Mad Men and ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’

With the new season of Mad Men arriving in about a week, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a book that I just finished reading called Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963). Written by David Ogilvy, one of the great ad men of the fifties and sixties, it is essentially a how-to guide for advertising. It discusses how to run an agency, get clients, and create campaigns.

While this might sound like a textbook or something similarly soporific, nothing could be farther from the truth. The book is written in a very personal and opinionated tone, and from the perspective of a man who is extremely smart, successful, and wealthy, and is entirely aware of these things and not afraid to let you know it. So it makes for some extremely interesting, and sometimes hilarious, reading.

This, combined with the vintage nature of the book, makes it fascinating. For example, there is a discussion of how there has only been a small amount of research done into the new medium of television, aside from work done by Dr. Gallup (who Ogilvy worked with). Ogilvy also mentions the merits of hiring young copywriters, since he needs insight into the modern consumer/housewife (who has not even been born during the presidency of FDR).

Below are a few quotes to give you a feel for the book and his style, beginning with the chapter entitled How to Manage an Advertising Agency:

Not long ago the University of Chicago invited me to participate in a seminar on the Creative Organization. Most of the other participants were learned professors of psychology who make it their business to study what they call CREATIVITY. Feeling like a pregnant woman at a convention of obstetricians, I told them what I have learned about the creative process from my experience as the chief of seventy-three writers and artists.

From the chapter How to Illustrate Advertisements and Posters:

As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one which was improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel about the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?

From the chapter How to Make Good Campaigns for Food Products, Tourist Destinations, and Proprietary Medicines:

I once found myself conspiring with a British cabinet minister as to how we might persuade Her Majesty’s Treasury to cough up more money for the British travel advertising in America. Said he, “Why does any American in his senses spend his vacation in the cold damp of an English summer when he could equally well bask under Italian skies? I can only suppose that your advertising is the answer.”

Damn right.

The book even ends on a self-reflective chapter entitled Should Advertising Be Abolished? I won’t spoil the ending.