The Agency


He was a chef in Paris. Then he was a farmer. Then he was a door-to-door salesman in Scotland. He’d go around selling cooking stoves and making a killing at it. He was so good, in fact, that his boss asked him to write an instruction manual on selling stoves for other salesmen.

He wrote one and titled it, ‘The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker’. Thirty years later, Fortune magazine dubbed it the finest instruction manual ever written.

Still, life was turbulent for the Oxford dropout. He was briefly a farmer and a member of the British Secret Service. He liked flowers, and he knew them by their Latin names. He loved words and big ideas. And he was the one the world would come to know as ‘The Father of Advertising’.

David Ogilvy was almost 40 when he started one of the biggest ad agencies in the world. He was broke, with a wife and a kid, and a list of five big clients he hoped to bag: Shell, General Foods, Campbell’s Soup, Bristol-Myers and Lever Brothers.

It took 11 years to get them all.

Soon he had IBM and Rolls-Royce knocking on his door.

His agency, Ogilvy & Mather, was founded on one of his principles: The function of advertising is to sell and successful advertising is based on information about the consumer.

He was once quoted saying, “The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife.”

In February 2019, 20 years after Ogilvy’s death, with barely any experience, you started your first day as a copywriter in an ad agency. The idea of a nine to five appealed. You couldn’t wait to get the show on the road. It was the perfect way to escape the monotony and general unpleasantness of school, if only for a year or two.

Well, it’s been three months now, and it seems you’re still fumbling about. You still feel like an outsider. Your biggest client is yet to show satisfaction with your work.

‘This copy cannot fly’ is a sentence that appears many times in your inbox. Almost equal to the number of ‘Let’s have this by COB today’.

God, is there an uglier acronym than COB?

Still, you’ve picked up a few things about being in the ad agency.

A client brief could come at any time
That coffee date you had planned with someone’s daughter could be cancelled at the client’s behest. That Saturday plan with your boys could quickly go to the pits. All it needs is some corporate shmuck pressed about missing his targets.

The brief could hit your Email at 5.30 p.m., just as you were about to clock out. And it creates a level of urgency bordering on the anal before politely ending with, “Kindly let’s have this tomorrow morning. Regards, Corporate Shmuck.”

You love to hate it. You really do.

Your copy, no matter how good you think it is, will count for naught if the client doesn’t like it
It really doesn’t matter if you employed some clever word play. You can communicate effectively and capture the product in all its glory. You can read about David Ogilvy as much as you want. But the client has the final say.

A lot of your words may end up in the trash bin.

Don’t take it personally.

 A manager who understands both the client and the creative process will save you lots of time
Otherwise you’ll have lots of back and forth on why the comma is absolutely necessary and the why the word ‘literally’ couldn’t possibly achieve what it hopes to.

You need a manager who knows the road to hell is paved with adverbs. At least.

 It can get hectic. Having good people around helps
When you pick up my bag and come to work in the morning, you always think, Hm, what would happen if I just called in sick and spent the day in my boxers watching ‘Family Guy?’ I mean, who is going to die if that post doesn’t go up?

But then you remember you’re lucky to be working around wonderful people. You share a desk with four other guys and it’s always a jolly good time. Your bank of inside jokes is steadily growing. The ‘Kijana fupi amenona round’ speech? Yup. That cracks you guys up every time.

Whenever the spirit takes you, you play loud music and it’s not entirely surprising to see a can of beer whenever you’re working late. You’re seated within speaking distance of HR, which is a bit like being the prefect’s desk mate. HR doesn’t mind your crass comments about the long hours.

You’re a lot more apt to notice an ad, and be a lot more tolerant of it.

You will sell shit you can’t afford
My first assignment was to sell a Visa card for a bank. This card could grant you access to airport lounges with free travel and medical insurance and discounts on golf equipment. My target was people who had crazy mortgages and upwards of 5mil sitting in their bank accounts.

The target was way out of my league.

The way I go about this, I think of myself as a door-to-door salesman. I pull out my charm and turn on my golden smile. I wear brogues and happy ankle socks. Then, when the target opens his door, I bullshit my way through.

It’s yet to work.

Which brings me to my next point.

It’s a bit like the devil’s work
I’ve never been to an advertising class, but it seems a lot of advertising has to do with desire. You show this person how they couldn’t possibly live without whatever you’re selling. You cajole them into considering your brand of snake oil.

Take one of my clients, for example. She sells chocolate, and she’s rolling out a brand of chocolate targeted towards 25 to 34 year-old men. So how do you tempt a guy to buy chocolate when he only thinks about chocolate twice a year?Many are the minutes I spend sucking on the end of my pencil.

Who knows, maybe if Lucifer had the advertising principles of Ogilvy, perhaps he’d have got Jesus to toss himself over the cliff.

Seeing your words in an ad is like standing naked in front of a mirror.

 You give and give and keep on giving. Small wonder you want a drink at 11 a.m.
You want to please the client. You want to court the consumer. You want to produce your best work and maybe get bumped up to senior copywriter. Maybe have a couple of interns working under you.

During my first week I got introduced to a guy called Fidel, a senior copywriter working in a different department.

Fidel had a monster beard and large hands. He wore leather jackets and he approached copy with a calmness I could only hope to master. Fidel never looked like he needed to go to the bar downstairs to have a drink.

About a month ago Fidel left for another agency.

I’ll look for him and interview him for The Nairobi Millennial series.

One late Friday afternoon, you will find yourself on the back of a boda-boda rushing to a client’s event
You’ll be running late. You will feel the phone vibrate in your pocket from a storm of WhatsApp messages from the client asking why the hell you’re not at the damn event.

“It’s already starting, guy. Let’s be serious.”

You will have told the rider to step on it. You will clench your gluteus maximus as he swerves around the traffic on Waiyaki Way; the wind hitting your face, the sweaty helmet pressed against your cheeks.

And then you’ll suddenly realize how fucking exhausted you are. How drained. And you’ll think, Am I killing myself for this client? What if this speedy boda gets into an accident and I get injured? Will the client send me a get-well-soon card?

Then you’ll put a sock in it and go to work, even though you will have long decided that you’ll not do agency work forever.

And that, for now, you just enjoy the ride.
Follow Mike on Instagram: mikemuthaka

Lights. Camera. Action
While I was away

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our content