Brain Pickings

David Ogilvy’s Timeless Principles of Creative Management

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“If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Advertising legend David Ogilvy endures not only as the original Mad Man, but also as one of modern history’s most celebrated creative leaders in the communication arts. From The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that also gave us Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips on writing, his endearing memo of praise to a veteran copywriter, and his list of the 10 qualities of creative leaders — comes a chapter titled “Principles of Management,” based on a 1968 paper Ogilvy wrote as a guide for Ogilvy & Mather managers worldwide.

In a section on morale, he admonishes that some companies “have been destroyed by internal politics” and offers seven ways to curtail them:

  1. Always be fair and honest in your own dealings; unfairness and dishonesty at the top can demoralize [a company].
  2. Never hire relatives or friends.
  3. Sack incurable politicians.
  4. Crusade against paper warfare*. Encourage your people to air their disagreements face-to-face.
  5. Discourage secrecy.
  6. Discourage poaching.
  7. Compose sibling rivalries.

* Though Ogilvy was writing decades before email, the same applies with equal urgency to today’s electronic warfare.

Echoing Dickens, who advised his son to “never be hard upon people who are in your power,” and presaging the modern science of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key to motivation at work, Ogilvy adds:

The best way to “install a generator” in a man is to give him the greatest possible responsibility. Treat your subordinates as grown-ups — and they will grow up. Help them when they are in difficulty. Be affectionate and human, not cold and impersonal.

Italo Calvino cautioned in his collected insights on writing that “one cannot say a priori that a writer just because he is a writer is more capable of handling ideas and of seeing what is essential than a journalist.” Similarly, Ogilvy notes the democratic nature of ideas and urges managers not to subscribe to siloed stereotypes:

Senior men and women have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do Creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers, and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get.

Reflecting on mastering the pace of productivity, he argues:

I believe in the Scottish proverb: Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.

Writing shortly after Arthur Koestler’s famous treatise on the relationship between humor and creativity, Ogilvy affirms the importance of that link in cultivating a creative environment:

Kill grimness with laughter. Maintain an atmosphere of informality. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.

In a section on respect, he calls for creative integrity:

Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.

In a section on hiring, he offers the two essential criteria for recruiting talent:

The paramount problem you face is this: advertising is one of the most difficult functions in industry, and too few brilliant people want careers in advertising.

The challenge is to recruit people who are able to do the difficult work our clients require from us.

  1. Make a conscious effort to avoid recruiting dull, pedestrian hacks.
  2. Create an atmosphere of ferment, innovation and freedom. This will attract brilliant recruits.

If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.

He adds a note on equality in hiring (though, on the cusp of the second wave of feminism and shortly after the Equal Pay Act, he makes no mention of equal opportunity for women):

In recruitment and promotion we are fanatical in our hatred for all forms of prejudice. We have no prejudice for or against Roman Catholics, Protestants, Negroes, Aristocracy, Jews, Agnostics or foreigners.

In a section on partnership within the company, he offers four points of advice:

It is as difficult to sustain happy partnerships as to sustain happy marriages. The challenge can be met if those concerned practice these restraints:

  1. Have clear-cut division of responsibility.
  2. Don’t poach on the other fellow’s preserves.
  3. Live and let live; nobody is perfect.
  4. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considers not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

In a section on comers, exploring the management of talent, he reiterates some his 10 criteria for creative leaders and advises:

The management of manpower resources is one of the most important duties of our office heads. It is particularly important for them to spot people of unusual promise early in their careers, and to move them up the ladder as fast as they can handle increased responsibility.

There are five characteristics which suggest to me that a person has the potential for rapid promotion:

  1. He is ambitious.
  2. He works harder than his peers — and enjoys it.
  3. He has a brilliant brain — inventive and unorthodox.
  4. He has an engaging personality.
  5. He demonstrates respect for the creative function.

If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.

The rest of his principles go on to explore such intricacies as the perils of leadership, the art of cat-herding creative people, and how to know when to resign a client. It’s worth reiterating just how excellent and timeless The Unpublished David Ogilvy is in its entirety.

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