Uncommon leadership tips from David Ogilvy

There’s an interesting Englishman who moved to America in 1938. He got his start working for Gallup and running polls door to door—learning what people want and their opinions. In the 1950s, He created and lead his agency and influenced millions of people that never heard even his name. 

He helped propel small companies into giants, such as: Dove soap. And some he grew from big to bigger: Rolls Royce, Shell, American Express, IBM. He is believed to be the inspiration behind the AMC original show, Mad Men. His name is David Ogilvy

Although Ogilvy died before I even heard his name, I got the special opportunity, two months ago, to meet his former business partner, Drayton Bird, who is now 87 years old. 

I’ve followed David Ogilvy’s teachings and writings for over a decade. Let’s dive into forgotten details about his life and leadership principles. He wrote a list of these principles he admires. Of those that stood out to me, here are three a leader must have: 1) Guts under pressure. 2) High standards of personal ethics. 3) Be humble and get help from giants.

1) Guts under pressure

He elaborated on this principle by emphasizing the importance of resilience in defeat. What does a leader do when he or she feels defeat?

He has an early life story about a challenging workplace. In his early years (before he moved to America), David Ogilvy worked at Hotel Majestic in Paris. At this high end restaurant, he was preparing frog legs. Working in a highly disciplined atmosphere, Ogilvy learned the importance of perfection and how to praise.

At Hotel Majestic, Monsieur Pitard, possibly the greatest chef in France at that time. But this artist — rarely praised his chefs. He had 37 chefs in his staff. There was no trade union. They worked 63 hours per week. They were fueled by the ambition to cook better than any chef had before. And, in all that hard work and sweat, order meant almost everything. But, when the praise did come, Ogilvy said they (the staff) “were exalted to the skies.”

Oddly, he also found that the high pressure kitchen brought the chefs together — brought a form unity. This challenging experience translated well into the early days of his ad agency. The agency struggled to make ends meet, and they had to work very long hours to fulfill their contracts. Here is what he learned: when the team managed to pull through a crisis, they became more cohesive and had increased morale. When there is pressure, this is a growth opportunity.

The second principle involved integrity.

2) High standards of personal ethics. 

After his hustle with Frog Leg Quiche (or whatever is eaten with frog legs), Ogilvy moved to Scotland. He sold stoves door-to-door. He learned that talking down to people never sold anything.

Later, in 1938 Ogilvy moved to the United States and eventually started his own advertising firm. Ogilvy demonstrated this second principle successfully with his Dove soap ad campaign. His advertising copy read: “Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream.” The campaign helped Dove become the top selling US soap. The simple honesty is what sold. There’s a valuable lesson in telling the truth no one else will. 

This second principle is also demonstrated in these two quotes:

First: “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

Second: “My staff will be a lot less reluctant to work overtime if I work longer hours than they do.”

This second quote is a good illustration of leading by example, and shows the type of standard a leader must have.

3) Be humble and get help from giants

In 1962, Ogilvy had 19 clients. In 20 years, his agency grew to 3000 clients with 267 offices.

Here’s one final example: at a meeting with the executives of his company, Ogilvy handed out Russian dolls. As they opened the dolls, they found a message. “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” He continued this practice, sending Russian dolls to people who had been made heads of departments. 

That is a humorous way to be promoted but a visual lesson on considering who to get help from. 

In conclusion, the 3 principles are:  1) Guts under pressure. 2) High standards of personal ethics. 3) Be humble and get help from giants.

His lessons aren’t only for advertisers or sales people, they’re for honest people who want to get others on their side.



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