Classic work of an original Mad Man inspired a generation

I don't care for business books. They are boring, banal and generally about business. What's interesting about business is the people and personalities.

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I don't care for business books. They are boring, banal and generally about business.

What's interesting about business is the people and personalities. But even biographies or autobiographies of leading figures aren't always as exciting as they could be.

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More often than not they gloss over the difficult parts and include far too much information on minor matters. You never learn how they made that great fortune. It's rather like those diagrams of how to tie a bow tie: the diagrams go from holding two ends to the finished article, without the all-important part in between.

Was there a great crime, as Balzac is supposed to have said, and if so, how did he or she pull it off?

Yet, like all rules, there is an exception. For me the classic of the genre is David Ogilvy'sConfessions of An Advertising Man, written nearly 50 years ago, partly as an advertisement for his own burgeoning business.

Ogilvy's life is almost fabulous, like something out of a movie. The son of a stockbroker, he went to Fettes College, Tony Blair's alma mater, a posh place in Edinburgh but one that extolled the Scottish work ethic. Then a scholarship to Oxford University. He was kicked out of Oxford for lack of effort. "If Oxford undergraduates were paid for their work, I would have performed miracles of scholarship and become regius professor of modern history; it wasn't until I discovered lucre on Madison Avenue that I began to work in earnest," he writes.

After university, he joined the Majestic Hotel in Paris as a chef. There he claims he learnt the importance of teamwork, order and creativity. He writes with awe of Monsieur Pitard, the head chef, who inspired such loyalty, paid his staff poorly, but "drove to work in a taxi, carried a cane with a gold head, and dressed, when off-duty, like an international banker".

Monsieur Pitard would occasionally enter the fray himself, knocking out a plat du jour or a pudding with consummate ease. "It was inspiring to work for a supreme master," Ogilvy adds. "Following chef Pitard's example, I still write occasional advertisements myself to remind my brigade of copywriters that my hand has not lost its cunning."

From there he became an Aga salesman, flogging the expensive stoves door to door. Then, improbably, a tobacco farmer in Pennsylvania, living among the Amish. After a spell at Gallup, the research firm, he opened his own agency on Madison Avenue at the end of the 1940s. "My agency was an immediate and meteoric success," he writes with no attempt at modesty. The book enhanced his reputation and helped his business grow from one office with 19 clients into a global firm, with billings in the millions and hundreds of staff. But it's not all bragging, and not without flashes of humour. "When Fortune published an article about me and titled it: 'Is David Ogilvy a Genius?' I asked my lawyer to sue for the question mark."

The book covers everything from writing copy to winning business, managing clients, how to behave as a client and even how to climb the greasy pole as an aspiring ad-man. Ogilvy was one of the original "Mad Men"; on occasions not averse to a lunchtime cocktail, claiming it stimulated creativity.

His book also includes a number of precepts on how to employ talented, creative people, recommendations that still make sense today. He thought the hiring process was crucial. "I admire people with gentle manners, who treat other people as human beings. I abhor quarrelsome people who wage paper warfare … I despise toadies who suck up to their bosses; they are generally the same people who bully their subordinates."

He would visit people at home to get a sense of how they lived. He looked for passion, creativity and a sense of style. And he was willing to pay for it. "Pay peanuts and you get monkeys" was one of his mottos. He hated committees and advisory boards. When do you ever see a statue to a committee? he asked. And he was not shy of boosting his own credentials.

"Advertising is a business of words, but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write … They are as helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera," he said, rather cattily.

Alan Parker, the ad-man turned film director of movies such as Mississippi Burning and Bugsy Malone, says the effect of Ogilvy's subversive tome was electric when it appeared in the 1960s. "To say it was our bible might draw Ogilvy's opprobrium for 'vacuous exhortations', but it certainly was the equivalent of the Little Red Book of Mao for my 60s ad generation."

I once went for an interview at the Ogilvy office in London. The great man had retired to a chateau in the south of France. I was shown into the large expanse where the creative director lived.

As I told him about my education and experience, he watched the Test match from Trent Bridge. I should have punched him on the nose.

David Ogilvy would have poked him with his pipe, and told him he was a toady and a hack, and certainly not a "gentleman with brains".