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David Ogilvy on big ideas

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in Leaders & Managers

You don’t need to be born with the ability to come up with ideas. David Ogilvy is proof.

As research director for an advertising firm he helped start, Ogilvy was taking the train home one night in 1950 when an idea for a client, Guinness, came to him. It involved describing food pairings and led to the cheeky Guinness Guide to Oysters, a highbrow advertising vehicle followed by similar guides to game birds, cheese and other foods.  

Soon new accounts were rolling in.

You might think that big ideas require originality, but Ogilvy thought otherwise. “I had a reasonably original mind, but not too much so,” he said in an interview when he was 75. “Which helped, not being too original. I thought as clients think. I also thought as women think.”

Ogilvy, who grew up in England and had worked as a chef, salesman, researcher, farmer and intelligence officer, said these qualities helped him:

“First of all, I’m the most objective man who ever lived, including objective about myself,” he said. “Second, I’m a very, very hard worker. Next, I’m a good salesman.”

It may have been his edge in salesmanship that put him over the top.

“I had a terrific advantage when I started in New York,” he said. “I’d got a gimmick—my English accent. I’ve always had an eye for the main chance.”

Bottom line:
Range around for a good idea. Relying on your experience plus objective information, figure out how it’ll work for you. Then go at it hammer and tongs.

— Adapted from The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising, Kenneth Roman, Palgrave Macmillan.

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