David Ogilvy’s Timeless Recruiting Advice

Ask 10 advertisers who their hero is and they will you give all kinds of responses, from Superman to Barack Obama. Ask them who the advertiser is, dead or alive, they would die to work for and the vast majority will give you the same name: “David Ogilvy.”

Unbeknownst to the wider public, Ogilvy is recognized among advertisers as one of the founding fathers of their trade.

Uncommonly for a man of his profession, Ogilvy’s legacy has stood the test of time. His magnum opus Confessions of An Advertising Mind, written more than 50 years ago when the Internet was no more than an obscure military experiment, is still read today by advertisers around the world as the absolute guide on how to make people buy stuff.

Recruiters and employers can use Ogilvy’s idiosyncratic memoir for their own purposes.

In the book Ogilvy mainly referred to the recruiting habits of the advertising industry of his time, but this does not render its wisdom obsolete.

In this sense, Ogilvy’s recruitment advice is even more topical today due to the increasing role of technology in the workplace and the impact it has on two prized features that often contradict each other: self-discipline and creativity.

Take for example this excerpt from Confessions:

“When copywriters, art directors, and television producers come to work in our agency, they are herded into a conference room and subjected to my Magic Lantern, which tells them how to write headlines and body copy, how to illustrate advertisements, how to construct television commercials, and how to select the basic promise for their campaigns. The rules I postulate do not represent my personal opinions; they are the quintessence of what I have learned from research.

The recruits react to my lecture in different ways. Some find comfort and security under the command of a chief who seems to know what he is talking about. Some are uneasy at the prospect of working within such rigid disciplines.

“Surely,” they say, “these rules and regulations must result in dull advertising?”

“Not so far” I reply. And I go on to preach the importance of discipline in art. Shakespeare wrote his sonnets within a strict discipline, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming in three quatrains and a couplet. Were his sonnets dull? Mozart wrote his sonatas within an equally rigid discipline –exposition, development, and re-capitulation. Were they dull? This argument disarms most of the highbrows.”

Employers can draw an important lesson from the above: in all sectors, including the so-called “creative” ones, discipline is the key to success, if not taken to extremes. This is an important lesson that has been somehow lost on the millennial generation, constantly distracted as it is by the charms of technology and obsessed with freedom of choice, even when this is elusive or simply impractical.

Essentially a man of the 20th century but with an eye on the 21st one, Ogilvy was equipped with the mix of self-confidence, cynicism, and greed that you would expect from a big shot advertiser. But he also praised hard work, creativity, and leadership and looked for those rare beasts who were endowed with these traits that made himself great — “Trumpeter Swans” as he famously called them. A rigid work ethic was both a virtue and a necessity that he expected from employees:

“I admire people who work hard, who bite the bullet. I dislike passengers who don’t pull their weight in the boat. It is more fun to be overworked than to be underworked. There is an economic factor built into hard work. The harder you work, the fewer employees we need, and the more profit we make. The more profit we make, the more money becomes available for all of us.”

For their part, employers must recognize worth — or incompetence — when they see it and act accordingly:

“I admire people who hire subordinates. I admire people who build up their subordinates, because this is the only way we can promote from within the ranks. I detest having to go outside to fill important jobs, and I look forward to the day when that will never be necessary.”

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Even when the right person has been hired and they have proven they work hard and are able to deliver, evaluation should never stop according to Ogilvy:

“Whenever I see a remarkable advertisement or television commercial, I find out who wrote it. Then I call the writer on the telephone and congratulate him on his work. A poll has shown that creative people would rather work at Ogilvy, Benson, & Mather than at any other agency, so my telephone call often produces an application for a job. I then ask the candidate to send me the six best advertisements and commercials he has ever written. This reveals, among other things, whether he can recognize a good advertisement when he sees one, or is only the instrument of an able supervisor. Sometimes I call on my victim at home; 10 minutes after crossing the threshold I can tell whether he has a richly furnished mind, what kind of taste he has, and whether he is happy enough to sustain pressure.”

Essentially, hiring, supervising people, and assigning tasks to them is like a family affair, without the drama and the Oedipus/Cassandra complexes. It never stops. Discipline has to be cultivated, day in, day out. As in an army, businesses need mid-level officers who are able to pass on orders to the lower ranks, but be talented enough to inspire them too:

 “The act of delegation often results in interposing a foreman between the agency boss and his staff. When this happens, the employees feel like children whose mother turns them over to the tender mercies of a nanny. But they become reconciled to the separation when they discover that the nannies are more patient, more accessible, and more expert than I am. My success or failure as the head of an agency depends more than anything else on my ability to find people who can create great campaigns, men with fire in their bellies.”

 As a businessman and an advertiser, Ogilvy was great in the sense that Picasso was a great painter or Maria Callas an opera singer: an innovator who transformed into an art an industry hitherto mocked as crass, superfluous, and deceiving. He praised creativity and its masters whenever he spotted them, but never disregarded discipline and hard work, as many creative professionals gratuitously do nowadays. As another prominent intellectual of the 20th century pointed out in The Act of Creation, “Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality”. Ogilvy knew that the key to success, in advertising or anywhere else, is turning creativity into a habit — in other words, ensuring that your employees love what they do:

“I admire people who work with gusto. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, I beg you to find another job. Remember the Scottish proverb, “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”