Lessons From a Legendary Advertising Agency About Being a Great Boss

The former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather reflects his experiences with some of his firm’s most iconic leaders

Kenneth Roman
Marker
Published in
6 min readFeb 5, 2020

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David Ogilvy, founder and president of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

DDavid Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, once said: “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 people. Ogilvy & Mather is the teaching hospital of the advertising world.”

I was blessed in the advertising business with a succession of great bosses. They were different in almost every respect in how they approached their jobs, but they all did one thing superbly — they didn’t just tell me the right solution to a problem, they provided guiding principles that could be applied broadly to other issues.

Here are some of those principles:

Learn to write effectively

My first boss at Ogilvy & Mather, Bill Kelly, labored over his memos — especially those that went to David Ogilvy, then still involved at the agency as Chairman. I learned quickly that nobody wanted to expose sloppy writing to the great man; he would make a judgment about your intelligence.

“I believe in the dogmatism of brevity.”

Ogilvy taught writing by example, not by proselytizing. His writing was spare — and powerful. “I believe in the dogmatism of brevity.” Instead of adjectives and adverbs, he sought the right (often memorable) word. Writing didn’t come easy. He wrote and rewrote. “I’m a lousy copywriter, but I’m a good editor.”

The introduction to our writing guide at O&M said: “Good writing is a prerequisite to success at Ogilvy & Mather. All the members of our top management are good writers. Coincidence?”

You don’t learn writing from a book (although I’ve written one, or two, of those). You learn it from a boss who edits your writing ruthlessly. Bill Kelly, a gentle man, edited mine ruthlessly.

Teach concrete skills

The agency’s commitment to training went beyond bosses to training programs at all levels, from a weekend introductory program…

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Kenneth Roman
Marker
Writer for

Kenneth Roman is co-author of “Writing That Works”