David Ogilvy

Founder of Ogilvy

Hailed a “genius” by Warren Buffet, David Ogilvy was the advertising giant behind some of the most successful brands of all time, including Rolls Royce, Schweppes, and Dove.

When Ogilvy was a child, his father struggled to find steady work amid the 20th-century economic crisis. Ogilvy attended school on a reduced-fee plan. Later, he earned a scholarship to Oxford but left after only two years because he’d failed his exams.

Ogilvy was quick to pick himself back up following the loss. He began selling cookware door-to-door, and his boss quickly realized Ogilvy’s mind for sales. His manager asked him to write an instruction manual for his co-workers and years later, Fortune called it, “the finest sales instruction manual ever written.”

His brother showed the book to managers at Mather & Crowther, an advertising company in London. In 1935, they offered Ogilvy a position.

With the war in Europe brewing, Ogilvy was sent to the United States to work at George Gallup's Audience Research Institute. He appreciated Gallup’s “meticulous research methods and adherence to reality” and became one of Ogilvy’s early mentors.

Ogilvy quickly picked up skills and experience, taking on a position at the British Intelligence Service during WWII. There, Ogilvy learned about propaganda and persuasion, skills he’d leverage when he became the “Father of Advertising.” He used this time to develop his advertising strategy: research relentlessly and inform customers.

With just $6,000 ($75,000 today), Ogilvy started Ogilvy, Benson, and Mather in New York City in 1948. Luck and good timing were on his side: Initially, Ogilvy struggled to gain clients, but the era’s consumerist boom was a powerful tailwind.

Over the coming years, Ogilvy continued developing his advertising philosophy. He believed that consumers were intelligent and that gimmicks were a silly way to approach an ad. In 1955, he famously said, “The customer is not a moron, she's your wife.” I believe this is one of the key contributors to his success—he saw the advertising as an investment in a brand’s future.

1959 was an important year for Ogilvy. His advertisement for Good Luck Margarine featured former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and his popularity soared. Ogilvy later regretted putting her in the ad, but this ad’s success solidified his career as the “King of Madison Avenue.”

Ogilvy created celebrities and launched George Wrangel to fame in his “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” advertisement. He did the same for Commander Edward Whitehead for Schweppes with the line, “The man from Schweppes is here.”

Ogilvy was risk-averse, likely because of his background in research. Unlike other advertisers, he felt that a great ad was backed by relentless consumer research, not on thoughts or opinions.

In his memoir, he writes, “I do not regard advertising as an entertainment or an art form but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it creative. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

While boundless creativity was his key strength, he didn’t think he was a particularly creative person. Instead, he was a rational researcher. It’s both of these qualities that set him apart from his competition: In 1962, Time named him, “The most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”

In 1973, Ogilvy retired as chairman of Ogilvy & Mather and moved to his estate in France. He remained so involved in his company that the post office nearby raised his postman’s salary and experienced an uptick in mail volume.

Today, Ogilvy & Mather has 131 offices across 93 countries, regularly working alongside Fortune 500 companies. Ogilvy continues their founder’s rich ideology “through Borderless Creativity—operating, innovating, and creating at the intersection of talent and capabilities.”

Here’s what we can learn from Ogilvy about branding, individuality, and creativity.


Read relentlessly. Ogilvy believed that “there was an almost perfect correlation between the number of books a copywriter read and the quality of that writer’s work.” He invested in books, one of which was Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising, a book that proposed the benefits of testing an ad and conducting ruthless research. Scientific Advertising changed Ogilvy’s life. In his memoir, he wrote, “Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times.” On the importance of reading, Ogilvy said, “If you were to have your gallbladder removed tonight, would you choose a surgeon who had never read an anatomy book but preferred to rely on intuition?”

Place the brand before the product. Ask anyone to think of Apple, and most often, they’ll talk about the brand before they mention the iPhone. Ogilvy believed “that the brand exceeds the product in importance.” Like people, brands, have personalities, and these personalities drive sales. A strong product is important, but useless if a firm doesn’t differentiate itself and create a connection with its audience. Of branding, Ogilvy said, “You now have to decide what 'image' you want for your brand. Image means personality.” A strong brand will make or break your place in the market. In other words, the iPhone is a fantastic piece of machinery, but without Apple’s clean, innovative branding, the launch would’ve fallen flat.  

The importance of individuality–personal or branding. Ogilvy said, “Advertising seems to sell most when it is written by a solitary individual.” The most successful marketing campaigns use a unique selling proposition or a public persona that defines who they are, and what they do. Ogilvy understood that “when each person reads your post, they are alone with your words,” and believed in vulnerability as a binding agent between a reader and a brand. The more strongly you lead with your mantra and skills, the more people will be attracted to what you say.

Cleverness doesn’t sell—logic and creativity do. Ogilvy didn’t fancy himself a creative, but valued creativity, saying, “If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative.” One of Ogilvy’s habits I’m most drawn to is his relentless pursuit of knowledge. He researched everything, from the product, the company, and their key customer. Ogilvy sought to learn everything he possibly could about a topic and his audience before he wrote, and understood the intelligence of his customer. People can see through BS—emotion and rationale make the sale. In Ogilvy’s words, “If you’ve researched to understand what your audience needs (and the language they use when they’re speaking about your topic), you’d be a fool to ignore that information.”

Develop a unique—but strong—creative process. Ogilvy pursued big ideas, knowing that “It takes a big idea to attract consumers' attention and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.” To find a big idea, spend as much time as possible cultivating a brainstorming practice. Figure out how to, “unleash your unconscious mind, and see what bubbles up.” Of his own process, Ogilvy said, “Many people - and I think I am one of them - are more productive when they've had a little to drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I'm far better able to write.”

The only way to live is to aim for the company of immortals. Build a bulletproof team, and consider yourself a part of it. Ogilvy said, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” Surround yourself with the smartest people you can think of. Seek the mentorship of those you admire.” In Ogilvy’s words, “Aim for the company of immortals.”

David Ogilvy Quotes

On the importance of sales and marketing: “In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

On the creative process: “Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.”

On struggling with inspiration: “You’ve got to close the door and write something — that is the moment of truth which we all try to postpone as long as possible.”

On unorthodox genius: “Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels.”

On big ideas: “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ballpark. Aim for the company of immortals.”

My favourite: “Play to win, but enjoy the fun.”



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