What’s Inside Jack Rooney’s Russian Doll?

Casey Gordon | May 19, 2016

“What’s the idea?”

This, Jack Rooney says, is the most important question in the business. Without a clear idea at its core, even the most cinematic commercial of all time — think The Revenant meets 2001 — will fail to move an audience.

David Ogilvy answered this question in 1948 by founding Ogilvy & Mather as an assertion of his strong belief that the best advertising is both an expression of and an investment in the long-term personality of a brand.

Fast forward to 2007: Jack’s first day as Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Chicago. Jack is greeted at his desk by a small Russian nesting doll. He opens it. Opens the smaller one inside it. Opens the smaller one inside that.

Inside the smallest doll he finds a tightly rolled strip of paper, barely the size of an almond. He unrolls it and finds some big words from David Ogilvy:

“If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.”

This message is certainly profound — a reminder that keeping your ego in check and surrounding yourself with people smarter than you is the best guarantor of your own success.

The real wisdom, however, is found in the message’s unorthodox delivery. Concealing the tiny roll of paper in a series of Russian dolls is a metaphor for how everything at Ogilvy, from client work to office culture, is expected to have a powerful idea at its core.

No matter how large Ogilvy grows (450 global offices and counting) or how far forward it pushes the advertising industry, ideas will always make the best anchors.

Jack shares 5 principles at Ogilvy Chicago’s center of gravity:

1. Don’t deal in sound bytes. Create a context of understanding for everything you do and say.

2. Lead with honesty. Share information. Be transparent. This creates shared understanding.

3. Expect accountability. The people you share with should in turn be accountable to you.

4. We sell or else. Four words. They need no interpretation.

5. The Russian Doll Principle. Surround yourself with people who are better than you.

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