Why Ogilvy's 'Confessions' Charms Nearly a Half-Century Later

Witty and Instructive, It Stands Up as a Still-Readable Management Text

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Kenneth Roman
Kenneth Roman

David Ogilvy had been in the advertising business only 15 years when he wrote "Confessions of an Advertising Man" in 1962. In that brief period, he had created "The Man in the Hathaway Shirt," Commander Whitehead for Schweppes, Rolls-Royce's "the loudest noise is ... the electric clock," and Dove's "one-quarter cleansing cream," among other iconic campaigns.

He saw the book as a new-business pitch for his agency, but allowed it was also to prepare the agency for going public and, in complete candor, "to make myself better known in the advertising world." His method: to set down everything he had learned about advertising -- "a textbook, sugar-coated with anecdotes." He guessed it might sell 4,000 copies and assigned the royalties to his son for his 21st birthday -- a decision he always regretted.

"Confessions" was an instant success and went on to become the best-selling advertising book of all time, selling several million copies and translated all over the world. As the only advertising book most people outside the business have ever read, it molded public perception of what the business was actually like. As a standard text in business schools, it formed the view of thousands of students and lured some to advertising careers. It led to a lot of new business for the agency. And it made Ogilvy the most famous advertising man in the world.

Ogilvy was hardly the first advertising man to write a book -- it is almost an occupational disease of the business. What was it about "Confessions" -- still in print nearly 50 years later -- that struck such a nerve, and caused it to endure?

Despite the title, the volume contains few actual confessions, but there were enough juicy tidbits that few readers felt misled. It paraded his study of mail-order advertising and his experience as a researcher for George Gallup to show how consumer research can make advertising more effective. But the chapter on TV is a bit primitive in its understanding of the medium. His principles for magazines and newspapers fail to anticipate the potential of poster-type visuals -- art directors were there to illustrate his text.

It is the quintessential how-to book -- how to manage an agency, get and keep clients, be a good client, build great campaigns, write "potent" copy. Many principles hold up well, but it is not a creative textbook for today. His 1983 "Ogilvy on Advertising" comes closer to that mark.

There are several reasons why "Confessions" still charms almost a half-century after it first appeared, not least of which is the writing itself. Ogilvy festoons his text with anecdotes, vignettes of his colorful personal history (French chef, stove salesman) and memorable sayings. "Search all the parks in all your cities; you'll find no statues of committees." His style is free of cliches and sprinkled with wit.

He touted the perfect goal for clients -- and prospects: advertising that sells. His commitment to high standards and honest research made the business appear professional and responsible. His dictates against nepotism and office politics -- "I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings" -- gave his agency the aura of a civilized place to work. And the general reader was attracted by his early consumerist views: "Never run an advertisement you would not want your own family to see."

His reputation as a creative wizard notwithstanding, Ogilvy's true genius was as an instinctive leader. He was an institution-builder. He savored the pursuit of new business and articulated principles of management that apply to many other businesses, inculcating them so deeply in his agency that it prospered after his retirement and remains highly respected today -- with his name still on the door. In that sense, "Confessions" stands up as a still-readable management text.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kenneth Roman is a former chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and the author of "The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising."
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