Confessions of an Ad Man – advice for anyone

Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy isn’t just about advertising. It has plenty to ponder on human behavior for anyone, whether you’re in advertising or not.

In an advertising agency, especially during the era the author writes in, all the ingredients exist for plenty of drama  – high profile business clients, ambitious upstarts, lots of money and risk, swirling around against a backdrop of high stakes situations. There is some practical and often amusing insight. The chapters are so inviting – How to Manage an Advertising Agency, How to Write Potent Copy, How to make Good Television Commercials. Even though most of us don’t need to know how to do those things in everyday life, you can’t help but want to know about them anyway.

It’s an easy read with straightforward advice in short succinct paragraphs. You can pick it up in any section and not have to have read anything before. As you’d expect from an expert copywriter, every sentence holds your attention and though there are plenty of dubious proclamations, there’s enough useful advice to make it worth the read e.g. the most effective font size and type to use (it’s at least 10 point and sans serif).

Some of the best bits are in a small chapter towards the end – How to Rise to the Top of the Tree (Advice to the Young). There are some real blunt warning which may or may not be true but it’s what Ogilvy must have witnessed.

‘Almost all the spectacular triumphs are performed by specialists. I would therefore advise my own son to specialize – in media, research or copy…he would acquire an expertise which gives a man security – psychological and financial’.

This was in response to the many able young men who entered the agency determined to be account executives from day one. Just as the MBA who has little hands on business experience, they aren’t going to succeed unless they’ve mastered a speciality with all the real life experience that brings with it.

Another observation is straight to the uncomfortable point:

‘However hard you work and however knowledgeable you become, you will be unable to represent your agency at a client’s policy level until you are at least 35. One of my partners owes the rapidity of his ascent to the fact that he went bald when he was thirty, and another had the good fortune to become white-headed at forty’.

Not many people would see it as good fortune if they turned white at 40 but in the case of a 60’s ad executive, it made all the difference. The point is that there are just some physical attributes that get in the way, no matter how you behave. It’s works in slightly different ways now but it’s still there. The young, smart, male tech graduate is more likely to get VC investment than anyone older, female who hasn’t attended a specific university, no matter how good the idea. In other cases, certain roles still demand an older, experienced (usually male) leader because of the belief that it’s the only way to make people feel they’re in good hands. That may be wrong of course (and there is evidence to say they are) but prejudice is a strong human attribute that is as true as it was back then when this book was written. It’s just takes on slightly different guises. Maybe there was some benefit to stating it as it was back then instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Either way, the advice is to be aware of how you look because whether you want it or not, the judgement will happen. In the era of this book, people didn’t take the chance and it was openly prevented.

Moving on, towards the end of the chapter I found this. A small section that is relevant for us right now as we find ourselves with time on our hands and some opportunity to get creative.

 Ogilvy’s recipe for refreshing vacations:

‘Don’t stay at home and putter round the house. You need a change of scene.’

Easier said than done these days but it points out that far from having all this extra time for creative projects, it’s more likely our creativity will take a serious hit instead. We better hope that VR becomes an accessible option soon or it’s going to get really boring.

‘Take your wife but leave the children with a neighbor. Small fry are a pain in the neck on a vacation’.

I’m still smiling about this one but he has a point. Anyone who has tried to get anything done with small children around would know it’s next to impossible. This I would take as reassurance that it’s normal to struggle with productive creative thought with kids around and give myself a break, knowing I’m only human.

‘Take a sleeping pill every night for the first three nights. Get plenty of fresh air and exercise’.

There is not much to explain why sleeping pills and why for prescriptive three nights but I’m guessing it’s to make sure your body gets the rest it needs before you use your mind. At least that’s my takeaway. There is more opportunity for sleep for most of us these days. Perhaps the benefit will present itself in months to come when we’ve had our long periods of rest and emerge refreshed and ready to have the most productive time of our lives. Let’s hope.

‘Read a book every day – twenty-one books in three weeks (I assume you have taken the Book of the Month club’s rapid reading course and can do 1,000 words in a minute)’

Well I haven’t taken the course and I’m not sure if I could read that many books in that time but I’m willing to try.

‘Broaden your horizons by going abroad, even if you have to travel steerage. But don’t travel so much that you come back cross and exhausted’

In the current climate, that’s quite a challenge. Is there a way to travel without physically traveling? Nothing is going to replace the way the senses are aroused with real traveling but we can try to lose ourselves in a movie or book.

So read the book, write better copy in your emails and imagine you are about to create your own advertising agency. The same advice for handling clients could just as well be be applied to relationships in the workplace. This book you might even be able to finish up in a day.

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