Climbing the Ladder of Success: David Ogilvy’s Timeless Advice for the Ambitious Young

tall poppy

David Ogilvy’s 1963 “Confessions of An Advertising Man” is ridden with gems.

None more so than his last chapter, “How To Rise To The Top of The Tree”.

So much so that I wanted to share an abridged version with you directly.


“After watching the careermanship of my own employees for fourteen years, I have identified a pattern of behavior which leads rapidly to the top.

First, you must be ambitious, but you must not be so nakedly aggressive that your fellow workers rise up and destroy you. Every soldier carriers in his knapsack a marshal’s baton…Yes, but don’t let it stick out.

The moment you are trained, set yourself to becoming the best-informed man in the agency on the account to which you are assigned. If, for example, it is a gasoline account, read text books on the chemistry, geology and distribution of petroleum products. Read all the trade journals in the field. Read all the research reports and marketing plans that your agency has ever written on the product. Spend Saturday mornings in service stations, pumping gasoline and talking to motorists. Visit your client’s refineries and research laboratories. Study the advertising of his competitors. At the end of your second year, you will know more about gasoline than your boss; you will then be ready to succeed him.

Most of the young men in agencies are too lazy to do this kind of homework. They remain permanently superficial.

Claude Hopkins attributed his success to the fact that he worked twice as long hours as other copywriters, and thus made his way up the ladder at twice their speed. Managers promote who produce the most.

If people in advertising agencies were paid on a piece-work basis, the drones would get their just deserts and the dynamos would triumph even faster than they do now. When Dr. William B Shockley studied the creativity of scientists in the Bell Laboratories, he discovered that those in the most creative quartile applied for ten times as many patents as those in the least creative quartile, but were paid only 50 per cent more. Unfair? Yes, I think so. Albert Lasker used to pay the less productive copywriters at Lord & Thomas $100 a week, but he paid Claude Hopkins $50,000 for every $1,000,000 worth of advertising he wrote. A profitable time was had by all – Lasker, Hopkins and their clients.

Nowadays it is the fashion to pretend that no single individual is ever responsible for a successful advertising campaign. This emphasis on “team work” is bunkum – a conspiracy of the mediocre majority. No advertisement, no commercial and no image can be created by a committee. Most top managements are secretly aware of this, and keep their eyes open for those rare individuals who lay golden eggs. These champions can no longer be rewarded on the Hopkins scale, but they are the only men in advertising agencies who are immune to the threat of dismissal in times of scarcity. They give value for money.

Most of the work you do in an agency will be routine maintenance. If you do it well, you will make gradual progress, but your golden opportunity will come when you rise to a great occasion. The trick is to recognize the great occasion when it presents itself.”

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