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Books for Creatives: David Ogilvy – Confessions of an Advertising Man [Part 2 - Vision, Creativity, Talent and Competence]

This second part in my series about Books for Creatives we touch upon the value of a great vision, as well as the value of doing absolutely nothing. And a few things in between.

Johan Toresson (@jtoresson, [email protected])

Gameport (Blekinge Business Incubator)

Gameport @ Facebook


If you missed the first part, you can find it here: Books for Creatives: David Ogilvy – Confessions of an Advertising Man [Part 1]

Confessions of an Advertising Man: Vision, Creativity, Talent and Competence


The day Ogilvy started his agency in 1948 he issued this order of the day:

“This is a new agency, struggling for its life. For some time we shall be overworked and underpaid.

In hiring, the emphasis will be on youth... We are looking for young turks.I have no use for toadies or hacks. I seek gentlemen with brains.

Agencies are as big as they deserve to be. We are starting this one on a shoestring, but we are going to make it a great agency before 1960.”

He then continued to make a list of the five clients he wanted the most.

“General Foods, Bristol-Myers, Campbell Soup Company, Lever Brothers, and Shell.”

This is a strong vision, and one which is compelling enough to gather the team behind it. With a clear vision you infuse your team with a sense of purpose and a place for the company to strive for. Don’t be afraid to aim high – as long as you and your team find it inspiring. It doesn’t mean that you need to go out and aim to become the next Activision, it all depends on what your and your team goals are. If your goal is to be out on steam, win the IGF and make enough profit to finance your next project – then dare to be clear about it and aim for that. No one will stand behind a weak vision. “We’ll see what happens but our goal is to basically just survive for a bit and hopefully make something and maybe sell it.” When Ogilvy then continues to list his dream clients he also makes it possible to measure the levels of success the company is reaching. It also gives him milestones.

Ogilvy notes that when there is chaos (or a paradigm shift) there’s the possibility for dark horses to take the scene and disrupt a market. This could find some support with anthropologists like Jonathan Friedman and Immanuel Wallerstein, who studied what is known as World System Theory, where the chaos ensued from a paradigm shift from core to periphery also enabled for large cultural and identity changes. This in turn could perhaps, with a stroke of luck, be translated into what we have seen during the last 10-14 years, where there has been turmoil in both the mid and high tier of the games industry. Giants have toppled, companies has been bought and much blood has been spilled. In this turmoil steam carved out and disrupted the way you run a store, indies the way you create, market and make profit in the games industry and Unity (and other engines like Twine etc etc) lowered the barrier of entrance for those interested in pursuing the games industry as a means to create. If we wish to take a look at today we could maybe use the Italian sociologist Francesco Alberonis theories about movement/revolution and institutions. Alberoni would perhaps state that the indies started as a revolution/movement against the institutions (I e big publishers, mainstream game design, work for hire) but has since grown out of their nascent state to the point where the revolution has become the institution – things have become more solid, less fluid and the revolution has now moved on to a different generation of independent creators. The old ones have paved the ways, erected buildings and have their own (albeit rather flat) hierarchies. Which is a good thing, obviously, but not perhaps as exciting. Then again, what can be more exciting than turmoil and chaos, right? Anway – back to Ogilvy! For Ogilvy these shifts were when the old, big agencies got complacent and started to create advertisements on routine. This opened up a space for the dark horses to shine.

Ogilvy also describes how he worked to make sure that his agency was visible from the start. It included him inviting ten journalists from the trade press to state his intentions of building a great agency from scratch, making few (but memorable) speeches that were tailored to stir up as much controversy as possible on Madison Avenue, networked with people who were in contact with major advertisers – researchers, PR consultants and space salesmen to name a few – and lastly:

“[..] I sent frequent progress reports to 600 people in every walk of life. This barrage of direct mail was read by the most august advertisers. For example, when I solicited part of the Seagram account, Sam Bronfman played back to me the last two paragraphs of a sixteen-page speech I had sent him shortly before; and he hired us.”

So you’re aiming high. You’re still a long way to go, and you’re hungry. What should you do? Ogilvy remembers them taking on any client they could find – but never forgetting those five clients he put down the first day. All of this might sound like obvious stuff is obvious, but there’s a lot of people who want to make their dream project and nothing else. Personally I’d recommend that you do whatever it takes to put food on the table, but keep your vision and your goals as your guiding stars. Is there a possibility you could pursue that might bring you closer to your goal, but maybe pays less than something completely irrelevant? As long as it doesn’t break your team or your company, then maybe you should go hunt that possibility. If you’re not up for it; maybe you should review your goals.

Creativity, Talent and Competence

Ogilvy believed that to tap in to greatness you’d also have to be able to tolerate the antics that comes with creative and talented people. 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 rare, that the people who could bring this into their agencies – and put it to good use – were the ones with agencies worth remembering. Ogilvy also notes that when he hired Esty Stowell in 1957, a man with an impressive resume that could boost the perception of the company from a company headed by an able copywriter into a strong, creative agency, that the agency started to grow in larger incrementals. Don’t be afraid to bring in talent that surpasses you (or the perceived you) if it will benefit the company. Ogilvy turned over management for every department, except the creative ones where he excelled, to Stowell.

When it came to creativity, Ogilvy thought little of most business men.

“The creative process requires more than reason. Most original thinking isn’t even verbal. [..] The majority of business men are incapable of original thinking because they are unable to escape from the tyranny of reason. Their imaginations are blocked.”

He thought himself almost incapable of logical thought – and had a few things that he felt made sure that he stayed in a good space creatively. Among those things were enjoying music, being on friendly terms with John Barleycorn, taking long baths, retreating back to the Amish and frequent vacations where he’d simply bicycle. Nothing that required concentration. This reminds me of something Charles Bukowski said:

“This is very important – to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you’re gonna lose everything… just do nothing at all, very, very important. [..]”

Both Ogilvy and Bukowski worked hard, and both were talented creative. Both also knew the importance of “doing” nothing. 

Next Chapter: Confessions of an Advertising Man: A short summary (and then some…)

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