Book Review: THE KING OF MADISON AVENUE by Kenneth Roman

The King of Madison Avenue by Kenneth RomanHe was an ultra-successful door-to-door salesman for Aga stoves. He was an Oxford dropout. He was a chef in a famous French kitchen. He was a spy during WWII. He was a researcher with George Gallup. He was a farmer and an expert on Amish life. He was an advertising legend. He was David Ogilvy.

In his new biography, The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising, author Ken Roman details the life and times of one of the most interesting, eccentric, and brilliant minds of the 20th century.

Roman, a former colleague of Ogilvy’s and one-time CEO of the firm Ogilvy & Mather, gives readers an inside look at David Ogilvy, advertising genius and creator of some of the most well known advertising campaigns in history. The Rolls Royce tagline Ogilvy wrote in 1958 is still considered by many advertising experts to be the greatest tagline of all time: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock.” Roman details this and many more of Ogilvy’s advertising exploits, but these stories are only a prelude to the heart of this book, which is all business.

Cleverly disguised as a riveting biography, Roman’s book is actually a tome on business management. Regardless of your interest in advertising, marketing, or public relations, this book has much to offer every business executive about management and what it takes to build a successful business.

For example, readers learn how Ogilvy was able to take a small, London-based advertising firm with virtually no U.S. clients and turn it into one of the most powerful communications companies in the world? He achieved this feat by drawing from his sundry experiences as a salesman, chef, college dropout, spy, farmer, and researcher to build a company and culture that attracted, fostered, and retained some of the best minds and best clients in the world.  One example of Ogilvy’s unique leadership and management style comes from his use of Russian Matryoshka dolls. Ogilvy would periodically send these dolls to each of his company’s directors. Inside the largest doll was a smaller doll. Inside the smaller doll was an even smaller doll, and so on. Inside the very smallest doll was a note from Ogilvy that read: “If we hire people who are smaller than we are, we will become a company of dwarfs. If we hire people who are larger than we are, we’ll become a company of giants.”

Ogilvy, in stark contrast to many modern day business executives, constantly communicated his philosophies, thoughts, concerns, successes, and ideas via notes, letters, memos, drop-in visits, books, speeches, Russian Dolls, and “Magic Lanterns” (slide and film presentations given by Ogilvy to new hires). When you went to work for Ogilvy & Mather, you weren’t just going to work for any company. You were going to work for the company with the red carpet in the hallways and the high ideals. Ogilvy used to compare his firm to a great hospital. Ogilvy said, “Great hospitals do two things: They look after patients, and they teach young doctors. Ogilvy & Mather does two things: We look after clients, and we touch young advertising people.”

At times, Roman gets mired down in tedious details about the history of advertising and those who shaped it. Those readers who have a true interest in the field of advertising will appreciate the detail, but the average reader will find himself wanting to skip ahead to the timeless business lessons. Roman, an advertising man through-and-through, can’t be faulted for his devotion to his craft.  But don’t let these sections deter you from soaking in the aspects of this book that will alter the way you run your business.

In parting, let me leave you with a few of my favorite Ogilvy management maxims:

“There is nothing so demoralizing as a boss who tolerates second-rate work.”

“If you ever find a man who is better than you are, hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

“Only first-class business and that in a first-class way.”

“First, make yourself a reputation for being a creative genius. Second, surround yourself with partners who are better than you are. Third, leave them to go get on with it.”

“The most effective leader is the one who satisfies the psychological needs of his followers.”

“When people aren’t having fun, they seldom produce good advertising. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.”

– R. Stephen Prather, Guest Reviewer


  1. The 4literacy promo needs to be updated, it seems to be taking 1.5% off orders as opposed to the 15% advertised.

  2. Stephen Kurtz says:

    Not a bad review of an eccentric genius who must have been very inspiring in spite of a colossal ego, poor manners, and workaholic habits.

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