Monday, March 30, 2009

Lessons from a Managment Pro

I discovered not long ago that a good friend’s mother was the secretary of David Ogilvy when he worked at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. during WWII. Following the war, my friend’s mom moved to New York City, where her dining room served as Ogilvy’s first office and the beginnings of his great advertising firm, Ogilvy and Mather.

Ogilvy, known as the “Father of Advertising,” died in 1999.  Five years later, Wikipedia notes, “Adweek magazine asked people in the business, ‘Which individuals--alive or dead--made you consider pursuing a career in advertising?’” Ogilvy topped the list. His best-selling book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, is one of the most popular and famous books on advertising.

After his formal retirement in 1973, Ogilvy continued to exert influence over the creative direction of the firm from his estate in France. In 1986, at his 75th birthday celebration in London, his partners presented him with “The unpublished David Ogilvy—a selection of his writings from the files of his partners.”

Think about that tribute for a moment: His coworkers thought enough of Ogilvy to preserve and publish the memos and notes he’d written them during his long career.

The other day, my friend presented me with a copy of the book, and I have greatly enjoyed reading through the wit and wisdom of David Ogilvy. Below I share a few of the entries, just as useful today as they were as much as a half century ago.

A Note On Follow-up


I thought you promised to show me the Sears ads (with copy) last Tuesday.
It is now three months since Struthers picked them.
Longer than the period of gestation in PIGS.

A Little More on Follow-up

A few weeks ago, I asked you to send me the names of anybody on your staff who might qualify to become a Creative Director.

Twenty of you sent me a total of 49 names.

One of you sent me six names—his entire creative staff, I suspect; a charitable fellow.

Eleven of you told me that you have nobody who could qualify to become a Creative Director. You have problems. Something wrong with your hiring methods?

Ten of you have not answered. Bastards.

On “Truth in Advertising”

Asked to pick from two pictures of himself for an annual report, Ogilvy wrote:

I like (A) better because it makes me look YOUNGER and NICER. But no man should be allowed to pick his own photo. So I defer to your judgment.

On Asking the Right Question

Ogilvy did not like to fly, explaining that “Everything began one beautiful summer evening in Stockholm in the 1930’s. I was on a cruise, but when I arrived late back to the harbour one evening the boat had already left. There was no alternative but to fly to Helsinki. The plane was a three-engined Junkers which swayed and shook in a rather disturbing manner. I felt terrible and lost my taste for flying for life. . . .”

In 1985, when informed that aviation technology had made giant leaps, Ogilvy asked; “Turbulence is what frightened me. Is there more or less of it on the Concorde?”

On Giving Praise (or, Be Nice to Get A Linked-In Rec Like This!)

Ogilvy wrote to a veteran copywriter:

Shyness makes it impossible for me to tell any man what I think of him when he is still alive. However, if I outlive you, I shall write an obituary along these lines:

_____ was probably the nicest man I have ever known. His kindness to me, and to dozens of other people, was nothing short of angelic.

Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else. But _____ was far from dumb. Indeed, he had a superb intelligence.

His judgment of men and events was infallible; I came to rely on it more and more as the years went by.

He was one of my few partners who worked harder and longer hours than I did. He gave value for money.  And he knew his trade.

He was an honest man, in the largest sense of the word.  He had a glorious sense of humor.

He had the courage to challenge me when he thought I was wrong, but he always contrived to do it without annoying me.

There was nothing saccharine about him. Tolerant as he was, he did not like everybody; he disliked the people who deserved to be disliked.

He never pursued popularity; but he inspired universal affection. . .

On Hiring the New Employee

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 has 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 to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

More on Great Hiring

A Word to the Wise

Long ago I realized that I lack competence, or interest, or both, in several areas of our business. Notably television programming, finance, administration, commercial production and marketing.

So, I hired people who are strong in those areas where I am weak.

Every one of you Syndicate Heads is strong in some areas, weak in others. Take my advice: get people alongside you who make up for your weaknesses.

If you are strong in production and weak in strategy, have a strategist as your right arm.

If you are strong on strategy and weak in production, have a production genius as your right arm. . .

Don’t compound your own weaknesses by employing people in key positions who have the same weaknesses.

Who wants to admit, even to himself, that he has no taste, or is bored by television production, or inadequate on strategy?

Ah, that is the question.

On Honest Feedback

One of the recipients of Ogilvy’s memo responded, asking advice on the types of people he should hire. Ogilvy responded:

You are the only one of the Syndicate Heads who has asked me this question. Which says a lot about you.

It would be easier for me to answer the question specifically for certain other Syndicate Heads.

A has terrible taste, so should get some who has good taste
B is a mere execution man—he should get a strategist
C is blind to graphics and so are his art directors
D ditto
E is a shit and should hire an angel. . .

On the Nature of a Learning Organization

A Teaching Hospital

I have a new metaphor.

Great hospitals do two things: They look after patients, and they teach young doctors.

Ogilvy & Mather does two things: We look after clients, and we teach young advertising people.

Ogilvy & Mather is the teaching hospital of the advertising world. And, as such, to be respected above all other agencies.

I prefer this to Stanley Resor’s old saying that J. Walter Thompson was a “university of advertising.”

List One: The Qualifications of Leaders

1. High standards of personal ethics.
2. Big people, without pettiness.
3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
4. Brilliant brains—not safe plodders.
5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
6. Charisma—charm and persuasiveness.
7. A streak of unorthodoxy—creative innovators.
8. The courage to make tough decisions.
9. Inspiring enthusiasts—with thrust and gusto.
10. A sense of humor.

List Two: Know Thyself

An account manager wrote to Ogilvy wondering what he considered his worst shortcomings. Ogilvy wrote:

1. I am intolerant of mediocrity—and laziness.
2. I fritter away too much time on things which aren’t important.
3. Like everyone of my age, I talk too much about the past.
4. I have always flunked firing people who needed to be fired.
5. I am afraid of flying and go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it.
6. When I was Creative Head in New York, I wrote too much of the advertising myself.
7. I know nothing about finance.
8. I change my mind—about advertising and about people.
9. I am candid to the point of indiscretion.
10. I see too many sides to every argument.
11. I am over-impressed by physical beauty.
12. I have a low threshold of boredom.
As further evidence of David Ogilvy’s compassion, the inscription to my friend’s mother’s copy of Ogilviy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man read: "My first and nicest partner."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Plucking a Chicken: Technology and Gender Bias

Charlotte, b. 1854 d. 1923
She would be very surprised to be in a
21st-century blog post.
My great-grandfather’s family raised chickens, and whenever they had the hankering for a roast chicken, poor old great-grandmother Charlotte would be off to the coop to do the slaughtering and plucking.  

The story goes that one day Charlotte was away from home and husband Karl decided he wanted chicken for dinner.  So the men of the house took it upon themselves to do the slaughtering and plucking.  That’s when they discovered something that Charlotte had known for years: It’s difficult and time-consuming to pluck a chicken.

Needless to say, when Charlotte arrived home from her travels she was greeted by some kind of brand new, automatic chicken-plucker.  

I remembered this old family story as I was reading the essays in Carroll Pursell’s American Technology and chanced upon Christine Keinegger’s "Out of the Barn and Into the Kitchen."  It’s a piece about how women’s farm work changed in the first half of the 20th century, a story my great-grandmother would have known all too well.  It’s also a reminder, Keinegger says, that the Industrial Revolution sweeping through factories and cities beginning in the 19th century touched the farmland last—and women’s work dead last. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Update: Dead Squirrels and Live Rhinos

In July 2008 I wrote an article suggesting that one of the unintended consequences of quiet, battery-powered cars would likely be a lot of dead squirrels littering our roads.  After all, if the poor, befuddled creatures can’t get out of the way of our noisy, smelly internal combustion engines, what chance do they have when we sneak up on them with a couple of tons of motorized silence? 

This falls into the general category of “unintended consequences of technology,” which also includes the impact of horses on the urban landscape (A Plague of Dead Squirrels), the consequences of light pollution on insects and migrating birds (Don’t Go Toward the Light), and the rise of the automobile in America (see #13 in 14 Takeaways: John Steele Gordon’s An Empire of Wealth).

Other examples abound.  Just today I was reading about the sewing machine, which saved tens of thousands of hours of stitching drudgery but led to the unintended consequence of the sweat shop.  The most recent issue of Time informed us that the interstate highway system, the largest public-works project in history, looks like a “vast monument to the law of unintended consequences”: fossil-fuel consumption and suburban sprawl.

Now, I’ve got another unintended consequence to add to the list, and this one might actually turn out to be a good one. 

I had coffee the other day with a friend who had worked on the team that took Viagra through its clinical trials. 

A clinical trial, as you may know, is part of an FDA process by which a drug company tests the efficacy of a drug on a small, tightly controlled population of patients.  Success in clinical trials is what leads to FDA approval for general release of a drug or medication.  Most clinical trials involve samples of the genuine drug, sometimes samples of the same drug at a reduced dose, and almost always placebos, or inert pills (“sugar pills”).  These various concoctions are dispensed “double-blind”--in other words, the doctors don’t know which is which, and the patients don’t know which is which.

It’s the only way to get a true reading on whether a drug works or not. 

Clinical trials are very difficult to administer for lots of reasons, but chief among them is that neither doctors nor patients can be counted on to behave well.  In particular, everyone wants the active drug—patients to get better, and doctors to get their patients better.  So, everyone is trying to “break the code” the drug manufacturer places on the various drug lots to figure out which is real and which is a placebo.

At the end of a clinical trial it’s important that all active drugs be accounted for, so any in the field that have not been taken are returned, and the final total—those used plus those remaining—must be within a certain percentage of the starting total or lots of extra detective work needs to go on.
Viagra, you may recall, was first tested in clinical trials for cardiac arrhythmia (an abnormal rate of muscle contractions in the heart). 

So, what happened at the end of the Viagra clinical trial?  When Pfizer asked for all active samples to be returned, they received, well, none.  Zero.  Nada.  Nil.  Zilch.  Never in the known history of clinical trials had there been zero active drugs returned.

Obviously, sick patients had figured something out.  Not to mention well doctors, too.  At that point, Pfizer had figured something out as well.
So, one of the unintended consequences of an arrhythmia treatment was a cure for erectile dysfunction.  But--and this is the cool part--one of the possible (still unproven, but logical) unintended consequences of an erectile dysfunction drug is to take pressure off a couple of endangered species—in particular, the black rhino and the tiger. 

Only about 3,000 black rhinos survive today, in large part because their (ground-up) horn has long been thought useful in reviving comatose patients, curing fevers and aiding male sexual stamina and fertility.  (None of this has been scientifically documented, mind you.)  The rhino horn is also carved into ceremonial daggers, which Viagra will not help, but antelope horn as an alternative will. 
The tiger is the other endangered species, killed for the alleged benefits of its various body parts, some of which are made into soup and used also to promote sexual stamina and fertility.
(See here for more on this topic.)

So, here’s your choice: You can hunt, capture and kill a black rhino, cut off its horn, grind it up and hope it helps.  Or you can walk into a drug store and buy a pill for a buck that you can be pretty darn sure will help.  Easy decision, right?  One small step for man, one giant leap for black rhinos.
You might also note, for what it’s worth, that if you decide to invest $300-$400 in a bowl of tiger soup, that tigers have sex for only about 15 seconds.

Seriously.  That might be relevant to your decision making.

In any case, it’s nice to know that, if we’ll soon be killing squirrels with the unintended consequences of our technology, maybe we’ll also be saving a few tigers and black rhinos.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Things I Learned From John Steele Gordon's "An Empire of Wealth"

John Steele Gordon’s 2004 An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power is the compelling story of American business.  It's also a marvel of synthesis, with Gordon pouring fifteen pounds into a ten-pound sack, including something surprising on virtually every page.  Empire reads like a novel--lucid, fast-paced, and profoundly optimistic about capitalism while still exposing its warts.

A contributing editor to American Heritage, Gordon is author of books about the history of Wall Street, the national debt, and the laying of the Atlantic cable.  His web page quotes Oscar Wilde: "The one duty we have to history is to rewrite it," a sentiment which I take to mean that history must be continually updated if it has any chance of speaking to its contemporary audience.  In Empire, Gordon has done just this.

 The New York Times found Empire especially strong with character-driven financial histories (which include Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford and many lesser-knowns).  The Cato Institute praised Gordon for coming down on the side of free trade, sound money and freely moving prices.  The Motley Fool's review was admiring, instructive in its own right, and worth a read.

For me, An Empire of Wealth has earned a place on the bookshelf next to Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Howe's What Hath God Wrought, and Boorstins' The Americans--all books that I turn to from time to time for insights they offer on characters, events or situations.  And sometimes I'm just looking for a few minutes of pleasant reading.

Below is a short and incomplete list of things I learned about American commercial and political history from Empire of Wealth:
1. I Wish Thomas Jefferson Was the Guy We Thought He Was
In What Hath God Wrought, Daniel Walker Howe gave us plenty of political reasons to knock Jefferson off his pedestal.  Now, in Gordon’s Empire, Jefferson takes another beating, this time on his business acumen.  Gordon reminds us that Jefferson was born one of the richest men in the American colonies, inheriting more than 5,000 acres and 300 slaves upon his father’s death.  He then spent money “with a lordly disdain for whether he actually had any” or not, dying “deeply in debt, bankrupt in all but name.”
Worse than his personal bankruptcy, Jefferson (and Jackson in his footsteps) destroyed Alexander Hamilton’s financial regulatory system, replacing it with, well, nothing.  “As a result. . .economic disaster would be visited on the United State roughly every twenty years for more than a century.” 
2. Another Less-Than-Brilliant Business Move by Jefferson
Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 forbade American ships from dealing in foreign commerce, with the American navy mobilized to enforce it.  This devastated New England; legal exports fell from $48M to $9M in a year.  In effect, Gordon says, thanks to Jefferson’s statecraft, “the United States went to war with itself and blockaded its own shipping.” 
After reading Howe and Gordon, I have finally decided that to love Jefferson one needs to dwell on the writings in the first half of his career.  Once you venture into his actual activities, or much of what he wrote later in life, you want to begin pulling down his statues. 
3. Cotton Was King and Almost Destroyed a Nation
When Eli Whitney devised a way to separate the seed from the lint of short-staple cotton, he helped produce the most successful cash crop in American history.  He also revived slavery (which was dying off economically at the time of the Constitution—hence all that optimism from our Founding Fathers), and nearly destroyed the United States. 
Whitney’s cotton gin allowed a single laborer to replace 25.  Coincidentally, the Deep South turned out to be the best place in the world to grow cotton.  By 1850 the United States was producing 70% of the world’s cotton, 75% of which was exported.  Likewise, a slave selling for $300 before the cotton gin sold for $2,000 by 1860, causing Southern slave holders to increasingly and desperately clutch their precious human capital. 
The invention of the cotton gin insured that the South would remain an exporter of raw material—essentially a backward economy, where ownership of production was held by a small, privileged elite and much of the population lived in poverty and grinding toil.  Meanwhile, the North diversified, in the process enriching itself with a flood of skilled immigrants disinterested in moving South to compete with free human capital.  In Inheriting the Revolution, Joyce Appleby tells us that the most surprising thing the Founding Fathers and first generation of Americans created was not one, but two countries.  Gordon would agree, I think. 
4. First in a Series
Gordon considers the Erie Canal to be the most consequential public works project in American history, insuring that New York would become the linchpin of the American economy for more than a century.  It would also prove to be the first in a long, continuing list of megaprojects that caught the public’s fancy: the Atlantic cable, the transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the Apollo project. 
As a reminder of how well older technologies can adapt and stay relevant, the Erie Canal was obsoleted by the railroad in the 1850’s but would continue to move product for another 120 years. 
Yes, and poor old Thomas Jefferson, who should have retired and stopped writing, thought the whole idea of the Erie Canal was absurd and opposed it from the start.  [Had it been in Virginia, of course, things might have been different.] 

5. Something to Benchmark Our Misery By
The Panic of 1837 saw cotton prices cut in half in two months, fortunes disappear on Wall Street, and 90% of the nation’s factories close.  Federal revenue fell by 50% in a year.  The 1837 depression was the longest in American history, reaching bottom after 72 months in February 1843.  That was the year Dickens published A Christmas Carol and had Scrooge relieved that a debt owed him was not as worthless as “a mere United States’s security.” 
6. Take the Long Way Home
Before the steam engine, flatboats carried a crew and 30 to 40 tons of cargo down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.  Once there, the flatboats were broken up into scrap and sold.  Then, given the choice between returning home to, say, Kentucky by poling upriver on a keelboat or walking, most chose to walk.  Thus, each season hundreds of men floated down the Mississippi, sold their goods in New Orleans, stayed to refresh themselves, and then walked home hundreds of miles along the Natchez Trail, only to do it all over again the next season. 
7. We Have No Corner on the Pace of Technological Change
“The Watt engine, which had helped to spark the Industrial Revolution and was the most fundamentally important technological development since the printing press three hundred years earlier, was obsolete after only three decades.  The pace of change had already begun the relentless acceleration that continues today.” 
8. More Rapid Change
On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned the first shovelful of earth for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  Age 91 and still wearing knee breeches, Carrol said, “I consider what I have just now done to be among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if indeed, it be even second to that.” In 1844, 73-year old Philip Hone wrote, “The world is going too fast.  Improvements, politics, reform, religion—all fly.  Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. . .Oh, for the good old days of heavy post coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour.”   
Not only was this the first recorded use of the phrase “good old days,” Gordon tells us, but he also suggests that Hones' was the first generation to encounter what every American generation has since: seeing the technological world of one’s youth vanish. 
9. The Lunch Counter Begins
So busy were the brokers on Wall Street at the height of the Civil War that the lunch counter was invented to offer them a quicker meal than they could manage traveling home.  “Fast food is, perhaps, not the least of the country’s legacies from the Civil War.” 
10. The Frontier Ends
In 1890 the Census Bureau declared that the frontier, a feature of American life since 1607, had ceased to exist.  Jefferson (not to add insult to injury) had predicted it would take a thousand years for Americans to reach the Pacific.  Had his vision of the simple farmer held, he might have been right. 
11. Rich Guys Compared
John Jacob Astor died the richest man in America in 1848 when he left $25 million.  Cornelius Vanderbilt left $105 million less than 30 years later.  Andrew Carnegie was worth $480 million in 1901.  John D. Rockefeller—considered the richest American ever—was worth $2 billion 15 years later.  And, while Americans can build fortunes, they are not especially good at preserving them.  Except for Rockefeller and Hearst, not a single name that was legendary for wealth during America's Guilded Age (1870s-1890s) is found today on the Forbes 400. 

12. Barbed Wire Goes to War
Invented by Americans in the 1870s to help bring order to western farmlands, barbed wire was ordered by the hundreds of thousands of miles by combatants in World War I trench warfare. 
13. The Most Important American Invention Ever?
“More than any single other economic development, the mass-produced automobile made the twentieth century very different from the nineteenth.”  By the 1920s it brought into existence large industries like rubber (for which it used 80%), plate glass (75%), and sheet steel (all).  By 1929 there were 662,000 miles of paved roads where there had been none, changing forever the landscape of America.  In 1905 the first purpose-built gas station opened, with gasoline rapidly replacing kerosene and giving a huge boost to the petroleum industry.   Corporate logos replaced the word-heavy style of 19th-century advertising so they could be seen while driving.  The automobile reversed the population flow from farm to city by creating suburbs.  It allowed people to shop outside their hometown, a trend that led to the ruin of many Main Streets.  It made the Big Mac with fries possible.  And speaking of food, it changed thousands of acres of hay and oats to crops for human consumption when it brought to an end the 5,000-year reign of the horse as the prime mover of humankind.  
14. Electricity Wasn’t Bad, Either. . .
There's much more, of course.  The sections about the Great Depression, from Hoover to the Supreme Court to the Federal Reserve, were startling to me; it did not happen the way I thought it did.  And that kind of information and perspective is meaningful for what we do in the future.
Which is, after all, the kind of thinking that good history like An Empire of Wealth is designed to inspire.