Double Book Review: Confessions of an Ad Man & The Way of the General

I.

David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man opens:

As a child I lived in Lewis Carroll’s house in Guildford. My father, whom I adored, was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, a classical scholar and a bigoted agnostic. One day he discovered that I had started going to church secretly.

“My dear old son, how can you swallow that mumbo-jumbo? It is all very well for servants but not for educated people. You don’t have to be a Christian to behave like a gentleman!

My mother was a beautiful and eccentric Irishwoman. She disinherited me on the ground that I was likely to acquire more money than was good for me without any help from her. I could not disagree.

For those of you who are just tuning in, David Ogilvy was a copywriter who made his way to advertising stardom. He founded the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather (now known simply as “Ogilvy”), and in 1962, Time Magazine called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry”. People still call him “the Father of Advertising” and “the King of Madison Avenue” to this day. Wikipedia describes him simply as a “British advertising tycoon”. 

It’s immediately obvious that Ogilvy is an engaging writer. He knows this, because he’s cultivated it. From the start he’s talking about the value of writing, and he never strays too far from the topic. You can tell it’s important to him. “We like reports and correspondence to be well-written, easy to read – and short,” he says. “We are revolted by pseudo-academic jargon.” Later he says, “American businessmen are not taught that it is a sin to bore your fellow creatures.”

The writing shines brightest in his personal narratives — his statistics training at Princeton, his time as a door-to-door salesman, dropping out of Oxford to go to work as an apprentice chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, trying to avoid the storm of forty-seven raw eggs thrown across the kitchen at his head (“scoring nine direct hits”) by the Hotel’s chef potager who had grown impatient with Ogilvy’s constant “raids on his stock pot in search of bones for the poodles of an important client” — and so on.

The Hotel Majestic, now known as The Peninsula Paris

But his business advice is equally gripping — hiring and firing, how to get clients, how to keep clients, how to be a good client, how to write ads for television, and so on. This is striking, because most business advice is tedious and bad. 

His advice escapes these clichés partly because it is delivered in the writing style he recommends — easy to read, short, and direct. But another part of it is that his advice has something of a timeless quality to it. So after the quality of the writing, the second thing we noticed is that Ogilvy strongly reminds us of 2nd-century Chinese statesman, mystic, and military strategist Zhuge Liang.

II.  

Zhuge Liang, also known by his courtesy name Kongming, or his nickname Wolong (meaning “Crouching Dragon”), was born in 181 CE, in eastern China. He grew to become a scholar so highly regarded that his surname alone is synonymous with intelligence. In China, calling someone “Zhuge” is like calling someone “Einstein” in the west, except less likely to be sarcastic. 

Zhuge’s parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by one of his father’s cousins. This was during the extremely unstable years leading up to the Three Kingdoms period, when war was tearing the empire apart, and famines were so extreme that whole provinces resorted to cannibalism. While Zhuge was still a teenager, he was forced to move to a town in central China.

There he grew into a man of great insight and intelligence. Eventually he was discovered by Liu Bei, a distant relation of the Emperor and one of the great men of the age. Liu Bei was an accomplished general, but he had a reputation for being direct and honorable to a fault. Zhuge, on the other hand, already had a reputation for trickery and cunning. He shared with Liu Bei an idea that came to be known as the Longzhong Plan, a plan which eventually led to Liu Bei being crowned emperor of the new state of Shu Han. Zhuge is a central character in the massive historical classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and shrines in his honor still dot China 1,800 years later.

The parallels between Ogilvy and Zhuge are surprisingly strong. Both were extremely well-read in a wide variety of topics, but neither of them were snobs. Zhuge could quote classics like the Analects of Confucius and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but also enjoyed reciting folk songs from his hometown. In his book, Ogilvy references the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, quotes statesmen like Winston Churchill, but also quotes a stanza sung by The Pirate King from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance

David Ogilvy

When Liu Bei recruited Zhuge Liang, Zhuge was working as a subsistence farmer in Longzhong valley. Fifteen years later, he was appointed Regent to Liu Bei’s son, the young Emperor of Shu Han, when Liu Bei died. 

“Fifteen years ago,” writes Ogilvy at the beginning of Chapter Two, “I was an obscure tobacco farmer in Pennsylvania. Today I preside over one of the best advertising agencies in the United States, with billings of $55,000,000 a year, a payroll of $5,000,000, and offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto.”

Farming wasn’t the only profession they shared. After finishing his book, we were surprised to learn that Ogilvy also worked as a military strategist. In World War II he served with British Intelligence, where he applied the insights he had gained from studying polling (with George Gallup himself) to secret intelligence and propaganda.

Takeshi Kaneshiro as Zhuge Liang, in John Woo’s Red Cliff

Zhuge Liang has a couple surviving works to his name. His longest work is called The Way of the General, so that’s the main book we draw on today. We also consider his two memorials known as the Chu Shi Biao, as well as a letter he wrote to his son, called Admonition to His Son. Finally, as The Way of the General is sometimes considered to be a sort of commentary on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we will occasionally reference that work as well. 

Similarly, Ogilvy has not only Confessions of an Advertising Man, but also a fascinating manual, The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker, which Fortune magazine called “the finest sales instruction manual ever written.” With an endorsement like that, you know we will be referring to this piece.

III.

Let’s start with the writing. The two men have a very similar style. Both books are clearly written. But while the language they use is normally plain, both men have an occasional tendency to dip into wild metaphors. 

Ogilvy describes founders who get rich and let their creative fires go out as “extinct volcanoes”, and refers to his set of techniques for writing great campaigns as “my magic lantern.” Meanwhile, Zhuge opens his book with the following imagery: “If the general can hold the authority of the military and operate its power, he oversees his subordinates like a fierce tiger with wings, flying over the four seas, going into action whenever there is an encounter.” On the other hand: “If the general loses his authority and cannot control the power, he is like a dragon cast into a lake.” 

“Those who would be military leaders must have loyal hearts, eyes and ears, claws and fangs. Without people loyal to them, they are like someone walking at night, not knowing where to step. Without eyes and ears, they are as though in the dark, not knowing how to proceed. Without claws and fangs, they are like hungry men eating poisoned food, inevitably to die,” says Zhuge, while Ogilvy says, I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests.”

Sometimes these metaphors veer into the farcical. “Advertising is a business of words,” writes Ogilvy, “but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They cannot write advertisements, and they cannot write plans. They are helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.” Zhuge strikes a similar note in writing, “If the rulership does not give [generals] the power to reward and punish, this is like tying up a monkey and trying to make it cavort around, or like gluing someone’s eyes shut and asking him to distinguish colors.”

Both of them make a lot of lists. Zhuge has lists of five skills, four desires, fifteen avenues of order, and eight kinds of decadence in generalship (“Seventh is to be a malicious liar with a cowardly heart.”). Ogilvy has lists of ten criteria for accounts, fourteen devices to use when you need to use very long copy, and twenty-two commandments for advertising food products (“The larger your food illustration, the more appetite appeal.”). 

These lists are good enough that you could easily turn them into a series of Buzzfeed-style listicles: “8 Kinds of Decadence in Generalship – Number 7 will SHOCK YOU”

Both men sometimes use little parables to drive home their points. In one section, Zhuge lists a number of ancient kings and their approaches to winning wars with the least possible violence. Ogilvy sometimes combines a parable with one of his vivid metaphors, and ends up sounding rather a lot like a Chinese courtier himself:  

When Arthur Houghton asked us to do the advertising for Steuben, he gave me a crystal-clear directive: “We make the best glass in the world. Your job is to make the best advertising.”

I replied, “Making perfect glass is very difficult. Even the Steuben craftsmen produce some imperfect pieces. Your inspectors break them. Making perfect advertisements is equally difficult.”

Six weeks later I showed him the proof of our first Steuben advertisement. It was in color, and the plates, which had cost $1,200, were imperfect. Without demur, Arthur agreed to let me break them and make a new set. For such enlightened clients it is impossible to do shoddy work.

Both books hit their key themes over and over, in slightly different guises each time. They look at the same few ideas repeatedly, from different perspectives. Continuous focus on the fundamentals highlights what really matters, and maybe this is why much of their advice ends up sounding so similar.

Ambition

For these two men, the root of their advice, and probably the root of their similarity, is that both of them are enormously ambitious. “Aspirations should remain lofty and far-sighted,” writes Zhuge. Despite being born a Scotsman, Ogilvy sounds very American when he says, “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the park.” Then he sounds kind of like Zhuge again, when he finishes with, “Aim for the company of immortals.”

Ambition gets a bad rap these days, but these two aren’t talking about accumulating piles of money, or being as big or as famous as humanly possible. Ambition means doing something meaningful with your life. “I have no ambition to preside over a vast bureaucracy.” says our Ad Man. “That is why we have only nineteen clients. The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying.” 

Zhuge goes out of his way to specifically mention fighting injustice. “If your will is not strong,” he says, “if your thought does not oppose injustice, you will fritter away your life stuck in the commonplace, silently submitting to the bonds of emotion, forever cowering before mediocrities, never escaping the downward flow.”

And this is the other side of ambition, maybe the side that really matters: freedom from fear. Zhuge says, “The years run off with the hours, aspirations flee with the years. Eventually one ages and collapses. What good will it do to lament over poverty?” You only get one life and it’s going to end someday. You’re going to lose it all no matter what, so why not be ambitious? The alternative is cowering before mediocrity.

Many people are afraid of failing, or worse, the embarrassment that they imagine comes with failure. We say “imagine” because, once you try it, you’ll find that most of the time, the embarrassment never comes. And you can’t fight injustice, let alone make excellent ads, if you’re hung up on the idea of failing.

Hard Work & Relaxation

To the short-sighted, effort and relaxation seem like opposites. It’s easy to think there are two categories of people: those who work very hard for very long hours (and presumably burn out) and those who are slackers (and presumably go nowhere). In certain rare cases people talk about aiming for “work-life balance”, a sort of purgatorial or limbo-like concept that combines the worst of both worlds — the inability to get anything done at work with the inability to have anything more than the most superficial personal life.

Ogilvy and Zhuge understand that this isn’t how it works. Work and rest are complements, and they advocate a life where you both work extremely hard and place a high premium on relaxation. 

Maybe it’s not surprising to hear that a Madison Avenue executive worked long hours, but Ogilvy really did work some long hours. He reminisces about his time working for the head chef at the Parisian Hotel Majestic, who worked seventy-seven hours a week, and says, “That is about my schedule today.” When describing what he admires, Ogilvy comes right out and says, “It is more fun to be overworked than to be underworked.” Elsewhere he says, “I believe in the Scottish proverb: ‘Hard work never killed a man.’ Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They never die of hard work.”

Zhuge mentions some long hours himself. “One who rises early in the morning and retires late at night,” he says, “is the leader of a hundred men.” He kind of makes a point of it. “Generals do not say they are thirsty before the soldiers have drawn from the well,” he says. “Generals do not say they are hungry before the soldiers’ food is cooked; generals do not say they are cold before the soldiers’ fire are kindled; generals do not say they are hot before the soldiers’ canopies are drawn.” 

These are grueling requirements, but much of it seems to spring from the noble desire to not expect anything from others that you wouldn’t do yourself. Zhuge says, “Lead them into battle personally, and soldiers will be brave.” In explaining his own long hours, Ogilvy says, “I figure that my staff will be less reluctant to work overtime if I work longer hours than they do.”

This seems like more than hustle culture. It’s closely related to the drive for excellence. “From morning to night we sweated and shouted and cursed and cooked,” says Ogilvy of his time at the Hotel Majestic. “Every man jack was inspired by one ambition: to cook better than any chef had ever cooked before.”

In warfare, excellence can save thousands of lives. It is somewhat more prosaic in advertising, but we think Ogilvy is sincere when he promises his employees, “I try to make sufficient profits to keep you all from penury in old age,” and excellence in advertising helps him make good on that promise.

The commitment to hard work is important in part because hard work is how you make something look easy. The height of woodworking is when you cannot see the seams, and the height of advertising is when you cannot see the ad:

A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. Instead of saying “What a clever advertisement”, the reader says “I never knew that before. I must try this product.”

It is the professional duty of the advertising agent to conceal his artifice. When Aeschines spoke, they said, “How well he speaks.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, “Let us march against Philip.” I’m for Demosthenes.

To our ear, this sounds almost exactly like the following passage from The Art of War

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!” To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. 

While we think Ogilvy is more like Zhuge Liang than Sun Tzu, Confessions of an Advertising Man might be more like The Art of War than The Way of the General. Both are about the same length. The physical books are about the same size. Both are divided up into a modest number of chapters — 11 chapters for Confessions, and 13 for The Art of War. In both books, each chapter is devoted to a specific topic, like “How to Keep Clients”, “Variation in Tactics”, “How to Rise to the Top of the Tree”, “Laying Plans”, “How to Build Great Campaigns”, “The Use of Spies”, and “Attack by Fire”.

Zhuge and Ogilvy both stress the importance of relaxation as an explicit complement to their focus on hard work and long hours. In a letter to his son where he warns against being lazy, Zhuge also says:

The practice of a cultivated man is to refine himself by quietude and develop virtue by frugality. Without detachment, there is no way to clarify the will; without serenity, there is no way to get far.

Study requires calm, talent requires study. Without study there is no way to expand talent; without calm there is no way to accomplish study.

Ogilvy also likes to study, but he tends to think of it as “homework”. His true love is vacations, which he describes like so:

I hear a great deal of music. I am on friendly terms with John Barleycorn. I take long hot baths. I garden. I go into retreat among the Amish. I watch birds. I go for long walks in the country. And I take frequent vacations, so that my brain can lie fallow—no golf, no cocktail parties, no tennis, no bridge, no concentration; only a bicycle.

Zhuge makes it clear that calm is needed for study, so that you can increase your talents. Ogilvy is equally clear that he takes vacations because he needs them to be creative:

The creative process requires more than reason. … I am almost incapable of logical thought, but I have developed techniques for keeping open the telephone line to my unconscious, in case that disorderly repository has anything to tell me. …

While thus employed in doing nothing [on vacation], I receive a constant stream of telegrams from my unconscious, and these become the raw material for my advertisements.

Both men emphasize relaxation because they believe it will help them be more productive. You may see this as dysfunctional; if so, it’s telling that Ogilvy agrees with you. “If you prefer to spend all your spare time growing roses or playing with your children, I like you better,” he says, “but do not complain that you are not being promoted fast enough.“ 

But there’s also an interesting point to be made. Even if productivity is the only thing you care about (let’s hope it’s not, but even so), you still need lots of calm and rest to make it happen. Working long hours can be fine if that’s what you want, but people who work all the time are doing it wrong. 

It’s also worth noting how the two of them think about creativity in about the same terms: 

Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do. They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognized; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved. They see things as others do, but also as others do not.

And:

An observant and perceptive government is one that looks at subtle phenomena and listens to small voices. When phenomena are subtle they are not seen, and when voices are small they are not heard; therefore an enlightened leader looks closely at the subtle and listens for the importance of the small voice. This harmonizes the outside with the inside, and harmonizes the inside with the outside; so the Way of government involves the effort to see and hear much.

Recruiting Great People

Zhuge and Ogilvy had different sorts of ambitions. Ogilvy wanted to be a great chef, then he wanted to make the best advertisements. Somewhere in between he wanted to be a tobacco farmer. Zhuge wanted to fight injustice, lower the people’s taxes, prevent government corruption, and (depending on the version of the story) embarrass Zhou Yu.

But despite these differences in focus, both of them agree that the highest form of ambition is to work with great people. Even so, the trouble with amazing people is, how do you find them? This question is at least as old as Zhuge’s time, probably much older, and both authors take it very seriously.

Ogilvy tells us that he has talked to some psychologists who have been working on the problem of creativity. But, he tells us, they have not yet caught up to his approach:

While I wait for Dr. Barron and his colleagues to synthesize their clinical observations into formal psychometric tests, I have to rely on more old-fashioned and empirical techniques for spotting creative dynamos. Whenever I see a remarkable advertisement or television commercial, I find out who wrote it. Then I call the writer on the telephone and congratulate him on his work. A poll has shown that creative people would rather work at Ogilvy, Benson & Mather than at any other agency, so my telephone call often produces an application for a job.

I then ask the candidate to send me the six best advertisements and commercials he has ever written. This reveals, among other things, whether he can recognize a good advertisement when he sees one, or is only the instrument of an able supervisor. Sometimes I call on my victim at home; ten minutes after crossing the threshold I can tell whether he has a richly furnished mind, what kind of taste he has, and whether he is happy enough to sustain pressure.

Zhuge has similar tricks. “Hard though it be to know people,” says Zhuge, “there are ways.” He doesn’t recommend visiting your prospective hires at home; instead, he suggests other situations you can put them in, to test their personalities. In characteristic fashion, he gives us a list:

First is to question them concerning right and wrong, to observe their ideas.

Second is to exhaust all their arguments, to see how they change.

Third is to consult with them about strategy, to see how perceptive they are.

Fourth is to announce that there is trouble, to see how brave they are.

Fifth is to present them with the prospect of gain, to see how modest they are.

Sixth is to give them a task to do within a specific time, to see how trustworthy they are.

Ogilvy goes a step further — not only does he give advice on how ad agencies can take the measure of potential employees, he lays out advice on how clients (that is, businesses) can take the measure of a potential ad agency! In spelling it out, he practically reiterates Zhuge’s list:

Invite the chief executive from each of the leading contenders to bring two of his key men to dine at your house. Loosen their tongues. Find out if they are discreet about the secrets of their present clients. Find out if they have the spine to disagree when you say something stupid. Observe their relationship with each other; are they professional colleagues or quarrelsome politicians? Do they promise you results which are obviously exaggerated? Do they sound like extinct volcanoes, or are they alive? Are they good listeners? Are they intellectually honest?

Above all, find out if you like them; the relationship between client and agency has to be an intimate one, and it can be hell if the personal chemistry is sour.

The most specific piece of advice the two authors agree on is where to find great people. “We receive hundreds of job applications every year,” Ogilvy admits. “I am particularly interested in those which come from the Middle West. I would rather hire an ambitious young man from Des Moines than a high-priced fugitive from a fashionable agency on Madison Avenue.” 

They agree that great people usually come from obscurity. “For strong pillars you need straight trees; for wise public servants you need upright people,” says Zhuge. “Straight trees are found in remote forests; upright people come from the humble masses. Therefore when rulers are going to make appointments they need to look in obscure places.” And apparently, this practice goes back pretty far. “Ancient kings are known to have hired unknowns and nobodies,” says Zhuge, “finding in them the human qualities whereby they were able to bring peace.”

Maybe these authors both feel this way because both of them started out in obscurity. But then again, here we are reading their books approximately 60 and 1,800 years later, so maybe they’re right. 

This is how Zhuge describes himself:

I was of humble origin, and used to lead the life of a peasant in Nanyang. In those days, I only hoped to survive in such a chaotic era. I did not aspire to become famous among nobles and aristocrats. The Late Emperor did not look down on me because of my background. He lowered himself and visited me thrice in the thatched cottage, where he consulted me on the affairs of our time. I was so deeply touched that I promised to do my best for him. 

Driving the point home is this memo Ogilvy sent to one of his partners in 1981:

Will Any Agency Hire This Man? 

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college. 

He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer. 

He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy. 

He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year. 

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world. 

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

In case you can’t tell, he is describing himself.

Integrity

When Zhuge and Ogilvy talk about greatness, they’re not just talking about skill. In fact, skill comes second, and a distant second at that! Without integrity, without virtue, skill means nothing. 

“I admire people with first-class brains, because you cannot run a great advertising agency without brainy people,” says Ogilvy. “But brains are not enough unless they are combined with intellectual honesty.” Zhuge quotes Confucius as saying, “People may have the finest talents, but if they are arrogant and stingy, their other qualities are not worthy of consideration.”

Ogilvy doesn’t pull his punches, here or indeed ever. “I despise toadies who suck up to their bosses,” he says. “They are generally the same people who bully their subordinates. … I admire people who hire subordinates who are good enough to succeed them. I pity people who are so insecure that they feel compelled to hire inferiors as their subordinates.” 

A good leader looks to their team for counsel — these people were recruited for a reason! “Those who consider themselves lacking when they see the wise, who go along with good advice like following a current, who are magnanimous yet able to be firm, who are uncomplicated yet have many strategies,” says Zhuge, “are called great generals.”

You don’t expect much personal virtue from Madison Avenue, but Ogilvy really seems to feel strongly about this one:

I admire people who build up their subordinates, because this is the only way we can promote from within the ranks. I detest having to go outside to fill important jobs, and I look forward to the day when that will never be necessary.

I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings. I abhor quarrelsome people. I abhor people who wage paper-warfare. The best way to keep the peace is to be candid. 

Integrity is especially important in leadership — “for what is done by those above,” says Zhuge, “is observed by those below.” Here especially, the two leaders exhibit their belief that they should not expect anything of others that they are not prepared to demonstrate themselves. “To indulge oneself yet instruct others is contrary to proper government,” says Zhuge. “To correct oneself and then teach others is in accord with proper government. … If [leaders] are not upright themselves, their directives will not be followed, resulting in disorder.”

Ogilvy gives more detail. “I try to be fair and to be firm,” he says, “to make unpopular decisions without cowardice, to create an atmosphere of stability, and to listen more than I talk.” This is in some ways a very Confucian perspective, that a leader owes their subordinates exemplary behavior. “A policy of instruction and direction means those above educate those below,” says Zhuge, “not saying anything that is unlawful and not doing anything that is immoral.”

Exceptional integrity means understanding that you have a commitment to the people who work for you. Not the same commitment than they have to you — more of a commitment.  

Zhuge paraphrases Confucius as saying, “an enlightened ruler does not worry about people not knowing him, he worries about not knowing people. He worries not about outsiders not knowing insiders, but about insiders not knowing outsiders. He worries not about subordinates not knowing superiors, but about superiors not knowing subordinates. He worries not about the lower classes not knowing the upper classes, but about the upper classes not knowing the lower classes.”

“In the early days of our agency I worked cheek by jowl with every employee; communication and affection were easy,” says Ogilvy. “But as our brigade grows bigger I find it more difficult. How can I be a father figure to people who don’t even know me by sight?” If Confuicius was right, I guess this makes Ogilvy an enlightened ruler.

“It is important to admit your mistakes,” Ogilvy tells us, “and do so before you are charged with them. Many clients are surrounded by buckpassers who make a fine art of blaming the agency for their own failures. I seize the earliest opportunity to assume the blame.” 

But it’s not all tactics — you also want to earn the respect of the people you work with. “If you are brave about admitting your mistakes to your clients and your colleagues, you will earn their respect. Candor, objectivity and intellectual honesty are a sine qua non for the advertising careerist.” 

Being respected does happen to be good for business, but it’s also important for your self-worth as a person. Ogilvy offers a few conspicuous cases where he decided to act honorably, even though it was against his business interests:

Several times I have advised manufacturers who wanted to hire our agency to stay where they were. For example, when the head of Hallmark Cards sent emissaries to sound me out, I said to them, “Your agency has contributed much to your fortunes. It would be an act of gross ingratitude to appoint another agency. Tell them exactly what it is about their service which you now find unsatisfactory. I am sure they will put it right. Stay where you are.” Hallmark took my advice.

When one of the can companies invited us to solicit their account, I said, “Your agency has been giving you superb service, in circumstances of notorious difficulty. I happen to know that they lose money on your account. Instead of firing them, reward them.”

Exceptional integrity means exceptional humanity. “One whose humanitarian care extends to all under his command, whose trustworthiness and justice win the allegiance of neighboring nations, who understands the signs of the sky above, the patterns of the earth below, and the affairs of humanity in between, and who regards all people as his family,” says Zhuge, “is a world-class leader, one who cannot be opposed.”

Exceptional humanity in advertising — in 1963 no less! — looks like this:

Some of our people spend their entire working lives in our agency. We do our damnedest to make it a nice place to work. 

We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble–with their jobs, with illness, with alcoholism, and so on.

We help our people make the best of their talents, investing an awful lot of time and money in training–like a teaching hospital. 

Our system of management is singularly democratic. We don’t like hierarchical bureaucracy or rigid pecking orders.

We give our executives an extraordinary degree of freedom and independence. 

We like people with gentle manners. Our New York office gives an annual award for “professionalism combined with civility.” 

We like people who are honest in argument, honest with clients, and above all, honest with consumers.

We admire people who work hard, who are objective and thorough.

We despise office politicians, toadies, bullies and pompous asses. We abhor ruthlessness.

The way up the ladder is open to everybody. We are free from prejudice of any kind — religious prejudice, racial prejudice or sexual prejudice. 

We detest nepotism and every other form of favouritism. In promoting people to top jobs, we are influenced as much by their character as anything else.

And in case that isn’t scrupulous enough for you, there’s at least one product that Ogilvy entirely refuses to advertise: politicians. “The use of advertising to sell statesmen,” he says, “is the ultimate vulgarity.”

V.

Zhuge and Ogilvy focus on different things. Zhuge has a section on grieving for the dead, Ogilvy has a chapter on writing television commercials. But these differences are superficial. Both men are animated by the same spirit. Both of them are infinitely ambitious — but it’s not a callous ambition. Their ambition is to be honest, relaxed, creative, and humane. 

We think these men would have been good friends. It’s tragic that they were born 1,730 years and several thousand miles apart. But it’s to our advantage that we get to read both books and see that these two authors are drawing from the same well. The best wisdom is timeless.

3 thoughts on “Double Book Review: Confessions of an Ad Man & The Way of the General

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