When agencies are founded, they invariably sell the personality of their founders because frankly they have little else for clients to bet the farm on. The Scottish public school/Parisian sous-chef/MI-5 agent mythos that was David Ogilvy was part and parcel of why you trusted his agency with your account. You wanted that vaguely mid-Atlantic-Man charm and style. Just as the midwestern common sense and directness was why you went with Leo Burnett. Or the pan-ethnic New York hustle of Bill Bernbach at the shop he started. These founders set the tone, set the bar, set the parameters of the work their agencies would deliver. And it’s true of every shop of every size and in every reach of the business because what we’re really talking about is what initially defines the agency’s brand.
The challenge, however, is how to grow beyond that founder, so that the agency not only can scale beyond what one person can realistically impact, but also so that the whole damn thing doesn’t come crashing down should they decide to, I don’t know, retire to the south of France. Or, god forbid, someplace more permanent (see Howard Gossage).
And that’s where culture usually comes in, right? In theory, the founders were selling something that was unique to them but was replicable by others in their tribe. Ogilvy, Bernbach, Burnett and all the rest – as they would undoubtedly be the first to confess – were selling something that was inspired by them, maybe even distinct to them, but that did not begin and end with them. The trick was to figure out exactly what that was. To figure out which were the idiosyncrasies and which were the insights. Which was mania and which was meaningful. Which you could jettison as merely “nice-to-have” and which, if you jettisoned, would destroy what made the agency, well, the agency.
And while this was always difficult to do, the fact that the founders themselves were very often the worst people to do it did nothing to make the process simpler.
It is in this context, then, that we turn to this curious little red book. Compiled by Miles Young when he was global CEO of Ogilvy, it measures a mere three and half by five inches and is, as the name implies, a collection of quotations of David Ogilvy drawn from both public works like (like Confessions of an Advertising Man) and private writings that were distributed only within the agency.
Young, in his brief introduction, calls it “the best refresher course in Ogilvy values anyone could wish for” and one can see immediately what a tiny volume which every employee could carry with them could do to bind together an agency that had, at the time of its publication, not only outlasted its founder, but had also expanded well beyond his reach (as of this writing, 126 offices in 88 countries).
And in this way that tricky transition was made, with one foot in the man, and one foot in the legend. Is the agency of today exactly the same one that occupied a lone office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in the late 1940s? Of course not. But neither is advertising the same business it was then. The more important question is, can you draw a line from that shop to today’s vast network? The answer to that is yes, and that line goes right through this little red book.
Which is all well and good if you’re Andy Main or Piyush Pandey or Liz Taylor, you may say – but what the hell value is there for anyone not currently calling Ogilvy home? Ah, well, the value of timeless advice, of a series of observations on what makes smart advertising smart, and what makes all the rest of it, um, suck. Like this, for example:
A lot of today’s campaigns are based on optimum positioning but are totally ineffective – because they are dull, or badly constructed, or ineptly written. If nobody reads your advertisements or looks at your commercial, it doesn’t do you much good to have the right positioning.
And this, which actually sounds like it came out of Leo Burnett’s mouth:
A lot of advertisements and television commercials look like minutes of a committee meeting, and that is what they are. Advertising seems to sell most when it is written by a solitary individual. He must study the product, the research and the precedents. Then he must shut the door of his office and write the advertisements.
But perhaps most importantly, this:
I had a friend who was the King’s surgeon in England. One day I asked him what makes a great surgeon. He replied ‘What distinguishes a great surgeon is his knowledge. He knows more than other surgeons. During an operation he finds something which he wasn’t expecting, recognizes it, and knows what to do about it.’
It’s the same thing with advertising people. The good ones know more. How do you get to know more? By reading books about advertising. By picking the brains of people who know more than you do. And from experience.
I can’t stand callow amateurs who aren’t sufficiently interested in the craft of advertising to assume the posture of students.
The advice is relevant and the book is useful because Ogilvy believed in things that lasted: cars, shirts, and advertising. Especially advertising. He did not believe in ideas that came and went with the lightning speed of a banner on an app on your phone, even if that’s how they would ultimately be delivered. He wanted advertising to stand for something. To mean something. To be something.
Kudos to him for that. But also to those who came after him to see what was the wheat and what was the chaff of what he had started so that an agency could be built on those foundations.
Neither are easy tasks. Books like this can help. But it’s meaningless without substance. What is yours?