By Jonathan Wai
“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman.” — David Ogilvy
So advised “The Father of Advertising,” who had many jobs before founding Ogilvy & Mather, the famous advertising firm. He was a chef in Paris, a door-to-door salesman, a farmer, a social worker in the slums, and even conducted research in the movie industry — all of which taught him valuable lessons on how to sell.
He details his life adventures in “Confessions of an Advertising Man,” and even devotes one section on advice to the young. From this work, I have distilled six tips on how to rise to the top.
1. Be ambitious. But don’t let it show.
“After watching the careermanship of my own employees for 14 years, I have identified a pattern of behavior which leads rapidly to the top,” Ogilvy writes. “First, you must be ambitious, but you must not be so nakedly aggressive that your fellow workers rise up and destroy you. Tout soldat pone dans sa giberne le baton de marechal. Yes, but don’t let it stick out.”
2. Make work your hobby.
In “My Life In Advertising,” the great advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins confessed: “I have always been an addict to work. I love work as other men love play.” Ogilvy also thought your work should be your hobby. In fact, he believed that making yourself an authority on a subject that your company knew very little about was a key to success.
For example, if your topic was gasoline, he recommended that you read books on the “chemistry, geology, and distribution of petroleum products,” as well as all the trade journals and research reports. You should then spend your weekend actually pumping gas at the service stations and talking with customers to learn their perspective. He advised that by doing this work, you would become more knowledgeable about this topic than your boss, and then would be prepared to succeed him.
“Most of the young [people] in agencies are too lazy to do this kind of homework. They remain permanently superficial.”
3. Work twice the number of hours as everyone else.
Ogilvy and Hopkins clearly made their work their lives, and they invested more hours than their colleagues. Hopkins, for example, “attributed his success to the fact that he worked twice as long hours as other copywriters, and thus made his way up the ladder at twice their speed.” Ogilvy notes: “In my bachelor days I used to work until the small hours. If you prefer to spend all your spare time growing roses or playing with your children, I like you better, but do not complain that you are not being promoted fast enough. Managers promote [those] who produce the most.”
Although Larry Page and Sergey Brin have recently discussed how workweeks could be shorter for many people, the Google heads themselves probably work more hours than most people are capable of. Putting in longer hours over a long stretch of time likely multiplies your output, like compound interest, and can also help you clock the estimated 10,000 hours you need to become an expert.
4. Use your vacations effectively. For example, read a book per day.
Ogilvy believed that one of the most revealing signs about a young person’s capacity is how they made use of their vacations. “Some fritter away those precious three weeks, while some get more out of them than all the rest of the year put together.” He offers some tips:
- Don’t stay at home and putter around the house. You need a change of scene.
- Take your [partner], but leave the children with a neighbor… Shut yourself off from exposure to advertising.
- Take a sleeping pill every night for the first three nights.
- Get plenty of fresh air and exercise.
- Read a book every day — 21 books in three weeks.
- Broaden your horizons by going abroad… But don’t travel so much that you come back cross and exhausted.
5. Start as a specialist. This is the way to make your mark.
Ogilvy notes that most of the able young people who came into agencies (in 1963) were determined to be ad executives, most likely because this was what they were taught to value in business school. And yet, the heads of the six largest ad agencies in the world were all specialists, and none were account executives. Four were copywriters and one each in media and research.
“It is much more difficult to make your mark as an account executive than as a specialist, because it is rare for an account executive to have an opportunity to cover himself with glory; almost all the spectacular triumphs are performed by the specialists,” he said.
He felt that by specializing, the competition would be less, there would be more opportunities to rise above routine work, and one would acquire expertise which would ensure security, both psychological and financial.
6. Committees don’t lay the golden eggs.
In 1963, Ogilvy wrote: “Nowadays it is the fashion to pretend that no single individual is ever responsible for a successful advertising campaign. This emphasis on ‘team-work’ is bunkum — a conspiracy of the mediocre majority. No advertisement, no commercial, and no image can be created by a committee. Most top managements are secretly aware of this, and keep their eyes open for those rare individuals who lay golden eggs.”
Joshua Wolf Shenk recently argued in the New York Times that “the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness,” and instead advocated for the idea of a creative network or collaborative approach. Apparently 50 years later, the emphasis on collaboration and teamwork continues to be popular. But Ogilvy argued that creativity comes from the mind of the individual.