The BLG Blog

Posts & articles that have helped thousands build performance through pragmatic leadership.

5 Leadership Lessons From David Ogilvy–The Father of Advertising

David Ogilvy got his start in a high-end French kitchen making frog legs. Working in a highly regimented atmosphere, Ogilvy learned the importance of perfection.

After his stint with Souffles, Ogilvy sold stoves door-to-door in Scotland. He learned that talking down to people never sold anything.

In 1938 Ogilvy moved to the United States and eventually started his own advertising firm because he was too scared to apply to the preexisting ones in NYC. Ogilvy’s firm was a success and he became known as the “father of advertising.” He also wrote the popular book, Confessions of an Advertising Man.

He said he’d like to be remembered as a copywriter with big ideas.

Leaders can learn a lot from Ogilvy because he was a master of selling ideas with experience and honesty.

His lessons aren’t just for people in the advertising world; they’re for anyone who has ever wanted to get people on their side.

Here are five of Ogilvy’s golden rules for generating good ideas, leading teams, and convincing people.

1. Always Look on the Light Side of Life

Ogilvy said, “The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.” I’m pretty sure Ogilvy didn’t achieve his success by walking around with a goofy grin on his face while he tried out new material on anyone who’d listen. But his willingness to tell jokes and laugh led to his most successful and most creative ad campaigns. Take his well known copy for Rolls-Royce: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Leaders who want to think creatively and communicate effectively shouldn’t be afraid to have a sense of humor.

2. Leave the Thesaurus at Home

A lot of people think that big responsibilities and big titles necessitate big words. They couldn’t be more wrong. Ogilvy said, “I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”

When you’re trying to pitch an idea or form a coalition you don’t need to dress up your language. You risk alienating certain groups and sounding artificial.

3. Be the Real Deal

“I have a theory,” Ogilvy said, “that the best ads come from personal experience. Some of the good ones I have done have really come out of the real experience of my life, and somehow this has come over as true and valid and persuasive.”

Not only do the best ads come from experience, but also the best stories and the best speeches. Experience and honesty is the golden thread the runs though effective communication. If you can avoid being generic you can win over an audience by letting them see who you are.

Ogilvy demonstrated this successfully with his Dove soap campaign. His copy read: “Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream.” The campaign helped Dove become the top selling US soap. The simple honesty is what sold and it didn’t require any half-truths or hard-to-keep promises.

4. The Three Golden Steps to Success

There’s no easy way to get to the top. But Ogilvy believes there’s an easy way to stay there. Ogilvy said the steps to success are as follows: “First, make yourself a reputation for being a creative genius. Second, surround yourself with partners who are better than you are. Third, leave them to go get on with it.”

We can’t all become creative geniuses, but with enough hard work we can all establish ourselves in our fields. The trick to staying in your field is by surrounding yourself with smart people and by giving them the power to lead for and with you.

5. It’s Not How You Say It

Selling agendas, justifying actions, and getting buy-in are what leaders do daily. So do advertisers. Ogilvy said, “What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.” The same goes for leadership. Content matters over flare and presentation skills. Execution matters more than lip service and captivating speeches. People always respond to truth—they’re not always won over by flashy presentations.



About BLG

Whether you want BLG to deliver a complete leadership academy across your organization, focus on a key group, or supplement an ongoing program, the primary goal of any of our programs will be business impact.

Recent Posts


Sign up for our Newsletter