Nine years ago, when I knew I was going to become CEO of this company, I spent three days with its legendary founder, David Ogilvy, at his château in France. It was March, it was cold and rainy, and we spent the entire time indoors talking about the business. At one point I asked him a question point-blank: David, if you were going to say one thing to me, what would it be? He didn’t hesitate in his response. No matter how much time you spend thinking about, worrying about, focusing on, questioning the value of, and evaluating people, it won’t be enough, he said. People are the only thing that matters, and the only thing you should think about, because when that part is right, everything else works.
I spend part of every single day hearing David speak that advice, and as a result, I devote a huge amount of time to asking myself: Am I doing enough? Who at Ogilvy do I have to worry about? Who needs another challenge? Who seems a little stale? Who needs a new view on life or a new country to run? David’s advice drives not only how I think about and mentor people but also how I form business strategy and make critical decisions.
In 1991, we got fired by American Express. They took away the big, sexy stuff—the brand work, most of the television—and gave it to another agency, leaving us with the little co-op stuff, the joint promotions with service establishments. American Express had been with us since the early sixties, and at one point they were our largest client.
But, as David Ogilvy noted when he phoned me at home that Saturday to tell me, the truth is that clients come and go: You’ll always win another one, and another will go away.
The real problem came when people within the company became dispirited and demotivated, engulfed by crisis, felt differently about the work they were doing, and were ready to walk away in a huff, wanting nothing more to do with it. The challenge, therefore, for me was not simply to win back a big account. It was to motivate the people within Ogilvy to forget about the catastrophe and focus on the work. Gathering everyone together, I told them, “What’s happened has happened. And if you’re not interested in hanging in there, then go away. Just go away. But if you’re ready to believe again and sit around this table and go at the problem with all the heart we have, with all our understanding of the brand, and with all our belief, then let’s get to work and see if we can win back the hearts and minds of the people at American Express.” It took 11 months, but we won that account back.
David Ogilvy’s advice goes to the same fundamental issue. Advertising is an ideas business: That’s all we are. And ideas don’t come from the air; they come from human beings. If our firm doesn’t have people who can generate great ideas and keep their perspective and good judgment intact even in tough circumstances, so they can develop those ideas in compelling ways for our clients, then we don’t have anything.
- Shelly Lazarus, Chairman and CEO of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. Excerpted from her January 2005 article The Best Advice I Ever Got in the Harvard Business Review.
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