Leadership by Geoff Colvin

David Ogilvy's best advice for business

July 21, 2009: 8:16 AM ET

by Patricia Sellers

David Ogilvy, arguably the most influential advertising man in history, died 10 years ago today.

Courtesy: Ogilvy & Mather

Courtesy: Ogilvy & Mather

Measured by his creativity, Ogilvy was most famous for the man in the Hathaway shirt, his pitch for Rolls Royce ("At 60 mph, the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock"), and his clever insight to market Dove soap as 1/4 cleansing cream.

But beyond the ads, this elegant and eclectic Brit pioneered consumer research, direct marketing--and built an industry-leading juggernaut, Ogilvy & Mather. Now owned by WPP Group (WPPGY), Ogilvy is the longtime brand steward for Fortune 500 companies such as Ford (F), IBM (IBM) and American Express (AXP).

I had the privilege of getting to know David Ogilvy in the '80s and '90s, when I was growing up at Fortune and writing about big-brand consumer-goods companies. We were at the Fortune 500 Forum in Charleston, S.C. in 1991 when I asked Ogilvy, then a vigorous 80-year-old, to share his advice for building and running a business.

Why I asked him, I can't recall--maybe because he loved sharing his principles of management. In any case, I'm glad I did. I've kept his pencil-scrawled note in my desk drawer ever since. What better day than today to share it with you. So, here is David Ogilvy's best business advice:

1. Remember that Abraham Lincoln spoke of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He left out the pursuit of profit.

2. Remember the old Scottish motto: "Be happy while you're living, for you are a long time dead."

3. If you have to reduce your company's payroll, don't fire your people until you have cut your compensation and the compensation of your big-shots.

4. Define your corporate culture and your principles of management in writing. Don't delegate this to a committee. Search all the parks in all your cities. You'll find no statues of committees.

5. Stop cutting the quality of your products in search of bigger margins. The consumer always notices -- and punishes you.

6. Never spend money on advertising which does not sell.

7. Bear in mind that the consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence.

David Ogilvy


November 15, 1991ogilvy_letter_blog

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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