A Simple, Brilliant Business Lesson from David Ogilvy

2 min read

Do what’s best for the customer, even if it’s not your customer.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

There’s a cliche saying that, when you hear it, makes you think of romantic relationships gone awry, but with one side still hopeful things will work out. It’s the old “let them go: if it’s meant to be they’ll come back to you.”

If we consider this in a business context, it feels like bad policy. If you have a customer that’s even remotely interested in purchasing your product, you use any tactic to get them to buy. Talk about additional benefits, tell them personal anecdotes relating to their problem or situation, or take the low road and attack your competitor ruthlessly.

David Ogilvy, the father of advertising, told about a time he faced a conundrum with a potential client. Hallmark, the maker of cards that tell your loved ones the words you can never come up with on your own, once approached Ogilvy’s advertising agency about taking them on as a client. The people at Hallmark were not fully satisfied with the work their current advertising agency was doing. They thought Ogilvy’s group could take them to the next level.

Pause here and put yourself in Ogilvy’s shoes: the largest greeting card manufacturer in the world has come to you to do their advertising. No-brainer, right? Draw up the papers, present some campaign ideas, and get the cash.

But that’s not what Ogilvy did.

He knew the work Hallmark’s current agency was doing. He knew that work was good. Really good. He knew that his agency, while he considered them to be the best in the world, would not be able to do better than what Hallmark’s current agency was doing. Ogilvy politely passed this advice onto Hallmark: stay where you are.

This defies the conventional cutthroat wisdom many businesses employ. Too many are sharks in the water, sniffing out a tiny drop of blood leaking from a consumer and gobbles them up with unnecessary products, benefits, contracts, and services. What opportunities of viewing consumers as people and not numbers or dollar signs are missed!

It’s not only good fiscal business to occasionally push consumers away, it’s good human capital. In my time working in sales for a lawn and garden manufacturer, I was approached by a woman seeking a certain pesticide spray for her prized roses. She explained the problem, and that her husband who had recently passed away was the one who always cared for the roses. She was uncertain as to what to buy.

I promptly walked her over to my competitor’s product and told her how to apply it, and that I was sorry for her loss, and I wished her (and her roses) the best.

Could I have sold this woman my own product, that might have taken care of her issues? Sure. But the best business move is not the one that makes the most money. The best business moves are the ones that care for the customer above the bottom line.

Ogilvy knew Hallmark’s current agency had done tremendous work for them and done wonders for the card company’s own bottom line.

It’s tempting to go for the quick sale. It’s tempting to grab the low-hanging fruit and bite right into it. But take a second, consider what’s best for your customer, not just your business. Even if it doesn’t produce an immediate sale, it conveys to the consumer you genuinely care about what’s best for them.

This mentality will go a long way for any salesman or woman.

Eddie Becker I want to consider the humanity of business. What's beyond profits and losses? What connections are made between brands and consumers?

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