In 1984, iconic advertising executive and real-life Mad Man David Ogilvy received a letter from his 18-year-old great nephew, Harry. Having just finished school, Harry was now faced with the common dilemma of whether to go to university or jump straight into full-time work, and so asked his highly respected relative for some wisdom on the matter. Ogilvy responded with the following multiple choice letter of advice.
(Source: The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners; Image: David Ogilvy, courtesy of Ads of the World.)
June 6, 1984
You ask me whether you should spend the next three years at university, or get a job. I will give you three different answers. Take your pick.
Answer A. You are ambitious. Your sights are set on going to the top, in business or government. Today’s big corporations cannot be managed by uneducated amateurs. In these high-tech times, they need top bananas who have doctorates in chemistry, physics, engineering, geology, etc.
Even the middle managers are at a disadvantage unless they boast a university degree and an MBA. In the United States, 18 percent of the population has a degree, in Britain, only 7 percent. Eight percent of Americans have graduate degrees, compared with 1 percent of Brits. That more than anything else is why American management outperforms British management.
Same thing in government. When I was your age, we had the best civil service in the world. Today, the French civil servants are better than ours because they are educated for the job in the postgraduate Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while ours go straight from Balliol to Whitehall. The French pros outperform the British amateurs.
Anyway, you are too young to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you spend the next few years at university, you will get to know the world – and yourself – before the time comes to choose your career.
Answer B. Stop frittering away your time in academia. Stop subjecting yourself to the tedium of textbooks and classrooms. Stop cramming for exams before you acquire an incurable hatred for reading.
Escape from the sterile influences of dons, who are nothing more than pickled undergraduates.
The lack of a college degree will only be a slight handicap in your career. In Britain, you can still get to the top without a degree. What industry and government need at the top is not technocrats but leaders. The character traits which make people scholars in their youth are not the traits which make them leaders in later life.
You put up with education for 12 boring years. Enough is enough.
Answer C. Don’t judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is – a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life. My father was a failure in business, but he read Horace in the loo until he died, poor but happy.
If you enjoy being a scholar, and like the company of scholars, go to a university. Who knows, you may end your days as a Regius Professor. And bear in mind that British universities are still the best in the world – at the undergraduate level. Lucky you. Winning a Nobel Prize is more satisfying than being elected Chairman of some large corporation or becoming a Permanent Undersecretary in Whitehall.
You have a first-class mind. Stretch it. If you have the opportunity to go to a university, don’t pass it up. You would never forgive yourself.
Tons of love,