Powerful advice on getting clients from advertising legend David Ogilvy

The other day, while sitting at my desk, I looked over at my bookshelf. I do this often. It’s part of how I think. I come across a problem, and I turn my head to the left and gaze at the shelf – I don’t really see it, I’m in my thoughts, but for some reason that’s where my eyes want to look.

But the thought I was thinking through was interrupted, because as I stared at my books, one stared back.

“Confessions of an Advertising Man” by David Ogilvy seemed to look right at me and say, “Go on, pick me up.”

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So I did.

And I came across some great,  common sense, down-to-earth advice on getting clients and growth I wanted to pass your way.

1. Don’t expect riches from the start.

“This is a new agency, struggling for its life. For some time we shall be overworked and underpaid.”

If you’re brand new to the scene, don’t expect to start off getting high paid, reputable gigs. You need two things to grow:

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  1. A body of work that whets clients’ appetites
  2. References / testimonials from reputable businesses that lift you up and tell the world, in other people’s words, how great you are

That means, for a while, you may even need to do free work. This is how we got our start. But be selective about it:

Seek out reputable organizations, charities, and public figures with terrible brands or websites. Offer to re-build them at no cost, and explain that: 1) you really respect them and would love to give back, 2) you’re building your portfolio and having their name on it would go a long way.

“An agency’s first clients are the hardest to get, because it has no credentials, no record of success, no reputation.”

Don’t underestimate how important that stuff really is.

Build a great portfolio, and selling new clients will be fairly simple.

2. Be eager (and thoughts on “spec work” – the “dirty word” of our trade)

“In 1958 we were invited by Standard Oil (New Jersey) to show them what kind of advertising we would run if they were to hire us. Ten days later I presented them with a hamper of fourteen different campaigns, and won the account.”

“Spec work” to designers is like saying “Voldemort” in Harry Potter’s world.

But if you don’t have a thriving client base, or there’s a “big fish” you’d really love to work with, spec work might be the way to go.

Ogilvy thought so too, as you can see in the quote above.

I only recommend it if you’re specifically approaching a client you’d really be honored to work with – or if a client of similar stature is approaching you (and you know them to be reputable and not just trying to extract free work).

Showing up at someone’s doorstep with an amazing direction for their brand that knocks their socks off is hard to say no to.

Just some food for thought 😉

3. Don’t be eager

Ogilvy didn’t maintain that zealous, eager approach to client-getting as he grew. Here’s one such story:

“… [the client] invited [us] and four others to prepare speculative campaigns… [Ogilvy said], ‘We have prepared nothing. Instead we would like you to tell us about your problems. Then you can visit the other four agencies on your list. They have all prepared speculative campaigns. If you like any of them, your choice will be easy. If you don’t, come back and hire us. We will then embark on the research which always precedes the preparation of advertisements at our agency.’ ”

Contrary to the advice in the previous section, Ogilvy refused to create spec work in this example.

But by then, he’d already established himself, was confident in his agency’s capabilities, and refused to put his team through the grueling task of creating spec work when, frankly, they’d be just fine without this client.

This also lends itself to a powerful confidence play that really sets you apart when a client is weighing you against others:

A willingness to walk away.

When everyone else is groveling for the job, and you’re calm and detached, you present a confidence that’s not easily forgotten.

This can backfire though. Ogilvy later describes an account he lost for being too “cool.” The client said he didn’t think Ogilvy really wanted the job because he showed no excitement.

So really, listen to your gut and do what feels right to you. You’ll get a sense of when clients need that cool confidence, and when they need to feel passion and excitement.

4. A strategy that never fails

“There is one stratagem which seems to work in almost every case: get the prospect to do most of the talking. The more you listen, the wiser he thinks you are.”

In a 2-part blog post I published here at Millo a couple years ago, I broke down our phone process for speaking with clients that lands us ~9/10 projects. (Here’s part 1 and part 2.)

It’s essentially a guide to how to ask the right questions to clients, then shut up and listen to what they have to say.

In dealing with everything from restaurants to marketing agencies to spouses, people face a similar problem in our society: they don’t feel heard.

If you can make a client feel like you really hear them and care, you’ll probably land the gig.

5. The easiest way to get new clients

“The easiest way to get new clients is to do good advertising. During one period of seven years, we never failed to win an account for which we competed, and all I did was to show the campaigns we had created. Sometimes, I did not even have to do that. One afternoon, a man walked into my office without an appointment and gave me the IBM account; he knew our work.”

Whatever project you’re working on right now, think of it like this:

You’re going to show it to your next potential client. Is it good enough to land the sale on its own?

6. “Physician, heal thyself”

“It puzzles me why so few agencies advertise themselves.”

When I ask freelancers how they get clients, the answer is almost always “word of mouth.”

While that’s great – it’s also inconsistent. You’re essentially sitting around, waiting for other people to, by chance, come across an opportunity to recommend your name.

If you can produce results for others, produce them for yourself. Create a website that sells you (here are some tips I wrote in another Millo post a while back, and here are some more) and advertise.

With Google Adwords, Facebook ads, etc., you can literally get your website out there in minutes.

This is pretty much how we get all of our clients these days. Word of mouth comes in too, but we don’t depend on it.

7. How Ogilvy landed his dream clients

When Ogilvy started out, he made a list of the clients he wanted. In time, he got them all.


By going after them.

You can do the same. Make a list of the clients you’d love to create work for, and reach out to them.

Tell them who you are, what you want to do for them, and why. And don’t shy away on the part where you answer, “Why them?”

No one is above flattery 🙂

Will you face rejection? Absolutely. But keep following up, every few months or so, or even more frequently.

Eventually something will come up, some circumstance will happen, where they need your services, and you’ll be the first person they think of.

What should you say in your follow up?

Keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in that company, and reflect on it in your emails.

“I saw the project you recently launched, [insert project name], and wanted to congratulate you. It’s truly wonderful. I loved the [insert details you admire].”

In every email, you don’t need to remind them that you want to work for them. Just every now and again include a P.S. that says something like: “P.S. Have any projects emerged that you need help on? I’d be honored to submit a proposal. Thanks again.”

What about you? Have you landed on advice from Ogilvy or any other great advertiser past or present that’s really stuck with you?

Leave me a comment and tell me about it. I’d love to hear.

(All quotes above come from “Confessions of an Advertising Man” and “Ogilvy on Advertising” by David Ogilvy.)

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    1. Glad you liked it, Mark 🙂 I agree – I love his no-nonsense, down-to-earth-ness 🙂

      Take care,

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