Truly, simply, madly: The David Ogilvy way

Andrew Jolliffe harks back to a time when creatives were free to sing in corridors and throw profiteroles in meetings.

I loved David Ogilvy. I met him only once, but he might have shown me the way more than my father or other halves. His mottos steer my days. “Committees can criticize, but they cannot create” reminds me that my job is harder than that of my critics. They know that. There again, “Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work” is my daily prompt to go somewhere fun to write. If I’m not in an agency, I’ll use my girlfriend’s balcony with its birdsong, fat cat, blueberry smoothies and 24-hour David Bowie. Or a co-working space among like minds. Almost never at home.

The most pertinent of all, though, is “tolerate genius”. Not just because I think writers should misbehave. Of course, they should. Creatives are at their best when they’re themselves. At Ogilvy, I sang in corridors, bought the CD’s unwearable shirts and threw profiteroles in meetings. When I needed a new computer, I poured coffee in my old one.

But Ogilvy’s sentiment runs deeper. Original brains push aside other things in order to flourish. Armed with influences from the most unlikely places, they process them with a one-stop, almost autistic, single-mindedness, often at the expense of so-called normality. Social lives. Daily routines. Friendships. Appearances. Even hygiene. Creating occupies a disproportionate amount of mind-space compared to, say, walking, eating, washing or politely chatting.

Creative abnormality has been with us since the dawn of time. James Joyce wrote in blue pencil lying face-down in bed. Tennyson kept a bear in his room at Cambridge. Steinbeck only bought round pencils: he held hexagonal ones so tightly, his hands were covered in warts. Oscar Wilde took lobsters for walks. Victor Hugo locked away his clothes. He had to write, not wander off. The electrical pioneer Tesla only rented rooms with numbers divisible by three, while Prince has been interviewed with his head in a bag. The list is infinite.

All successful. All original. All famous. None of them stereotypical, but all just themselves. And all proof that, providing you do no harm, to display your original self, warts and all, is to effectively open the door to your originality. Keep it under lock and key, and you do the same to your best work.

In short, it’s better to be great at just one thing than grey at everything.

Incredibly, some agencies don’t get that. Yes, we should all turn up on time. Be nice. Be polite. Listen. Empathise. Sympathise. Contribute. Encourage. Be ladies or gents. Of course. That’s primeval, human respect. But in the last few years, I’ve been berated for politely disagreeing. Slapped for putting my hand up. Sworn at for writing lines without the word “great”. Hissed at for singing in a corridor. Rapped for bringing my birthday cake to a review and getting cream on the CD’s special edition ’70s Noguchi pressed glass coffee table.

Come on.

Here’s a personal plea. In fact, one from all dedicated copywriters. To take full advantage of what we can offer you, please, please take us as we are.

As for me, I argue. I press my point. I never just say yes. I look like a long skinny line. In fact, if I stood next to a pillar, you’d think I was one. I escape from meetings without warning and come back with ice-creams for all. I stare at walls. I eat garlic in public. I call people My Dear, Mucker and You Old Sod, even if they aren’t. I cry. My hair looks like a haystack. Yes, I sing in corridors. Mozart, Berlioz, Brian Eno. I play the cello for my pleasure. Just mine. My dress sense doesn’t make sense. My driving is a form of terrorism. But at least I can write.

So please, next time any new writer turns up at your agency with a nervous tick, or a twitchy eye, or a blue moustache, or a cat on a leash, in fuchsia flares, a sheepskin waistcoat and high heels, smelling of lavender, don’t take cover. Rub your hands. They’re going to be good.

Or as David Ogilvy would say, very, very, very good.

Andrew Jolliffe is a strategic and creative copywriter. This piece first appeared on thejolliffe.com.


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