Of great writing, giants & Russian dolls: The genius of David Ogilvy


“Knowledge is useless unless you know how to communicate it – in writing.” – David Ogilvy.

Writing is hugely important to me. I always want to try to improve my writing. Some of the best advice I’ve ever come across on what makes for good writing can be found in the words of David Ogilvy.

Mr Ogilvy was arguably the advertising genius of the 20th Century. He and his works are no small part of the inspiration for Mad Men (which should be recommendation enough in itself to find out more about him!).


You don’t have to have the slightest interest in advertising to learn a huge amount from Ogilvy’s genius.

I want to use this post to share some of my favourite words from David Ogilvy, and to urge anyone and everyone who sees this post to consider checking out his written works. Ogilvy On Advertising and The Unpublished David Ogilvy (from which the quotation at the top of the page comes) are particularly highly recommended.

And if you have any favourite Ogilvy gems of your own, please do share… I’d love to read them.

’…only dull writers.’
There is nothing about which one cannot write interestingly and engagingly. This statement from Ogilvy On Advertising (p.18) can be adapted to pretty much any type of writing:

“Whenever you can, make the product itself the hero of your advertising. If you think the product too dull, I have news for you: there are no dull products, only dull writers.”

How to write
Ogilvy shares 10 of the most valuable tips there could ever be on ‘How to write’ on pages 69 and 70 of The Unpublished David Ogilvy. Here’s one of them:

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.”

Of Russian dolls and giants
Nothing to do with writing tips, but I do love Ogilvy’s Russian dolls story (and it is a beautiful piece of writing in itself). Here it is, as recounted on p.46 of Ogilvy On Advertising:

“When you are appointed to head an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send you one of these Russian dolls. Inside the smallest you will find this 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, Ogilvy & Mather will become a company of giants.’”

Believe me, the above quotations hardly begin to scratch the surface of the huge treasure trove of ingenious, delightful, succinct lessons in business, writing and the living of life that are offered by these books.

Please do let David Ogilvy into your life.

Recommended reading:

UPDATE (Friday 7 February 2014): The great Paul Hebert on Making Giants At Work

I’m absolutely delighted to report that top US blogger Paul Hebert was so taken by Ogilvy’s Russian dolls story that he has written a post on his Symbolist blog (entitled Making Giants At Work) to help spread the word!

Paul takes Ogilvy’s words and runs with them, arguing that management is really all about “being the smaller person”:

“Often we are told to ‘be the bigger person’ – and in many, many instances that makes all the sense in the world. In management – it is the opposite.  You need to be the smaller person. […] Through a conscious effort to create giants – to create bigger, better minds than your own – you will have huge impact on the organization… and more importantly – you will have a huge positive impact on a human being.”

Thank you, Paul. You’ve made my week with that post! Excellent blogging, sir.


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