Employment, Leadership, Management




I am sure this has happened to you. You hear a name, and drawing deep into the haze of distant memory you ask yourself, “How is it that I know that name?” Sometimes the name is forgotten as quickly as remembered, but occasionally the name will stick until you decide it is worth parsing. Such was the case three weeks ago as I was winding up my vacation. It’s amazing that I was able to remember anything at all, my brain still a mess from the blur of far too many points of interest in far too little time. Drawing from the depths of the well, I remembered the man. At least what I had learned of him. And, with a little research I was able to relearn some timeless truths from a genius. The name, David Ogilvy.

As an undergraduate, studying marketing and communications, David Ogilvy was boilerplate. Considered by many the greatest “ad-man” who ever lived, Ogilvy was the founding partner of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, one of the greatest foundational advertising agencies of the 1950’s and 60’s. Far more that his achievements in the ad world, he was a powerful force in creating one of the most power workplace cultures corporate America has ever seen. His leadership style was said by many to be greater than his skills as an ad-man.

Ogilvy was a master communicator. He communicated effectively to the outside world, enabling his agency to sell product for the client, but his ability to communicate internally is what made the organization such a success. Ogilvy was famous for creating a finely polished culture within the organization, something so few leaders achieve today. His culture was based on excellence, treating people like human beings and encouraging (and usually paying for) personal development of his people on all levels.

How did he do it?

He set standards and encouraged his people to achieve even greater than his expectations. He also empowered them to accomplish it, whatever “it” was. His recruitment brochure read; “We are looking for gentlemen with ideas in their head and fire in their bellies. If you join Ogilvy and Mather, we shall teach you everything we know about advertising. We shall pay you well, and do our damnedest to make you succeed. If you show promise, we shall load responsibility on you—fast. Life in our agency can be very exciting. You will never be bored. It’s tough, but it’s fun.”

Once upon a board meeting at Ogilvy & Mather, the board members each entered to find Russian matryoshka dolls on each of their seats. As each member of the board opened the still smaller dolls, each found the same message within the inner doll: “If you hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If you hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants. Hire big people, people who are better than you, pay them more than yourself if necessary.” From that day forward the Russian dolls became a symbol of the corporate culture he had built.

We could learn from another of Ogilvy’s maxims: “Great hospitals do two things, they look after patients and they train young doctors. Ogilvy and Mather does two things: We look after clients, and we teach young advertising people.”

Ogilvy understood the importance of having great people who were greatly equipped. As a leader, you must understand this more than anything else. At Ogilvy and Mather there was training available at every level of the company. However, while mandatory at the early employment stage—to instill the culture and corporate values—the training was positioned as a privilege rather than a duty at each higher level. Again, this played to the master plan of creating a culture of constant improvement and self improvement. Those who progressed were invested in all the more, those who had not were (in Ogilvy’s words) “barnacles” which were regularly scraped off of the hull to keep the ship moving.

Ogilvy’s constant goal was to make the organization more professional and create a timeless institution. This was evident in the professionalism of all who were employed. In fact, everyone in the industry knew that anyone who worked at Ogilvy & Mather was gifted at writing. In fact, the ability to write well was at the core of Ogilvy & Mather’s corporate culture. Ogilvy was equally critical of himself in that area and placed his vulnerability before his people. He would frequently send copies of his writings into the company pool with his familiar note attached: “Please improve.”

His desire to treat people as equals and at the same time extract every bit of positive energy they contained for the improvement of the company was unique, especially because it worked. He demanded much, but never forgot that people need to feel pride. He did all he could to improve the individual, understanding that the growing man has more to give and gives his all—willingly—for a team that moves positively. He never lost site of the fact that individuals need to be respected and empowered.

He wrote: “We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble—with their jobs, with illnesses, and so on. We help our people make the best of their talents. We invest an awful lot of time and money in training—perhaps more than any of our competitors. Our system of management is singularly democratic. We don’t like hierarchical bureaucracy or rigid pecking orders. We abhor ruthlessness. We like our people with gentle manners. We like people who are honest: honest in argument, honest with clients, honest with suppliers, and honest with the company. We admire people who work hard. Objectivity and toughness are admired. Superficiality is not. We despise and detest office politicians, toadies, bullies, and pompous asses. The way up the ladder is open to everyone. We detest favoritism, nepotism, and prejudice. In promoting for top jobs, we are influenced by character as by anything else.”

What more need a leader say.

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