“I’ve had about ten great ideas in my life - advertising ideas. Which isn’t many. It’s more than most people have had.”
- David Ogilvy
I’ve talked about David Ogilvy on this blog before. He is considered by many to be the “Father of Advertising” - truly, he is a giant of the advertising world. His work includes a broad swath of amazing campaigns that have endured. For instance, today’s Dove campaigns, which are held up as a gold standard for advertising, clearly find their roots in the campaign developed by David Ogilvy all the way back in 1955. And there are other campaigns he developed for major brands that were equally inspiring (both in terms of their creativity, and the sales they generated). His career spanned decades and his work continues to be studied in business schools all over the world. And yet, despite all of that, Ogilvy makes the shocking admission I quoted above.
In my comparably meager 12 years in the industry, I’ve come to appreciate that what he is saying is true. Great ideas aren’t a dime a dozen. I suspect that if they were, they’d lose their value - anything that is readily and commonly available always does. And yet, I think most people who ring up an ad agency to help them with their branding or product positioning have an expectation that what agencies bring to the table is an uncanny ability to always hit it out of the park with a great, silver bullet idea that will blow the doors off sales.
But it’s not like that.
For the most part, advertising is a day-to-day grind. It’s doing the simple stuff, the hard stuff, and the strategic stuff that slowly squeezes increasing success out of a brand. Picture yourself ringing out a towel. It’s rewarding, but it’s work (with diminishing returns), and it’s rarely glamorous.
This has been reinforced to me more recently as I’ve listened to various advertising personalities via TED talks, radio shows, and speaking engagements about great ideas. The subtle perception that I keep noticing is that these people will get up on a stage and start rattling off examples of amazing campaigns that changed the face of business for an organization, but hardly ever, are the ideas that they are talking about their own. They source and collect examples from agencies (and non-agencies) around the world. In essence, while they might be extremely good advertisers, these people are also excellent storytellers. And the perception derived from their storytelling is that they are genius’ that can apply their Midas touch to any business challenge to see the results immediately soar.
That’s a false perception.
We need those people and examples to inspire us, to challenge us to push for the great ideas because they are out there. Again, in the words of David Ogilvy: “Be more ambitious...When you get a job to do a storyboard or an ad, try and hit the ball out of the park every time. Don’t bunt. Compete with the immortals.”
We need to fight. Fight for the great idea and wrestle with it until it crystallizes into the powerful campaign that will wildly exceed your goals. But in the interim (or when the great idea isn’t forthcoming but the deadline is), you just do the hard work of consistent communication. You grit your teeth and you build the brand - one ad at a time, one customer service call at a time, and one product release at a time.
One leads to the other.
And both are the work of giants.