results, with sales taking precedence over creativity a recurring theme. While he clearly respects the creative process, Ogilvy rightly reveals a dislike of creativity for creativity’s sake, and always sought to tie advertising back to sales. He makes the case that advertising should be seen as a medium of information, not art, and the best copywriters consider themselves salespeople, rather than performers.

2. Build a foundation on research and evaluation
To give yourself the best chance of success you need to invest in research to guide your planning process and then evaluation to see if you achieved your stated goals. To ensure robust planning, Ogilvy advises studying your client’s product, competitors and consumers. Once the campaign has launched, you should measure sales and track changes in brand preference. The learnings from this exercise should then be reapplied and used as a foundation to inform future work.

3. Develop a great product - and then make it greater
Advertising can persuade people to buy a bad product once, and only once. The most effective way to increase sales of a product is by consistently having a great product. There’s no shortcut. Whether you’re selling a software as a service (SaaS) marketing tool, luxury car or a loaf of bread you need to make the product the very best it can be for the price you’re selling it at. In the book Ogilvy bemoans brand managers for their lack of interest in improving products - they often want to increase sales from marketing, while rarely providing customers with a better product.

4. Unhook your rational thought process
Ogilvy shares his belief that big ideas come from the unconscious. He advises people to unhook their rational thought process “by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.” This way, “the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.” In my mind, Ogilvy is advocating that people should be well read, curious and passionate about their work, while recognising the need for this to be counterbalanced with activities that help people unwind. Great ideas can and do come from anywhere, but it helps hugely if people are happy, healthy and relaxed.

5. Double down on wins and cut your losses
Ogilvy advises people to spend their time, brains and advertising money on successes. It is easier to make a great campaign better compared to salvaging a failing one. Most people fall into the trap of throwing good money after bad and continue to invest in products, campaigns or companies long after they should have stopped. Instead, Ogilvy recommends cutting your losses earlier and focussing on making your wins even greater by doubling down on these investments.

If you want to learn more about marketing and how the world’s most successful ad man built and led his agency, then read Ogilvy on Advertising. There’s many insightful lessons that can be applied today, and far beyond the world of advertising. The book is a timeless classic and recommended reading for anyone wanting to broaden their knowledge and understanding of marketing and business.