Kenneth Roman: Become a company of Giants

Kenneth Roman: Become a company of Giants

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This is Moe Abdou. I am delighted today to have Ken Roman with me. Not only is Ken a bestselling author, and his latest book The King of Madison Avenue was just a great portrait of David Ogilvy. I remember reading a lot of Ken’s work years ago when he wrote a fabulous book on writing. Hopefully, we can get into that a little bit today.

Ken, thank you so much for joining us.

I’m happy to be here.

I want to start with your friend, David Ogilvy. You have an absolutely beautiful portrait in The King of Madison Avenue about David; a lot of things that I didn’t know although I studied a lot of his work. As I was reading it, a question popped into my mind. What didn’t the world know about David?

That’s the right question. David wrote about himself a lot. I almost didn’t write this book because he had told his story in several books, in his autobiography, articles and the interviews. What else is there to say?

There are a lot of things that I had found but the most important thing I found is this, David was seen at the time, and to a large extent still is, as a creative genius. During the 50s and 60s, he wrote about half a dozen highly esteemed campaigns. He is in Copywriter’s Hall of Fame and all that stuff.

The thing that most people didn’t understand and that I think your audience should understand is that he was an instinctive leader. He was an institution builder. The way he built his agency is very instructive.

You know what, because that pop. I’m going to jump to my question number 5 that I had on my list and maybe it’s appropriate to talk about it right now. I’m really curious, what kind of a leader was David. How was it to work with him?

He didn’t learn anything in a business school or an MBA. He didn’t even finish college. He said he was thrown out of Oxford but he really dropped out; but he studied. He studied successful people and successful organizations. He interviewed people or I should say he interrogated them. He learned from successful people.

The thing that I can’t figure out is how the hell did he do it? He didn’t have any business experience, none. He was a chef in Paris. He sold cooking stoves in Scotland door-to-door. He worked with George Gallup in Hollywood doing research in the movie business. He was a farmer in Pennsylvania. He worked in the British Secret Service during World War II. He had no exposure to business or advertising. How did he do it?

The first thing he did is he observed. He learned from every experience. For example, he went to work in a French kitchen. That’s the one in Paris. He watched the head chef, Monsieur Pitard. This is something I think the people who are listening to this broadcast would appreciate. How do you keep these hot-tempered French cooks who are yelling at each other and throwing food in line? The first thing he did, he learned leadership from Monsieur Pitard. He also learned high standards. One day he was working on some brioche or something and Pitard says, “My David, what is not perfect is bad,” so high leadership and high standards.

Then he goes up to Scotland to sell cooking stoves and he sells them door-to-door at the depths of the Depression and he becomes their most successful salesman. That turned him into a salesman. He said, “I learned no sales, no commission — no commission, no eat. That left a mark on me.”

And then he goes out to Hollywood and he works with George Gallup doing original research in the movie business. He learned about the value of research. So all along the way, he was studying, learning, and growing and then he wrote everything down and he instilled it into our agency through training programs.

When he came to New York, he befriended Marvin Bower, the man who built McKinsey, and he studied McKinsey. McKinsey believed in training so he put in training programs. That’s the thing that holds McKinsey together and it very much held Ogilvy & Mather together.