How to Rise to the Top (Career Advice to the Young)

“Several years ago Lever Brothers asked their seven agencies to submit policy papers on the television medium, which was then quite new. The other agencies put in adequate papers of five or six pages, but a young man on my staff took the trouble to assemble every conceivable statistic and, after working day and night for three weeks, came up with an analysis which covered one hundred and seventy-seven pages. His lazy colleagues sneered at him as a “compulsive worker,” but one year later he was elected to our board of directors. On such isolated incidents are most successful careers built.” — David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1987.

In the second last chapter of Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy shares some career advice I think every young professional should hear. Although the advice is tailored to the advertising industry in the mid-‘80s, I think it still holds true across most knowledge-work industries today.

Two pieces of advice I found interesting were Ogilvy’s thoughts on teamwork and his tips for how a young professional should spend their vacation.

The Truth About “Team-work”


“Nowadays it is the fashion to pretend that no single individual is ever responsible for a successful advertising campaign. This emphasis on “team-work” is bunkum — a conspiracy of the mediocre majority. No advertisement, no commercial, and no image can be created by a committee. Most top managements are secretly aware of this, and keep their eyes open for those rare individuals who lay golden eggs. These champions can no longer be rewarded on the Hopkins scale* but they are the only men in advertising agencies who are immune to the threat of dismissal in times of scarcity. They give value for money.

“Most of the work you do in an agency will be routine maintenance. If you do it well, you will make gradual progress, but your golden opportunity will come when you rise to a great occasion. The trick is to recognise the great occasion when it presents itself.”

*Albert Lasker used to pay the less productive copywriters at Lord & Thomas $100 a week, but he paid Claude Hopkins $50,000 for every $1,000,000 worth of advertising he wrote.

My inner athlete wants to believe this isn’t true but in my experience, Ogilvy is right on the money about this one. Think about any group paper you wrote in College? Did everyone in your group contribute equally? And were each member’s contributions equally valuable? My guess is no and no. The rare individuals rose to the top on occasions like these. Not to say teamwork doesn’t have value. There are plenty of benefits to being a team player but recognize that most great teams will pass the ball to their MVPs when it’s crunch time.

How to Spend Your Next Vacation


“I have come to think that one of the most revealing signs of a young man’s capacity is the use he makes of his vacations. Some fritter away those precious three weeks [think: Netflix], while some get more out of them than all the rest of the year put together. I offer this recipe for refreshing vacations:

“Don’t stay at home and putter around the house. You need a change of scene.

“Take your wife, but leave the children with a neighbour.
Small fry are a pain in the neck on vacation. Shut yourself off from exposure to advertising.

“Take a sleeping pill every night for the first three nights.
Get plenty of fresh air and exercise.

“Read a book every day — twenty-one books in three weeks. (I assume that you have already taken the Book-of-the-Month Club’s rapid reading course, and that you can do 1,000 words a minute.)

“Broaden your horizons by going abroad, even if you have to travel steerage. But don’t travel so much that you come back cross and exhausted.”

If you haven’t read Confessions of an Advertising Man, I highly recommend you do. Ogilvy shares tons of timeless tips on how to succeed in business and life.

Nick Papple
Managing Editor
Success Formula Daily

Get your own copy of Success Formula Daily sent straight to your inbox every weekday. Click here.

Check out what you missed in the last issue here.