In 1935, after leaving oxford University prematurely, and following a failed apprenticeship as a chef in Paris, a young Englishman returned to his schoolboy city of Edinburgh and found a job as an Aga salesman.
An Aga is a Swedish-designed cooker combining hot plates and ovens in a single unit.
The young man was very good at selling them. So good in fact, that within a year this 24-year-old novice was the leading salesman in the company, and he was asked to write down the secrets of his salesmanship.
His resulting document, “The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker,” was described by Fortune magazine 36 years later as “probably the best sales manual ever written.”
The man’s brother was so impressed with the manual that he sent it to an ad agency in London, called Mather & Crowther. They were similarly impressed, and offered the man a job on the spot.
The man’s name was David Ogilvy.
He quickly realized that the key to good communications was insight about the product, and as importantly, insight about your audience. Knowledge was what enabled success.
The Unpublished David Ogilvy tells the story of how he persuaded his agency to send him to New York to work for George Gallup’s research agency based in New Jersey. His time there would prove invaluable as he learnt the methodology by which to understand consumers and their motivations.
The outbreak of World War II saw Ogilvy seconded to the British Embassy in Washington, DC. He used his knowledge of human behavior in consumerism to the benefit of nationalism in a report which suggested “applying the Gallup technique to fields of secret intelligence.” Eisenhower’s Psychological Warfare Board picked up the report and successfully put Ogilvy’s suggestions to work in Europe during the last year of the war.
Needing serenity after the war, Ogilvy bought a farm in Pennsylvania, but soon admitted to his limitations as a farmer, and he moved to Manhattan to pursue his previous career: advertising.
In 1949, aged 38, an age at which many people are leaving “the young man’s game,” he set up his own agency, Ogilvy & Mather (O&M).
His most famous campaigns … all succeeded because of his obsession with insight and information, not loud patronizing noise.
He built his agency on the principle that the function of advertising is to sell, and that successful advertising for any product is based on information about its customer. The power of insight.
He once remarked that “a lot of people use research like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support, not for illumination.”
An illuminating insight invariably proved irresistible.
His most famous campaigns all used information that he knew his audiences would be persuaded by. Rolls-Royce, Shell, Schweppes among numerous others all succeeded because of his obsession with insight and information, not loud patronizing noise.
He also believed in respecting the intellect of the customer, famously reminding his colleagues: “The customer is not a moron. She is your wife.”
He obsessed about being interesting. “Don’t be a bore. You can’t bore people into buying your product, only interest them.”
The power of insight-based communications proved to be a successful ingredient for O&M. The growth was unprecedented, expanding to become a global communications agency network by the time of his retirement only 25 years later in 1973.
He was widely regarded as “The Father of Advertising,” and in 1962 Time magazine called him “The most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”
So if you want to be a sought-after wizard, believe in the importance of insight and interest.