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The big idea is still brilliant
on 16 May 2014
Who could not love a book that starts: “As a child I lived in Lewis Carroll’s house in Guildford. My father, whom I adored, was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, a classical scholar and a bigoted agnostic. One day he discovered that I had started going to church secretly.
“My dear old son, how can you swallow that mumbo-jumbo? It is all very well for servants but not for educated people. You don’t have to be a Christian to behave like a gentleman!
“My mother was a beautiful and eccentric Irishwoman. She disinherited me on the ground that I was likely to acquire more money than was good for me without any help from her. I could not disagree.”
Written more than 50 years ago, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man has two strengths. First, it tells you how to be successful in business. Second, he shows how great brands are created by selling the big idea to as many people as possible.
In 1988 Ogilvy added a preface to explain why he wrote the book. First, to attract new clients to his advertising agency. Second, to help sell shares in his company. Third, to make himself better known in the business world. It achieved all three.
He also had to make three corrections as the world had changed from 1962 when the book was written. The world has changed even more since 1988 but Ogilvy’s ideas are still fresh and still easy to use.
He opens with a chapter on how to manage an advertising agency that can be used for any business. While Ogilvy came from a privileged background, he failed at university and had to work his way as a salesman, as a market researcher and as a chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris.
“There were 37 chefs in our brigade. We worked like dervishes 63 hours a week. From morning to night we sweated and shouted and curses and cooked. Every man jack was inspired by one ambition: to cook better than any chef had cooked before.”
Ogilvy describes how Monsieur Pitard, the head chef, inspired his kitchen while ruling with a rod of iron (“we were terrified of him”).
Pitard believed in exorbitant standards of service and in keeping his kitchen clean. While all his cooks were badly paid M Pitard lived in a chateau.
“Far from concealing his wealth from the rest of us he drove to work in a taxi, carried a cane with a gold head and dressed when off-duty like an international banker. This flaunting of privilege stimulated our ambition to follow in his footsteps.”
Pitard, he recalled, worked 77 hours a week and only took one free day a fortnight.
Ogilvy shows how his experience in the kitchen shaped his rules for running his business and he provides two lists on who to hire as staff and who to hire as customers. One of the books strengths is its many useful lists that you can apply to solve almost any problem.
Oddly for a book selling the idea of investing in his company, Ogilvy consistently complains of how thin his margins are. I am sure this is a salesman’s trick. “Once a salesman, always a salesman,” he says.
Ogilvy is always keen to show us the money. This is a strength. “At the end of a concert at Carnegie Hall, Walter Damrosch asked Rachmaninoff what sublime thoughts had passed through his head as he stared out into the audience during the playing of his concerto. “I was counting the house,” said Rachmaninoff.”
Ogilvy’s book has sold more than one million copies. It can only inspire you to run your business better.
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