Ogilvy: The Search for the World’s Greatest Salesman

David Ogilvy World's Greatest Salesman
Photo source: bandt.com.au

David Ogilvy is considered “The Grandfather of Modern Advertising.” His style is often copied but never to the actual greatness that was Ogilvy. He learned his leadership qualities from good old-fashioned hard work and unrelenting determination.

Lesson One: Perfection At All Costs

When Ogilvy left Oxford, he took a job in one of France’s top kitchens, at the Majestic Hotel. David’s wife, Herta, recalls that is where David learned the importance of perfection, and what drove him to become a perfectionist. “Everything that left that kitchen to go out had to be perfect. The way the plate looked, the presentation, the taste, everything.”

Along with hard work, excellence, discipline, Ogilvy learned a vital lesson from the head chef, a style of management based on respect and fear. Ogilvy recalled a time when he was decorating a plate of frogs legs. It was a remarkable day because the President of France was coming to dinner. The head chef, who was watching Ogilvy, signaled to the other chefs to gather around to watch Ogilvy at work. Ogilvy seeing this, sensed that the head chef was going to fire him and he wanted an audience. Instead, the head chef pointed to Ogilvy’s work and said to the other chefs, “That is the way to do it.”

Of all of the accomplishments of his distinguished career, this moment was the proudest moment of Ogilvy’s life.


Because later he saw the President of France eating the frog’s legs he had prepared, and a week later the President of France died. He had cooked one of his last meals perfectly.

Lesson Two: Respect the Customer

A year later, Ogilvy returned to Britan taking a sales job in Scotland. Going door-to-door selling a kitchen cooking appliance, the Aga Cooker. This is where Ogilvy formed his famous phrase of “No sale. No commission. No commission. No eat.” At the time it was the most expensive stove in the world, and it was by far, the best.

Ogilvy recalled it would take him an average of 30 minutes to make a sale, which equaled about 3,000 words. Going door-to-door, Ogilvy also learned a valuable lesson in humility. And he also brought with him the power of past experience, and since he was a former chef, he was able to show prospects what the stove could do.

Ogilvy was a natural salesman and was so successful, Aga asked him to write the sales manual. Fortune magazine obtained a copy of the sales manual and stated it was the best of its kind every written.

An excerpt: “The longer you talk to a prospect, the better, and you will not do this if you are a bore. Pepper your talk with anecdotes and jokes. A deadly serious demonstration is bound to fail. If you cannot make a lady laugh, you certainly cannot make her buy.”

How was Ogilvy so successful? He paid people the highest compliment by never talking down to them. He could speak to anyone in a manner which they could understand. He never came across as knowing more than anyone else.

“The customer is not a moron; she is your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence and don’t shock her. A lot of consumers are not as sophisticated as you are.”

Lesson Three: Research! Research! Research!

After conquering Scotland, Ogilvy next sought out America. In 1938 he started working at George Gallop’s The Audience Research Institute. His boss would turn polling into a science into what we know as The Gallop Poll today. He was the first to use polls in advertising. Conducting polls in the streets made a lasting impression on Ogilvy.

He went from going door-to-door selling stoves to going door-to-door asking people their opinions. Instead of just asking the questions and writing down their answers, Ogilvy took it a step further and asked them why they thought the way they did.

“What does the consumer think?” was a trademark question of Ogilvy. It powered every campaign he would take on with his own firm.

Worlds Greatest Salesperson

Also see: The Great One – Greatest Conquerer of All-Time, Alexander the Great