Wednesday, May 20, 2009


”Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
-Steve Jobs

The English literary critic, John Collins, once opined that you should “Never trust a man who speaks well of everybody.”

When it comes to organizations, I’d like to propose a related standard: “Never trust a manager who likes everything you do.”

What got me thinking about creative standards was reading the charming, lively and useful biography of David Ogilvy, The King of Madison Avenue, by Kenneth Roman, a former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather. What impressed me most about Ogilvy’s involvement in the creative process was not his own copywriting – Roman tells me that Ogilvy had a dozen years of generating solid ad copy, but then took to calling himself “an extinct volcano” – but how he became the yardstick of quality.

Roman encountered the Ogilvy & Mather agency’s standards of excellence within a few months of starting work there when he was called away from dinner by a phone call from one of the agency employees who was working on a two-page magazine ad. Roman was told that the pages were too far apart, leaving an eighth of an inch of extra white space between them. The problem could be easily remedied, but doing so would cost $300 for new printing plates. Roman describes what transpired next:

“I agreed that the fix made sense but pointed out that this was not the main campaign, only a coupon ad, and this was just a test market. The change could be made later. ‘And the client has already approved it,’ I added.

“The reproving response was swift. ‘David says (pause) it’s never too late to improve and ad – even after the client has approved it.’ ‘Spend the 300 bucks,’ I agreed. Like the Church, the agency had standards.

Roman’s biography is replete with instances of Ogilvy’s standards lifting the organization. One former employee who went on to become a best-selling author, Peter Mayle, recalled getting his ad copy returned by Ogilvy heavily marked with red pencil including this bit of marginalia:

“Quack-quack. Belles lettres. Omit.”

On another occasion, when Ogilvy feared the entire agency standards were slipping, he wrote a series of memos under the heading “Escape From Dullsville.”

Roman tells me that he is often asked if working for such a demanding legend meant that Ogilvy was “scary.” His response: “No! He was fun and he was funny.”

So Ogilvy was charming… AND demanding. A lovable tyrant. Like many of the best leaders, he was feared in the best way – the employees didn’t fear him, they feared letting him down, feared failing to live up to his standard’s and the agency reputation.

We all need that fear, especially in an economy that is so bad it can scare the good fear away. It’s tempting for managers to try to make up for tough times by being soft, by being cheerleaders. But the best bosses understand that this is no time to go smiley-facing mediocrity. If you have a quality tyrant where you work, be grateful. If you don’t then it up to you to ask yourself the hard questions and to know when the right answer is that you’re wrong… Quack, quack.


© 2009, King Features


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