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Ogilvy’s leader saw a simple, powerful truth others didn’t

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

The world was simpler when Shelly Lazarus went to work for ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in 1971.

Decades later, as chairwoman and CEO of the behemoth that employs more than 15,000 people in 125 countries, Lazarus tried to keep things simple. Here's what she did in China.

“When I first went to China, I was told by lots of people that the Chinese would not respond to brands,” she says.

The given wisdom was that the Chinese, unlike Americans, were much too rational to fall for brand-name products. The Chinese had grown up with limited means and a utilitarian mind-set, the theory went, and as a result they were highly rational and wouldn’t succumb to the romance of advertising. Just tell them what a product does and what it costs, the experts said, and they will choose rationally.

Hooey, Lazarus said.

Chinese people are the same as everybody else: irrational. A simple truth, and powerfully true in advertising.

Just because Chinese consumers didn’t have experience with branded products and weren’t familiar with major brands wouldn’t make them any less responsive to advertising, Lazarus said, and she was right.

Ogilvy introduced Maxwell House, Tang and several pharmaceutical products in China. The ad agency’s presence there soon grew to over 2,000 employees, mostly Chinese. It won Johnson & Johnson’s business largely because of its success in China.

Lazarus served for more than a decade in the Chairman-CEO role at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. She stepped down as CEO in 2009, but continued her role as Chairman, becoming the first woman to receive the Advertising Educational Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award that same year.

Bottom line:  Keep it simple.

— Adapted from “Mad Woman,” Willow Duttge, Portfolio.

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