[This article was originally published on the Journal of Digital Marketing’s Medium page.]
The advertising genius admitted to having a low IQ, lived with the Amish, and may or may not have accidentally killed the President of France.
He Had A Low IQ
The man widely regarded as an advertising genius revealed that he took an IQ test and got a score of 96 (that’s a fair bit below the average of 100). Disappointed, he repeated the test 6 times, and got the same score each time. He admitted to feeling miserable about his perceived lack of intelligence.
But he later saw it as a triumph over adversity because he had “gone through life with this awful handicap of being so dumb and I’ve managed to do very well in spite of it.”
“Thank God I didn’t know that as a kid, because I’d have been a ditch digger”.
He Lived With The Amish
Before setting up his first agency, Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather in 1948, he bought a farm in rural Pennsylvania among the Amish community. He attempted to live an ascetic lifestyle, providing for his family by growing his own food.
He did not prove adept at farming, however, and at the age of 38 he was broke and in dire need of a job. In a strange twist of fate, his failure to fulfill a dream of farming in an Amish community would lead him to become an icon of consumerism and capitalism.
He Warned Against Using Celebrities In Advertising
He cautioned against using celebrities in advertising because they are expensive and everybody knows that they’ve been bought. More importantly, he said the audience remembers the celebrity but not the product.
He Was A High-End Chef In Paris
Before his advertising career, Ogilvy was a chef in Paris at an upscale restaurant at the luxury Majestic Hotel. He cooked frogs legs for the then President of France, Paul Doumer. He died two weeks later.
Sir Martin Sorrell Called Him “An Odious Little Shit”
Martin Sorrell, the founder of WPP, the world’s largest advertising agency, clearly wasn’t a fan of David Ogilvy. The two bumped heads when Sorrell led a hostile takeover of Ogilvy and Mather in 1989, and presumably Ogilvy made life difficult for the new owner.
Such was Sir Martin’s distaste for Ogilvy that he publicly called him “an odious little shit”.
The animosity was a two-way street. Ogilvy went so far as to say that,
“When he [Martin Sorrel] tried to take over our company, I would liked to have killed him.”
He “Lived In Terror” That His Agency “Would Blow Away”
Ogilvy confessed in a TV interview in 1977 that he constantly feared that his big accounts would leave, causing a run-on-the-bank effect where clients would abandon the agency.
It was only 25 years later — when Ogilvy & Mather was the 5th biggest ad agency in the world — that he realized it was a success.
He Admitted His Advertising Wasn’t Very Effective
“Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn’t sell much of anything”, he is quoted as saying. He commented that much of his business came from executives at manufacturing firms who were skeptical that advertising had any impact at all, but are “afraid their competitors will steal a march on them if they stopped.”
He Used Russian Dolls To Teach His Directors An Important Life Lesson
At a board meeting he gave his directors a unique gift of Russian dolls. Upon getting to the smallest doll and opening it up, they saw a small piece of paper with the following motto:
“If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarves. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.”
This was an important lesson in leaders letting go of their ego so both they and the company benefit. The idea is that, just like uncovering one smaller Russian doll after another, if a manager hires somebody less skilled than them, that person will do the same, and so on.
He Believed Great Ideas Come From The Subconscious
Ogilvy said ideas came not from thinking, but by ideas coming naturally, saying of the creative process,
“I never wrote an ad in my life in the office”.
His creative process happened thus:
“At home, after dinner. Maybe after a bottle of wine — which helps you get in touch with the subconscious”.