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Books for Creatives: David Ogilvy – Confessions of an Advertising Man [Part 1]

by Johan Toresson on 09/29/14 01:05:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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David Ogilvy - Confessions of an Advertising Man

Johan Toresson (@jtoresson, [email protected])

Gameport (Blekinge Business Incubator)

Gameport @ Facebook


What is this and why?

Since my last post I’ve been reading up on David Ogilvy. Ogilvy, for those of you who haven’t yet had found any reason to read up on “traditional” advertising, is generally thought of as The Father of Advertising”. He passed away in 1999, aged 88, and I thought it’d be nice to bring him into the games space and have a look at what he could offer creatives in general. This led me to read his book “Confessions of an Advertising Man”, a book who most people who dabble in advertising sooner or later falls upon. I started reading it January, and finished it after a few days. Since then I’ve re-read it several times – each time finding more interesting stuff to write about (but less time to actually write it down in a coherent manner). It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone – it’s fascinating and easy to read, while being entertaining and educational at the same time. (Trivia – Ogilvy is suspected to be the inspiration for Don Draper in the Mad Men series)

In my struggles to find a good angle (and the time/peace of mind to pursue it) I ended up with something a bit more interesting than just a short review and a “go read – it’ll be fun”. Instead I’ve decided that I’d try to bring some of the golden eggs out of the books and into a series (hopefully) of posts about books for creatives. It’ll be books that bring about inspiration, knowledge and does so in a fashionable manner – and what I’ll try to do is distill those things into blog posts about the books. I hope you’ll enjoy it. 

Confessions of an Advertising Man: Research, Management and Culture

A few words about the book

“Confessions of an Advertising Man is a 1963 book by David Ogilvy. It is considered required reading in many advertising classes in the United States. Ogilvy was partly an advertising copywriter, and the book is written as though the entire book was advertising copy. It contains eleven sections:

1.     How to Manage an Advertising Agency

2.     How to Get Clients

3.     How to Keep Clients

4.     How to be a Good Client

5.     How to Build Great Campaigns

6.     How to Write Potent Copy

7.     How to Illustrate Advertisements and Posters

8.     How to Make Good Television Commercials

9.     How to Make Good Campaigns for Food Products, Tourist Destinations and Proprietary Medicines

10.  How to Rise to the Top of the Tree

11.  Should Advertising Be Abolished?

In August 1963, 5000 copies of the book were printed. By 2008 more than 1,000,000 copies had been printed.” - Wikipedia



David Ogilvy started out as an apprentice chef in Paris, back in 1931, sold AGA cooking stoves by means of Door-to-door from 1932. Later he worked as an account executive with Mather & Crowther after they were presented with a sales instruction manual Ogilvy wrote for AGA, after his success as a salesman. While at Mather & Crowther he managed to persuade the agency to send him to the U.S.A for a year – where he worked at the George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey. This had a profound impact on Ogilvy, who continuously pushed for putting the time into research for every advertisement he, or his agency, later produced. After WW2 he lived among the Amish in Pennsylvania for some years, but decided to leave for New York to open his own agency. There he started incorporating what he’d learned from Gallup, and claimed the title as Resarch Director. In a sense Ogilvy shares something with Werner Herzog. Both became what they became because of their experiences doing wildly different things rather than “born” as artists/creative from any school.

In Confessions Ogilvy brings forth some of his obiter dicta that he sees responsible for the corporate culture you would find at Ogilvy & Mathers. I’ve marked the ones I find most applicable in bold.

  1. We sell – or else.
  2. You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it.
  3. We prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests.
  4. We hire gentlemen with brains
  5. The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence.
  6. Unless your campaign contains a Big Idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.
  7. Only First Class business, and that in a First Class way.
  8. Never run an advertisement you would not want your own family to see.
  9.  Search all the parks in all your cities; you’ll find no statues of committees.

These things all point towards a few things that many times seems to get overlooked. The importance of research and the insights that research brings into the customers/users minds (MS “you can’t trade in used games” “always online” policies when they showed off the Xbox One comes to mind) cannot be put aside. By doing your research on your customer segment/user base you’ll find that you will be avoiding miss-steps that could hurt your business. Companies like King and such excel in using the data gathered from their games to iterate and touch up their gameplay to make it even more compelling to continue to play/spend cash on it. This might be the picture most people paint when they think about researching and understanding your potential customer – but it need not be like that. It could just as easily be summarized as “have an open dialogue with your fans, ask and learn from their experiences with your game”. It need not be huge focus groups, bought for thousands of dollars – it could be people willing to put down time in your game in exchange for earlier builds. If you’ve been building a strong community (or if you’re looking to do that) engaging and understanding their needs and wants will in the end help you bring a more compelling experience into their hands. You’ll also avoid looking dumb, because that’s how you’ll be perceived for taking the piss out of your customers. Don’t insult them – listen to them. It doesn’t mean that everything they say needs to become The Law, but sift through the noise and you’re bound to find something good. It’s not just Ogilvy (and me) that’s pushing this agenda. Bo Andersson of Overkill/Starbreeze seems to agree (Swedish, so use google translate for a “decent” translation), as do several other devs both indie and AAA if you read their interviews.

 Of course you might not be looking to do that, your artistic vision might be of larger importance to you than whatever any crowd thinks of said visions – and that’s perfectly fine. I, personally, still think there’s lots to gain from thinking about what the end user (even if the end user, like in the latter case, might be you) would say, think, feel and want from the experience you’re creating.

Also, don’t bore your fans. Don’t bore potential customers. Don’t bore publishers. No one will be bored into buying your game, vision or company. If you can’t stop being boring, hire someone who isn’t (or get a friend that understands how to write compelling copy to write yours). Not everyone can create a game that stands on the foundation of a “Big Idea”, and everyone is not fit for selling, marketing or talking about your game. If you’re not the person who should be doing the talking – find out who is. Maybe it’s one of those fans that keeps posting interesting stuff on your forums? You’d know if you’ve been hanging out there.

Lastly: Behave professionally. Everyone benefits. What professionally means? That’s a whole post in itself. Let’s just put it this way; don’t be an asshole. Not to your customers, not to your publishers and not to your teams. Deliver on your promises and deadlines, accept responsibility when you fuck up and be consequent in how you deal with both internal and external issues/struggles.

Management and Culture

Ogilvy believed that a creative agency needed to be spearheaded by someone who could inspire his or her teams to outdo themselves. Rather than leading by authority (which does not mean that there was no authority) he strived to lead by inspiration. If you’ll be needing your team to work 50 hour – work 60 yourself. He put a lot of weight into the character of his staff, and often recited that it’s important that a person working for Ogilvy, Benson & Mathers also love to burn some midnight oil. Ogilvy didn’t believe in constant appraisal, but rather applied what he himself had experienced when working as a chef in Paris. Basically, less is more. Ogilvy hoped that this would mean that the times he did appraise something, the people behind it would feel pride and a sense of an accomplishment – something he felt as watered down if he’d been appraising everything put before him. Big ideas, greatness and exceptional campaigns got what they deserved.

Once a year he’d assemble all of the company and give a speech wherein he confessed to what kind of behavior he admired and expected in/from his staff. I’ll break it off as two passages – as it is quite long.

  1. I admire people who work hard, who bite the bullet. I dislike passengers who don’t pull their weight in the boat. It is more fun to be overworked than to be underworked. There is an economic factor built into hard work. The harder you work, the fewer employees we need, and the more profit we make. The more profit we make, the more money becomes available for all of us.
  2. I admire people with first-class brains, because you cannot run a great advertising agency without brain people. But brains are not enough unless they are combined with intellectual honesty.
  3. I have an inviolable rule against employing nepots and spouses, because they breed politics. Whenever two of our people get married, one of them must depart – preferably the female, to look after her baby. [Book was written in 1962, and sometimes it shows quite a bit.]
  4. I admire people who work with gusto. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, I beg you to find another job. Remember the Scottish proverb, “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”
  5. I despise toadies who suck up to their bosses; they are generally the same people who bully their subordinates.

All of the aforementioned points are easily translatable to running any creative agency, but also carries some hidden gems. “The more profit we make, the more money becomes available for all of us” could today be rephrased as; make sure that when the company profits – the teams do as well. Celebrate hard work in such ways that make it worth it. Surround yourself with smart talent, avoid office politicians and make sure that everyone is enjoying what you are doing and how it’s being done – otherwise they might be better off somewhere else, both for the sake of your company and your team and for that individual. Build your team with honesty, intelligence and creativity (more about that later) as guiding stars.

  1. I admire self-confident professionals, the craftsmen who do their jobs with superlative excellence. They always seem to respect the expertise of their colleagues. They don’t poach.
  2. I admire people who hire subordinates who are good enough to succeed them. I pity people who are so insecure that they feel compelled to hire inferiors as their subordinates.
  3. I admire people who build up their subordinates, because this is the only way we can promote from within the ranks. I detest having to go outside to fill important jobs, and I look forward to the day when that will never be necessary.
  4. I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings. I abhor quarrelsome people. I abhor people who wage paper-warfare. The best way to keep peace is to be candid. Remember Blake:
    I was angry with my friend;
    I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
    I was angry with my foe;
    I told it not, my wrath did grow.
  5. I admire well-organised people who deliver their work on time. The Duke of Wellington never went home until he had finished all the work on his desk.

The red thread continues. Surround yourself with exceptional humans who take pride in their craft and excel in performing it. Make sure your seniors are the kind of seniors who teach, learn and help their subordinates to become greater than what they were when they enter the team. Make sure that all communication is frank and forthright, but well mannered – it quells conflict rather than inflame it. By expecting and promoting these things Ogilvy, Benson & Mather created a corporate culture where excellent people could grow beyond their own potential by the help of the team. As much can be said from any creative agency/studio. If your team is constantly boosting each other, they’re also boosting the company and the game/product you are working on. Ogilvy makes a remark in the book where he states that he looks upon his teams as family, and acts on them from that perspective.

Ogilvy also touches the growth aspect of a company/agency/studio. He notes that many big agencies tend to leave all their client work with the juniors, while the top talent are all so high up that their entangled in the administrative parts of the accounts their handling.

“This process builds large agencies, but it leads to mediocrity in performance. I have no ambition to preside over a vast bureaucracy.”

Later in the book he states:

“It is easy to be beguiled by acres of desks, departments and other big agency appurtenances. What counts is the real motive power of the agency, the creative potency.”


“I have never wanted to get an account so big that I could not afford to lose it. The day you do that, you commit yourself to living with fear. Frightened agencies lose the courage to give candid advice; once you lose that you become a lackey.”

All echoes a statement I’ve made as well: Quality before growth. There’s no inherent value in employing a large number of people, if not every single one of those employed are working at their full potential (and evolving past it). Every person needs increase the creative force and quality of the company.

Growing can be a good thing – but quality (and profitability) is, in my mind, much more important. I’d rather have 10 companies of 20-30 people doing amazing work in profitable companies than one company with 300 employees that have to compromise quality and creativity just to be able to get past their monthly burn rate. Some might disagree with this, but I find it important. Fear and creativity doesn’t necessarily mix well.

Next Chapter Excerpt: Vision, Creativity, Talent and Competence

Eccentric behavior is not in itself a seal of excellence, talent or even creativity, but through history many of the great creatives have also been more or less eccentric or complex. From Werner Herzog, Ice-Pick Lodge or Yoko Ono to Christian Bale, Valerie Solanas or Anaïs Nin – all have produced intense and highly interesting works through their craft, neither seem to be completely sane (in the way sane is perceived today). Competent people is always available, but competence combined with talent and creativity is so very[...]


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