In the fast-paced, deeply creative, and often innovative world of advertising, there’s a special place for the tagline, zinger, and one-liner. Rather than discussing the slogans that launched brands into the stratosphere, we’re focusing on pearls of wisdom from advertising greats that could help you succeed, no matter your chosen path.
Whether you’re working in advertising, marketing, design, or another field altogether, the ideas of these advertising icons transcend industry.
Here are some valuable pieces of advice from advertising legends that can help you on your way to a fulfilling career and winning your next Cannes Lion.
1. “If you go fishing you may not catch any fish. If you don’t go fishing, you’ll never catch any fish.” – Alex Osborn
Alex Osborn was an American ad executive active from the 1930s to the 50s. He was intensely interested in creative problem-solving techniques and is credited with introducing us to the word brainstorming.
Osborn knew that you only discover ideas that will work by discovering those that don’t. However, it was thinking about those inevitable failures that often kept people from making a start. He devised his brainstorming technique to take some of the pressure off that first stage, putting the focus on generating as many ideas as possible.
A process of trial and error welcomes failure, even if it is unpleasant, as a natural and necessary part of developing an idea or trying to master a new skill. It gives you valuable insight and opportunities.
Takeaway: Action and risk are required for success. Don’t let the thought of failure hold you back, as it’s a natural and useful part of the process.
2. “If you have a truly big idea, the wrong technique won’t kill it. And if you don’t have a big idea, the right technique won’t help you.” – David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy was hugely influential as a copywriter and agency head. He remains one of the most iconic ad men to this day.
With this advice, Ogilvy celebrated the power of a brilliant idea and warned against becoming so fixated on technique that you neglect the groundwork. While a strong process and good execution are useful, they can’t compensate for the lack of a thought process and clarity early on.
Spend time developing your big idea at the outset, whether it’s the creative concept, the “why” behind your brand, or a personal goal.
Here’s the man himself on the work he did for Dove soap: “I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin. This is still working 25 years later.” The thought put in at the foundational level led to the runaway success.
Takeaway: Techniques and formulas may be useful, but they can’t compensate if you’re lacking a strong concept.
3. “If you think people are dumb, you’ll spend a lifetime doing dumb work.” – George Lois
Lois was a celebrated art director who co-founded several agencies. His book Damn Good Advice (for People with Talent!) is a great read on creativity in advertising.
Coming from a place of condescension keeps you from meaningfully engaging with the people who can make or break your success. For Lois, those people were the audiences for his ads and the bold and subversive covers he created for Esquire magazine.
The Atlantic has this to say of his daring approach and the respect he had for his audience: “He frequently relied on a striking central visual component to anchor the cover while the rest of the elements remained deferential. This required bravery—as well as immense trust in the public…”
Underestimating people can mean you misjudge what it is they need from you. It also means you won’t be able to communicate with them as effectively and, in the worst-case scenario, might alienate or offend them.
Takeaway: Don’t underestimate your audience. Respect other people, whether it’s colleagues or your audience, and your work will benefit.
4. “Don’t hide your differences, but shout about them. Be proud of them.” – Sir John Hegarty
Sir John Hegarty is an eminent art director who co-founded the legendary agency BBH. He was knighted for his services to the advertising and creative industries in 2007.
Hegarty gave this passionate piece of advice while talking about his revolutionary commercials for Levis. He explained why he felt it was so vital to put the jeans’ unique features front and center: “The idiosyncrasies of the product’s button-fly and the look and feel of the stone-washed denim were the soul of what made them cool.”
The need for a unique selling point is something people often talk about when it comes to brands but less often when talking about themselves. However, applying Hegarty’s advice to your individual characteristics has the potential to make you as distinctive as the Levis button fly.
“At the heart of what you do as a creative person if you don’t have a fundamental truth if you don’t believe in what you’re doing if you’re just trying to shock people…. Then I think it is very very shallow.”
While conforming sometimes feels like the necessary route, trying to blend in is likely to hurt your success in the long run. Using your unique interests, experiences, and insights to build a personal brand will help you stand out and engage with people in a way that will stick with them.
Takeaway: By trying to conform, you’ll only limit yourself. Your differences are what give you unique appeal and insight.
5. “What helps people, helps business.” – Leo Burnett
Leo Burnett was a renowned ad executive and agency founder who helped build many iconic brands, including The Jolly Green Giant and Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s.
Burnett passionately believed that “the sole purpose of business is service” and that decisions should revolve around what would best serve the customer.
Why are you creating an ad? Why are you creating a blog post? Why are you producing a widget? Can you honestly say you’re doing it to inform, help, or engage? If not, you may be wasting your resources by missing an opportunity to provide the value that will bring your clients back time and again.
Takeaway: If providing value is your primary goal, you will find it far easier to make those decisions that will build strong and enduring relationships with your audience.
6. “You have to read books on subjects you know nothing about. You have to travel to places you never thought of traveling. You have to meet every kind of person and endlessly stretch what you know.” – Mary Wells Lawrence
Mary Wells Lawrence was the first woman to found a major agency and the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. She created campaigns for a huge variety of brands, including Ford, Alka-Seltzer, and Bic.
With such a varied portfolio, it’s no wonder that Wells Lawrence placed such a high value on a diversified knowledge base.
Focusing on what’s known as continuous learning helps you cultivate an agile and adaptable mindset. It empowers you to see connections and possibilities that nobody else has.
Deliberately seeking out other perspectives and experiences also enables you to anticipate other people’s needs, communicate with them far more meaningfully, and effectively navigate disagreements.
Takeaway: Continuously aiming to broaden your horizons ensures you’re alert to possibilities and are able to understand and connect with people. Never stop learning, diversifying, growing, and reaching for more knowledge.
7. “We didn’t ever enter awards, rather we concentrated on making the right work for our clients. The result was we made great work.” – Kate Stanners
Kate Stanners is currently the global chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi and served as president of D&AD from 2019 to 2020.
In this quote, Stanners was describing her time at the independent creative agency St Luke’s, where she and her colleagues deliberately dismantled the traditional agency structure and turned their backs on the status quo. She explained: “We made massive mistakes, but we learnt. We were a bunch of young people at a moment in time making the work of their lives.”
Being overly focused on achieving the mainstream markers of success, such as awards, may well keep you from the disruptive thinking required for your best work. By concentrating on the task at hand, trusting your instincts, and not shying away from doing things differently, you can achieve results that nobody else can.
Takeaway: Don’t let your need for validation or the pressure to follow a normal path prevent you from trusting your gut and pursuing divergent ideas.