Part 1/4: How to Manage an Ad Agency

July 15, 2019

Evan Pitchie

How to manage an ad agency. The first of a 4-series commentary from the wildly successful book, Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

Back in 2017, when the idea of starting a digital agency was brewing in my head, I did some research on who the successful ad agencies were and the people that founded them.

Naturally, David Ogilvy, founder of the agency known today as Ogilvy, came up…numerous times. Reading more about him, I discovered his book Confessions of an Advertising Man written in 1963. In his book, he shares his opinions as well as valuable tips for anyone in the ad business or interested in going into it. He essentially created a 180-page ad for his agency, and it worked!

I’m glad I did! The stories shared and the explanations given provide lessons to individuals in the marketing field that I believe are still applicable 56 years later!

It’s for these reasons that I’m writing a 4-part series on some of the topics that stood out the most for me.

Let’s get into it!

Hard Work

Ogilvy founded Ogilvy, Benson, and Mather in New York of 1948 with the financial backing of Crowther and Mather, the British agency where he worked as a copywriter.

He knew it was going to require an obscene amount of work and was not afraid of it.

He says that managing an agency is "not all beer and skittles”. With the current portrayal of entrepreneurship and the influence of the popular TV show, Mad Men, I think it is even more important to stress this point.

He enjoyed others that worked hard as well. Saying that it is “more fun to be overworked than underworked”. With everything that we know about the effects of stress, the way it affects people’s health and the current work-culture, I cannot entirely agree with Ogilvy. Being underworked is not fun and means that one’s abilities are not being utilized enough. But being overworked means that one’s abilities are being used too much and one or more areas are going to fall apart if they are not managed properly.

Easier said than done, of course. Nonetheless, it has to be mentioned.

He also believed that you have to enjoy the work you are doing. If you’re going to be working so much, the least you can do to yourself is have fun in the process.

Work Environment

Ogilvy believed that the people running the agency needed to provide an environment where “creative mavericks” can do useful work.

In my opinion, this doesn’t just mean bean bags, ping pong tables and colourful walls. It’s creating an open environment where people can experiment and be free to explore the depths of their creativity.

Also, I believe that people with artistic talents are not the only ones that are creative in an agency. Account executives must also be creative but in a different way.

Building relationships with prospective clients, entertaining clients in professional and social meetings, filling awkward silences with a well-placed joke or better yet, having the joke ready so that there is no awkward silence. These are all things that require account executives to use their social talents and their environment to create a pleasant experience for all parties on the fly.


Ogilvy encouraged people to hire subordinates that were better than them and could one day succeed them. If the agency was going to grow and become better, the people in it needed to do the same.

He admired people with self-confidence and did great work. These people did not feel the need to steal other people’s ideas and were able to respect the expertise of their colleagues.

Treating people like human beings and having what he called “gentle manners” was important. It can be easy to be disrespectful to others when times are difficult, but it does more good for all parties when there is a level of mutual respect and everyone is treated appropriately.

Creative Process

The creative process is one that does not follow reason.

In Ogilvy’s words, it requires: “groping experimentation with ideas, governed by intuitive hunches and inspired by the unconscious”.

In my opinion, it means letting the mind wander and seeing where it takes you. Putting reason aside because not everything needs to have a reason. Being at ease with the unknown and uncertainty.

Whether it’s going on walks or on vacations, it’s important to give that to your mind so that the subconscious can form the connections your consciousness never would have thought of.

That being said, even that, according to Ogilvy, requires hard work (obviously), an open mind and curiosity.

Finally, no matter how creative or brilliant you are, all of that is useless if you are unable to sell your creativity and ideas. Ogilvy was a great salesman, in fact, before starting the agency, he worked as a door-to-door salesman and sold cooking stoves. He did so well that the company asked him to write a manual for his colleagues to learn from. It was picked up by Fortune and they considered it one of the greatest sales manuals.

Everything was like a theater performance to Ogilvy. If he wasn’t selling an idea, he was selling himself.

We hope you enjoyed part 1! Part 2 will be a commentary on Ogilvy's thoughts about how to get clients.