7 Controversial Leadership Lessons From David Ogilvy, The Father Of Advertising

David Ogilvy, one of the greatest business leaders of the 20th century, left a body of work for entrepreneurs to study.

Stian Pedersen


Few men have had as big of an impact on my professional life and philosophy as David Ogilvy has. I admire the man greatly. Through his work, his biographies, and his interviews, he’s been a source of wisdom and influence. His thoughts on entrepreneurship, leadership, sales, management, business, and copywriting have been very influential.

I recently stumbled across an old notebook that contained notes from when I studied David Ogilvy’s approach to business and advertising. Immediately, I found myself inspired. In honor of this great man, I figured I’d compile some of my favorite lessons.

Do some groundwork, even as CEO.

Ogilvy made sure to lead by example. Ogilvy started his career as a copywriter — and is, to this day, recognized as one of the greatest copywriters ever. As Ogilvy’s responsibilities increased with the workload of being chief creative and chief executive, he had to delegate his work to other copywriters. Ogilvy&Mather would sometimes sign clients who specifically wanted to work with Ogilvy himself. In those cases, Ogilvy would take on the role of copywriter and write ads. In his own words, he made sure to show that his hand had not lost its cunning.

Work tremendously hard.

Ogilvy also led by example through a tremendous work ethic. Hard work stood at the center of Ogilvy&Mather’s culture as Ogilvy saw hard work as a benefit for both shareholders and employees. If each employee worked at their utmost capacity, the company would be far more productive per person. The employees would be able to take on more responsibility, thus moving up in their careers faster. The company also wouldn’t have to hire as many employees, thus boosting the bottom line. A bigger bottom line allowed them to pay higher wages to their employees, and to pay out higher dividends to their shareholders. This would boost Ogilvy&Mather’s reputation, both among potential employees, clients, and investors, creating a positive feedback loop.

“My staff will be a lot less reluctant to work overtime if I work longer hours than they do.”

Flaunt your privilege.

Ogilvy also led by example by being overt about the privileges he had. He drove a Rolls-Royce, a vehicle virtually impossible to park in New York City. He wore the finest suits and had the finest watches. He made a big deal out of the gifts and benefits he got from his clients. This overt display of success combined with the already high wages paid by the agency served to inspire his employees to follow in Ogilvy’s footsteps.

Be a good butcher.

One of Ogilvy’s favorite quotes came from the former British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who had said “the first essential to be a good Prime Minister is to be a good butcher.” Ogilvy lived by this mantra and would not hesitate to fire underperformers. He found high performers become demoralized when working alongside incompetent amateurs, and wouldn’t tolerate second-rate performance.

Don’t praise your employees too liberally.

He learned this lesson while working at one of the greatest restaurants in Paris. He found the greatest chef in France rarely praised his chefs, but kept impeccable order and discipline among his ranks. However, when the praise did come, it meant a thousand times more than it had.

“Pitard praised very seldom, but when he did, we were exalted to the skies.”

Embrace crisis.

When Ogilvy worked for Pitard, he also found that the high pressure environment of a world-class kitchen brought the chefs together in a manner he had not previously been exposed to. Later, in the early days of Ogilvy&Mather, they were struggling for survival and had to work very long hours to fulfill their contracts. Ogilvy found that, when the team managed to pull through a crisis situation, they came out the other side as a more cohesive unit with increased morale.

Hire your successors.

At a meeting with the executives of his company, Ogilvy handed out matryoshkas, Russian dolls. As they opened the dolls, they found a message. “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” He later continued this practice, sending matryoshkas to people who had been made heads of Ogilvy&Mather offices around the world.

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

There were many lessons to pick from, but in the interest of time, I had to keep it short.

Thank you, Mr. Ogilvy.



Stian Pedersen

Prompt engineer with marketing background. Writing about AI and marketing. Former poker pro. Self-help junkie. Homebrewer. AI-assisted, never AI-generated.