New Beginnings: “David Ogilvy? What Band’s He In?”

There are times in our lives that we need inspiration, perhaps guidance. For me that has been David Ogilvy. I’m reading Kenneth Roman’s book about the great man. As a former chairman and CEO of the Ogilvy & Mather agency, Kenneth Roman provides an almost pictorial biography of the agency’s early days, Mr. Ogilvy’s history prior to founding it, and the agency’s subsequent years.

Advertising was not my first profession. It grew out of my mediation practice. One day, my associate and I were discussing what was basically, “What I’m going to do when I grow up,” and for some reason we revisited a component of our business. In the past, our practice had a number of small business clients that needed help planning and drafting ad copy, and buying media. History had repeated itself and we had gotten a few similar business clients.

Their needs were similar, including graphic design, media buying and other aspects of the ad business. That was our ‘a-ha’ moment. “Hey gang, let’s become an advertising agency.” Well, the small staff got smaller. It was the height of the Great Recession. My wonderful associate decided she could the same thing and started her own marketing and ad agency – stealing my sales staff and the last viable accounts.

Then, one day wallowing in anger at Barnes & Nobel, I saw it: “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” This was Mr. Ogilvy’s own story and I fell head over heels. I read it and stared at the cover and interior like I was exploring the mysteries of a beautiful woman. I committed myself to learning not just about Ogilvy, but the advertising profession and started formally learning it. Slowly, we got a few clients – small businesses but they were paying customers.

It’s a struggle learning to run a small agency. You fight for new accounts, fight to obtain and keep personnel, and gain relevancy and credibility.  Often you are in it alone — or it feels that way. In looking at Roman’s book on Mr. Ogilvy, I took away a number of things. Ogilvy, paradox that he was, was a consummate professional. He built a philosophy, not just an agency. He believed in writing long, explainatory copy. Mr. Ogilvy was also a bit rigid about what constituted good advertising. I love writing copy, and detest jumbled messages, whether written for print or produced as a commercials. 

Sadly, the profession is riddled with people who don’t know bad advertising from middling. I am sadden when I encounter interns who ask:  “David Ogilvy? What band is he in? Oh, yeah. That’s the dude that won American Idol.” Professor Longhair over at Middle Finger U doesn’t tell them a damn thing about “The King of Madison Avenue.” Or, for that matter, Leo Burnett (Yeah him; power forward, LA Lakers) Rosser Reeves, Ted Bates, Mary Wells. Jerry Della Ferma, Jay Chiat, Carol P. Williams, Harry Webber and the people that actually helped make the advertising profession. Professor Longhair knows all about his friend’s agency and tells his students that real agencies must have ping pong tables, dogs the in hallways, tattoo contests, just like that progressive visionary agency “Laptop Larry” started.

Laptop Larry’s amenities are about as useful as an air sandwich. We used to call those features bullshit. An old mentor once told me that when you’re bullshitting, you’re not working.

Back to Mr. Ogilvy.

What is inspiring for me is the modest beginnings of his now gigantic agency. Sure he had partners that contributed to its funding, but the bottom line is that even when accounts were few, he never quit. He also paid himself modestly and took care of his workers by establishing profit sharing.

There’s a tendency for people to crawl into a fetal position of surrender when times are rough. We whine about entitlement but in reality nothing good comes from whining – effort pays off. Last year, my business partner and I decided to transform into a digital agency. But, here is the thing: First and foremost we are an advertising agency. David Ogilvy said that an agency’s role is to sell its client’s product. Yes, strive for creativity, put the maximum effort in it, but serve your clients – move their stuff from the shelves and into the hands of consumers.

I’ll read a few more chapters and start my recovery.

Catch You later,

Bernard Alexander McNealy

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