David Ogilvy on Russian Nesting Dolls and Building a Company of Giants

In the Company of Giants

Ogilvy & Mather founder and creative genius David Ogilvy (1911–1999) designed some of the world’s most successful and iconic marketing campaigns, including the legendary Man in the Hathaway Shirt advertisement.

Ogilvy left a rich legacy of ideas in his books. Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising describe how he approached his creative life and aimed for greatness rather than settling for second best.

David Ogilvy on Hiring Smart

'Ogilvy on Advertising' by David Ogilvy (ISBN 039472903X) In the preface of an Ogilvy & Mather recruiting brochure, Ogilvy explained the high creative standards and attitudes he expected of his employees:

We are looking for gentlemen with ideas in their heads and fire in their bellies. If you join Ogilvy & Mather, we shall teach you everything we know about advertising. We shall pay you well, and do our damnedest to make you succeed. If you show promise, we shall load responsibility on you—fast. Life in our agency can be very exciting. You will never be bored. It’s tough, but it’s fun.

Ogilvy directed his recruiters to seek out highflyers, “Hot creative people don’t come around looking for jobs; they have to be rooted out like truffles by trained pigs. Do our trained pigs do any rooting? I don’t think so.”

Recruiting brilliant people is a kind of brilliance in itself

David Ogilvy on Russian Nesting Dolls and Building a Company of Giants In his bestselling Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy described how recruiting smart people was the key to transforming his advertising agency into a global advertising, marketing and public relations giant. He wrote,

When someone is made the head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send him a Matrioshka doll from Gorky. If he has the curiosity to open it, and keep opening it until he comes to the inside of the smallest doll, he finds this message:

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Entrepreneurship guru Guy Kawasaki echoed the importance of hiring smarter people and recalled in Reality Check that, when he worked at Apple in 1984, “In the Macintosh Division, we had a saying, ‘A players hire A players; B players hire C players’—meaning that great people hire great people. On the other hand, mediocre people hire candidates who are not as good as they are, so they can feel superior to them. If you start down this slippery slope, you’ll soon end up with Z players; this is called the Bozo Explosion.”

The best managers hire employees with superior intellect—and revel in it

Managers are typically judged not on their personal output but on how well they’ve hired, coached, and motivated their people—individually and collectively.

A wise manager hires employees who are smarter, more creative, and more talented than the manager is. The new employees’ talents will improve the entire team’s performance and reputation—even the manager’s.

In contrast, a mediocre manager feels threatened by underlings who seem more intelligent than the manager is. Mediocre managers tend to hire down—they fear that a superior employee could make the manager look inferior and perhaps hold back their career progress.

Idea for Impact: People make or break businesses; so hire people who are smarter than you are.

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