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The embarrassing truth about sales – Confession from an Ogilvy CEO

The embarrassing truth about sales – Confession from an Ogilvy CEO

December last year, I was invited – as a card carrying member of a secret cabal of badass entrepreneurs – to spend a day at Ogilvy’s global HQ here in New York, with OgilvyOne CEO Brian Fetherstonhaugh.

These types of mastermind groups are all about soundbites. Naturally, it was entertaining watching a group of mostly Gen Y internet entrepreneurs attempt to get this corporate heavyweight to distill his wisdom down into “Actionable Tactics”.

The session covered Ogilvy’s creative brainstorming process, their five year plan and leadership strategy… and that was before lunch. If I did have to select a single take-away as most mind-blowing, it’d have to be the revelation Brian dropped about his approach to sales.

Simply put, everyone else is doing it wrong. However you’re having sales conversations with your customers, what Brian (and Ogilvy) does is decidedly different. And it’s because they know the humbling – perhaps even embarrassing – truth. 

No one cares about what you’re selling

Brian and his team figured this one out because they operate in the industry where this shocking assertion is perhaps the most true… but don’t let that stop you reading. The principal –though hyper important in the sales of creative marketing services – is present in some aspect of sales and marketing in every industry. 

No one is immune 

As CEO, Brian is still a sales guy. He’d call it “relationship building” because that’s what sales really is. His job is to ensure Ogilvy remains tight with the handful of corporate CEO’s and CMO’s who see fit to retain their services as a creative marketing vendor.

These are the big ladies and gentlemen of business – Fortune 100 C-suite executives – and they are Brian’s customer.

And they don’t give a shit about what he’s selling them.

A corporate CMO has many concerns on his or her mind and Brian is humble enough to realize that Ogilvy’s latest proposal is just one tiny sliver of that mind-pie. His strategy for retaining key clients is to become these decision maker’s very best friends.

That means knowing what they really care about

Brian told us about one anonymized example of a client, who – while lesser sales people were desperately pitching terribly “important” ideas to – was stressing about his son’s application for an ivy league college. While also worrying about his situation with the wife at home. While also politically maneuvering to move up the corporate ladder. While also tossing up the possibility of responding to one of those headhunters offering greener grass someplace else.

Picture this person, with these concerns (and others), sitting in a pitch meeting with creative marketing guys asking for the big close. One side of the table is shooting for one of the biggest deals of their career to date, the other is simply in their fifth such meeting this morning.

The truth is that Ogilvy’s fee – even for an enormous project, eve for one of their biggest clients – might represent less than ten percent of the client’s total annual marketing budget. This means that even a CMO, who’s paid to care about such things, sees Ogilvy’s pitch as fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

In a pie chart of the customer’s mindshare, “Marketing” itself might be a 30% segment… and the actual project Ogilvy is pitching for? Less than a tenth of that slice.

The client doesn’t care 

It’s obvious why Brian maneuvers himself into a life-coach and confidant position with his customers. By building rapport on the issues the customer really cares about, he can push through the proposals they don’t.

Now you’re probably thinking: I’m not selling things to Fortune 100 executives! This doesn’t apply to me! 

The embarrassing truth about selling is that the customer rarely cares as much as you do. 

The other day Seth Godin told us the most important question we can ask is: Do they trust me enough to believe my promises?

Trust is super important, but does what you’re selling offer such earth shattering impact that it’s truly “front of mind” for your prospective customer?

Ogilvy is humble and smart enough to know that, most of the time, blowing the customer away with results can only happen well after the sale is closed. They strive to become important as incumbent vendors. They know that in the pitching phase of sales, the customer has other things on their mind.

There are a tiny handful of exceptions to the rule

Industries and products that genuinely ensnare close to 100% of prospective customer’s mind share do exist. First home real estate comes to mind. Plus some of the hype driven event marketing pitches that temporarily bamboozle prospects into believing the ONLY thing that matters is the offer in front of them.

I’m also fortunate enough to sell something that is pretty damn important to the people who need it.

Exceptions aside, for the most part people don’t care about what you’re selling. Ogilvy has built a direct sales strategy, with the most sophisticated customers in the world, around the simple principal that Everything Else is (more) Important Too. 

Even if you’re not in direct sales, or even pitching at the business-to-business level, you can and should be engaging your customer’s true concerns. 

The things people chronically worry about are, by definition, the things they’re getting the least support for. That means there’s a void to be filled, where folks aren’t being served. The opportunity to engage and connect is enormous.

Your customers aren’t sitting around meditatively contemplating your products and services, so what are they dwelling on? How can you help?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll crush sales. Just like an Ogilvy CEO.


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  1. What a superb article! I planned my day last night and was just hitting the ground for the day with a plan to reach out to / pitch a long list of potential clients so this was well received! Thank you.

  2. I teach salespeople how to develop a deep relationship of *mutual* trust and respect with most prospects in less than 1/2 hour. The relationships *must* be mutual and they happen at the level of intuitive emotions.

    1. Hey Jacques,

      Sounds like a great process that you teach! That said, investing in developing relationships shouldn’t stop 1/2 an hour in… the Ogilvy CEO keeps up with that focus for his entire customer lifetime. Although I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that!

  3. One of the first things I learned selling rooms at my family bed and breakfast growing up was “How can I help you?” and then “How can I really help you?”… when you really want to help and you really want to learn about the person… Helping them and finding a solution together is easy. Often the sale happens without you thinking about it. Later when learning how to sell software I learned GPCT or Goal, Plan, Challenge, Timeline… But even today I hear people ask… “What is your goal on blank? or with blank?”… They assume they are interested in Blank – instead of asking in general “what is YOUR goal?” and being focused on the person. Maybe their goal is to move up in the company and they are looking for a way to look awesome. They could give a @#&! about what you are selling… Unless you can help them with their personal goal. Sales is about helping people.

    1. This is an approach to sales in sure many people would agree with, building solid relationships. Unfortunately many companies require such a fast turn around on the sales process people move to quickly and overlook the importance of this.

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