David Ogilvy 19 unconventional rules for freelancers

by Rob Williams | Last Updated: June 3, 2018

David Ogilvy quotes are the best.

The man who made advertising an art-form, unsurprisingly put out some great thoughts in word-form via books, quotes, and more.

This post is a look at his approach.

“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.” – David Ogilvy

How did I compile this list? I searched through his books and put all his advice on getting clients in one place. Here are David Ogilvy’s 19 rules that guided one of the most important aspects of his career: selling to clients one-on-one.

  1. Regard the hunt for new clients as a sport. David believed in getting dead serious about new business after he landed it. Until then — save yourself from dying of ulcers over lost clients. Approach the search for new clients with “light-hearted gusto”. Play to win but enjoy the fun.
  2. Never work for a client so big you can’t afford to lose them. Why? The fear of losing them, alone, will wreck your life. You will be unable to give candid advice. Ogilvy famously turned down Ford, saying: “Your account would represent one-half of our total billing. This would make it difficult for us to sustain our independence in council.”
  3. Take immense pain in selecting your clients. On average, Ogilvy would turn down about 60 clients a year. You too should be choosing clients before they choose you. The truth is first-class agencies aren’t in high supply. You have the power to select who you work with, so do it carefully.
  4. Only add 1 new client every 2 years. You want to keep the clients you have. For life. That should be your #1 goal. And if you’re working with great clients and keeping them, then you’ll need only a few clients. David Ogilvy also discovered other reasons adding too many new clients hurt his business. Growing too fast led to hiring too fast. This led to not having well-trained staff. That led to diverting too much of his agencies best brain power away from servicing old clients and failing at keeping clients for life. Plus starting new clients off is often the most difficult work; because you’re building everything from scratch. So screw finding new clients, keep old ones.
  5. Only seek clients with a product or service you are proud of. Unlike lawyers and doctors, professionals in the creative field can’t detach themselves from their work. If you privately despise your client’s product or service, you will fail. You need to have a personal fondness for the client you service before you can help them succeed.
  6. Only accept a client if you can improve their existing work. Ogilvy was famous for turning down the New York Times because he “didn’t think (he) could produce better advertisements than the brilliant ones they had been running.” Don’t think you can create better work than what’s already there? Don’t take on the client.
  7. Don’t take on clients whose business is dying. This can be tough when you need work, but if a client approaches you who you know won’t be able to stay in business, regardless of if they hire you, don’t take them on. It doesn’t matter how great your work is, nothing you do will make up for their deficiencies. You may be hungry for work, but the success of your clients, ultimately defines you. Your profit margin is too slim to survive a prospective client’s bankruptcy.
  8. Only work for clients who want you to make a profit. Just because you produce results for a client doesn’t mean you will automatically see those profits come your way. Every client service firm treads a thin line between over-servicing clients and going broke, or under-servicing them and getting fired. Make sure your client’s understand that you too are making money — by helping them make money. Make sure they understand you are planning to take a percentage of their profit (however small). Don’t shy away from it and don’t pretend otherwise.
  9. Don’t publicly pursue clients. If a client announced they were considering hiring Ogilvy, he would withdraw his company from the race. His reason? “I like to succeed in public, fail in secret.”
  10. Getting new clients is a solo performance. The person who decides to hire you is almost always the top decision maker at the company. David believed, “Chairmen should be harangued by chairmen.” Additionally, he felt having too many people on sales calls caused confusion. That’s why singularity is an important ingredient in winning accounts.
  11. Remain flexible when selling clients. It’s OK to rehearse for sales calls but David hated speaking from prepared text. A slide deck or written text locks you into a position which may become irrelevant during the meeting.
  12. Tell prospects about your weaknesses. David picked this up from antique dealers. He realized that when a dealer drew your attention to a flaw in the furniture, he almost always gained your trust. If you do this too — before the client notices your flaws on their own, you will also gain their trust. It will make you more credible when you boast about your strong points.
  13. Don’t get bogged down in case-studies or research numbers. These things put prospects to sleep. “No manufacturer ever hired an agency because it increased market-share for somebody else.” Clients care about themselves, talk about them.
  14. Explicitly tell clients why they should hire you. The day after a new business a new client meeting, David would send the client a 3-page letter on why they should pick him. Today you can send an equally brief email to help clients make the right decision.
  15. Don’t pay an outside source a commission for new business. David Ogilvy believed the type of clients this brought in weren’t worth the trouble. Today commission-based lead finders include recruiters, head-hunters, and even other freelancers.
  16. Beware of clients who have no budget but a great idea. Even though they might become huge if everything goes well, it’s more likely that things won’t go well. Servicing these companies will be expensive for you and very few of them will ever make it worth your while.
  17. Don’t underestimate personality. The difference between client service firms is not as big as we like to believe. Most can show they produced results that increased sales for some of their clients. Very often the difference in new business depends on the personality of the head of the agency. Know you will win and lose some clients because of your personality.
  18. Fire clients at least 5 times more often than you get fired. Always do it for the same reason: if their behavior erodes the morale of the people working on their account. Do not allow this from any client.
  19. Use what you specialize in to find new clients. David Ogilvy created ads selling his ad agency. You should dog-food your own service too. So how does your work help clients? Can it help you in the same way? For example, do you help them find customers by creating content? Create content for your agency. Do you do graphic design? Create infographics for potential clients. The trick will be to not just make things that you like or impress people in your industry, but to make things that impress potential clients.

Find this list helpful? Awesome. But there’s one more thing I didn’t include. I discovered David Ogilvy’s greatest struggle when finding clients when doing research for this article and it was something a lot of independent freelancers and agencies still struggle with today. Can you guess what it is?

“Try as I may, I have never been able to space the acquisition of new accounts at convenient intervals. For months on end, nothing happens. I begin to wonder if we will ever get another account. My staff becomes despondent. Then we get three beauties in rapid succession, and the load of urgent work becomes unbearable. The only solution is to build a waiting list of would- be clients, and to admit them one by one at times of our own choosing. That will be the day.”

Are you struggling from the same feast-or-famine consulting that David Ogilvy did? The solution is Folyo my project alert newsletter for UX design firms.  

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