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The King of Madison Avenue (Unplugged)


A conversation between Kenneth Roman & Moe Abdou
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The King of Madison Avenue (Unplugged) !Kenneth Roman with Moe Abdou
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About Kenneth Roman & Moe Abdou

Kenneth Roman

Kenneth Roman is an accomplished author, board member and former


Chairman/CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide - the highly regarded
advertising and communications firm founded by David Ogilvy. Ken joined
Ogilvy & Mather in 1963 as an assistant account executive and served as
its Chairman from 1985 to 1989. In his 26 years with the agency, he was
influential in securing major clients including American Express, Unilever,
Kimberly-Clark and General Foods.

Moe Abdou

Moe Abdou is the creator of 33voices — a global conversation about things


that matter in business and in life. moe@33voices.com

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This is Moe Abdou. I am delighted today to have Ken Roman with me. Not
only is Ken a bestselling author, and his latest book The King of Madison
Avenue was just a great portrait of David Ogilvy. I remember reading a lot
of Ken’s work years ago when he wrote a fabulous book on writing.
Hopefully, we can get into that a little bit today.

Ken, thank you so much for joining us.

I’m happy to be here.

I want to start with your friend, David Ogilvy. You have an absolutely
beautiful portrait in The King of Madison Avenue about David; a lot of
things that I didn’t know although I studied a lot of his work. As I was
reading it, a question popped into my mind. What didn’t the world know
about David?

That’s the right question. David wrote about himself a lot. I almost didn’t write
this book because he had told his story in several books, in his autobiography,
articles and the interviews. What else is there to say?

There are a lot of things that I had found but the most important thing I found
is this, David was seen at the time, and to a large extent still is, as a creative
genius. During the 50s and 60s, he wrote about half a dozen highly esteemed
campaigns. He is in Copywriter’s Hall of Fame and all that stuff.

The thing that most people didn’t understand and that I think your audience
should understand is that he was an instinctive leader. He was an institution
builder. The way he built his agency is very instructive.

You know what, because that pop. I’m going to jump to my question
number 5 that I had on my list and maybe it’s appropriate to talk about it
right now. I’m really curious, what kind of a leader was David. How was it
to work with him?

He didn’t learn anything in a business school or an MBA. He didn’t even finish


college. He said he was thrown out of Oxford but he really dropped out; but he
studied. He studied successful people and successful organizations. He
interviewed people or I should say he interrogated them. He learned from
successful people.

The thing that I can’t figure out is how the hell did he do it? He didn’t have any
business experience, none. He was a chef in Paris. He sold cooking stoves in
Scotland door-to-door. He worked with George Gallup in Hollywood doing

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research in the movie business. He was a farmer in Pennsylvania. He worked in


the British Secret Service during World War II. He had no exposure to business
or advertising. How did he do it?

The first thing he did is he observed. He learned from every experience. For
example, he went to work in a French kitchen. That’s the one in Paris. He
watched the head chef, Monsieur Pitard. This is something I think the people
who are listening to this broadcast would appreciate. How do you keep these
hot-tempered French cooks who are yelling at each other and throwing food in
line? The first thing he did, he learned leadership from Monsieur Pitard. He also
learned high standards. One day he was working on some brioche or something
and Pitard says, “My David, what is not perfect is bad,” so high leadership and
high standards.

Then he goes up to Scotland to sell cooking stoves and he sells them door-to-
door at the depths of the Depression and he becomes their most successful
salesman. That turned him into a salesman. He said, “I learned no sales, no
commission -- no commission, no eat. That left a mark on me.”

And then he goes out to Hollywood and he works with George Gallup doing
original research in the movie business. He learned about the value of research.
So all along the way, he was studying, learning, and growing and then he wrote
everything down and he instilled it into our agency through training programs.

When he came to New York, he befriended Marvin Bower, the man who built
McKinsey, and he studied McKinsey. McKinsey believed in training so he put in
training programs. That’s the thing that holds McKinsey together and it very
much held Ogilvy & Mather together.

Ken you mentioned something that I think is very important. Yet, a lot of
people would say that I do understand the fact that if you follow and learn
and model successful people your chances of succeeding are probably
improved. Why do you think it’s difficult for people to follow through on
that? Is it offensive intimidation maybe of successful people because all of
us can go do that?

There is a reason why biographies sell well. You read stories of successful
people and you learn from them. I think most people do model them. The issue
is how can they put these things into action? You asked, what’s it’s like working
with him. First of all it was fun. He was fun and he was funny. He wasn’t just a
sober guy walking around giving out orders. The way he did everything had a
touch of drama in it. He was never boring.

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For example, there was a meeting of the board of directors and he had taken
these Russian nesting dolls, you know, big one small one inside with the
smallest one all the way down. He had put one in front of each of the directors
then they came in and he said, “That’s you open it up.” So big dolls, smaller
doll, smaller doll and around the smallest doll, he had put a piece of paper
around the tiniest doll.

He said, “If you hire people who were smaller than you are, we’ll become a
company of dwarves. If you hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall
be a company of giants.” So he said, “Hire big people; people who are better
than you. Pay them more than you have if necessary. That’s how we build a
great agency.” If he had said, “We should hire better people, ” everybody
would have saluted and said, yeah and forgotten it in 10 minutes. Nobody
forgot the Russian dolls. He dramatized the important management principles.

You say people don’t pay attention to other people in terms of studying them.
I’m not sure that’s the case. They observe. So they say, this organization hires
great people. But if you say, hire people who are better than you, that takes
some courage and you got to be told to do that.

You know what, that’s a great point because I briefly shared with you that
for 24 years, I had a wealth management firm. It’s really funny because my
number one responsibility was always hiring and developing individuals
and entrepreneurial individuals. That little quote has been on my desk
literally for years and years and years. If we can get into that segment for
a second, I’m curious, tell me about the biggest person you hired.

It’s a good question. I didn’t make too many bad hires. I made one bad hire. I
should have fired him right away but I didn’t. That’s a very good question Moe.

It isn’t just a big person. For example, we had a creative director in New York
who was doing a good job. He is a bit of a clown. Nobody took him seriously. I
did because he did some great ads. One day, I said, “We need a new head of
our Los Angeles office,” and I moved him out there. People said, “You’re
moving Jerry out to Los Angeles? You got to be crazy.”

I mean, he was an okay creative director and he’s never run anything. I said,
my feeling is that that office -- which had Mattel and clients like that in
Southern California -- needed a creative head, a creative person as the head of
the office.

Jerry turned out to be a homerun. He was a star out there. He fit right in to
the culture. It was an eccentric casting. It wasn’t right out of the mold. He

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grew into that job. That was one of m better decisions. It wasn’t higher but it
certainly was a successful move. I built a different career. He became the best
known advertising man on the West Coast.

That’s a brilliant eye for talent.

Well, you have to figure out what it is the job needs. I sent another guy from
New York over to run our Unilever account in London and he built it in to our
largest client in the world.

I’ll tell you a good one I hired. When I took over the agency, American Express
was a highly regarded account creatively but we never made much money on it.
Everybody is fighting about fees. It really wasn’t a great success within the
agency. Outside, it was very highly regarded.

And then Lou Gerstner, who later became head of IBM, took over at American
Express. He had just come from McKinsey. I said, “The nice people who have
been working on the American Express account, he’s going to eat them for
breakfast.” I think I better make a change.

In the meantime, I came across a fellow who was at Citibank. I had met
originally at General Foods so he knew consumer packaged goods. He was vice
president of marketing at Citibank. He said, “I don’t like being a banker. I want
to get out of here.” So I hired him. I said, “If I’m going to pick somebody to
work on the American Express account, I want somebody who is trained in the
disciplines of packaged goods marketing but also understands financial
services.”

Well, Brendan Ryan went down, I brought him in. I moved him on one account
then he went on the American Express account. He was a star. Within a couple
of years, American Express had replaced Unilever as our largest client in the
world. We had changed the compensation plan and it became our largest, most
successful and most profitable account in every regard as well as being a great
creative account.

The point I’m trying to make is, I figured out what the client needed. I got
somebody who had those skills and I brought them in and it worked perfectly.
Does it always work? No. I told you, I made a couple of bad ones. That was
good one. He was a great success.

Obviously, that level of thinking was embedded in your culture. There is no


question that the agency was the gold standard and is still the gold
standard in the world.

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Tell me how you guys continually build that culture where the level of
confidence for anybody in that agency was embedded in them? That hey, I
can go out and hire people better than me, older than me, more respected
than me and have the confidence to work with them and coach them?

Some of that comes from David Ogilvy himself. He created a culture that was
Ameritocracy. A lot of people say those things but he really did it. He had no
time for prejudice of any kind. He hired women. He offered hiring women,
minorities. Business, for a long time, was nothing but a WASP culture in the 50s
and the 60s then it started to change.

Ogilvy also said, we won’t hire relatives of clients or relatives of anybody in the
agency. He said, no spouses, no nepots and no nepotism. You rose or fail on the
basis of merit only. You could have no favoritism. So that was where it started
with the founder.

We really took training very seriously. Training was regarded as a privilege. You
couldn’t get in to our training programs unless you had a fairly good
performance rating. Everybody who came in went through an indoctrination
program. After that, you would have a certain performance level in order to
get into our training programs.

Furthermore, as you rose up in the company, if you didn’t participate in the


training program as a teacher, who said, we can’t promote you much more.
Because if you’re not doing the teaching around this place, who is going to do
it? We didn’t go out and buy training programs. We created our own training
programs and those are very much in the McKinsey model.

Let me give you a McKinsey story. When Harvey Golub, who later became
chairman of American Express and a few other things, was at McKinsey, he was
the youngest partner, the youngest guy to make partner. He was one of the
highest producing partners in terms of financial results. They took him at the
height of his career and they said, we’re going to take you off 50% of your
assignments for a year and a half, or something like that. We want you to
rebuild our training programs.

They took one of their most productive partners, one of their best partners,
not the one who wasn’t doing much. They took a successful guy and said, we
want you to really recast our training programs. For most companies, what
would they do? They would say, we couldn’t take this guy off that account
because he’s too important. He’s producing that revenue. We’ll take so and so
who is not doing much. So you have the least good people creating the training
program. You got to turn the logic upside down.

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That’s what’s so impressive about your work about the agency and the
things you guys have done. While some people think it was unconventional
wisdom; to everybody, I’m assuming in that agency, that’s the way that
you did things. You hire great people. You train them really, really well.
You pay them well and then it gives them the sense of confidence to go out
and get big accounts.

Well, not even just do big accounts, to do great work for clients. That’s what’s
really importany. You see, everybody is always talking about new business.
How do you get new business? We found that year after year, no matter how
we cut it, about 60% of all of our new business came from current clients.
That’s a very important concept.

That is, if you really did a great job for a client, that client would find new
things for you to do; new products, new services, new projects. Or, that person
would move to another division in the company and say, “Hey, we need Ogilvy
over here.” Or, they move to another country or they move to another
company.

Lou Gerstner left American Express and after one other job, then became chief
executive at IBM. He fired all of IBMs 20 or 30 agencies and hired Ogilvy &
Mather, there was the largest new business win in the history of the business.
That came from doing great work for him at American Express.

I’m a huge advocate of that Ken. Let me ask you this question, how about
the other 40%? What type of work was involved in securing that other 40%?
I’m assuming a lot of the listeners out there today understand the
reputation that you guys have built. What is the thinking process of
acquiring the other 40%?

No two accounts are the same. No businesses are the same. It’s all different.

In our business, in the advertising business, we did research as to why people


hire us or didn’t hire us and what they are looking for in an agency. So you do
some research to understand what your strengths and your weaknesses are and
what prospects and clients want. We found a very simple formula which I’m
going to make too simplistic for you.

In the advertising business, you win new business on your creative work not on
your marketing, not on your global network, not on your marketing service, not
on your media. You win it on the ability to produce creative work that builds a
client’s business.

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The converse of that is you never lose or almost never lose a client because of
your creative work. You lose it because the relationship is broken down. You
see in the paper, we change the agency because we wanted a fresh creative
approach. That’s baloney. The reason they say that is because they don’t want
to say, I really don’t trust you anymore to solve my problems.

But I don’t want to say that. I want to say we need a fresh approach. So nobody
gets hurt. They disassemble. They don’t tell the truth. What happens is the
person who has been running the business moves to another account and the
client doesn’t like the person who has moved in. Or, the client has changed and
a new advertising manager or a president comes in. They don’t know you and
they have a good relationship from some other place. That’s a different
relationship. So when the relationship changes that’s the riskiest time. That’s
when you lose business.

Let’s talk a little bit about the state of the advertising and communication
world today. I know that technology has changed a lot but in your opinion,
what hasn’t changed?

The business has changed a lot. I’ve been out of it a long time so my views are
perhaps less relevant than other people who are in the business. I would still
think the basic purpose of advertising is to sell a client’s product. There is a lot
of advertising that wins awards and that’s terrific. The important thing is does
it sell a client’s product? There are certain basic communication skills that one
can learn. I think you have to have people in the advertising business devoted
to understanding the client, what the client needs totally not just ads.

You have to take the broadest point of view and say, I identify with the success
of my client. If I’m doing good ads but they are failing, you have to say, why
isn’t it working? Maybe the product isn’t right. Maybe the package isn’t right.
Maybe the promotion isn’t right. Maybe the media isn’t right. You should
identify with the client’s success. You never want to be identified with failure.

At one point, Bristol-Myers was a client of ours. We did the advertising for Ban
deodorant and something else. They came to us with a new product to compete
with Alka-Seltzer. We think that that product is not going to make it. They said,
we’re going to introduce this thing. We’re going to sell three products into the
drug trade. If you don’t advertise this somebody else will.

We had warned them that are all we can do. We went ahead and did the
advertising for this new antacid. The product failed and they blamed us. They
said, “You did lousy ads.” We got fired on Ban I think as I remember. The point

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is you want to take a total approach to your client’s business and identify with
that client’s success. Never touch anything to do with failure.

Give me an idea of the thinking process that takes place or that took place
from the moment the agency receiving a client engagement to final
delivery, was it a small team that was assigned to work on an engagement
or was there a different process?

No two clients are the same. An entrepreneur, that is one person, you deal
with him. David Ogilvy dealt with the presidents of the clients. Today, it’s
much more product managers. There multiple levels in clients. You can’t
generalize on that.

If you are an entrepreneur today with tight budgets as most entrepreneurs


are, what would you do to start building your brand? You are a brand, by
the way, with the work that you’re doing.

Thank you very much. I’m not sure I’m a brand but thank you very much. Let
me think about that.

If I were starting out I would figure out, do I really have a product or service
that meets a need? If not, I would save my money before it gets too long
because people fall in love with the ideas and they don’t want to know why it
might fail. Particularly, if you’re on a tight budget, not everybody has a rich
uncle and can go around spending money launching companies.

I would do everything I could to make sure I have a really valid idea and I would
listen very carefully. I would get the very, very best advice before I did
anything. I would talk to the investment bankers. I would talk to the people
from research. I would talk to competitors. And then I would find who are the
best people in the business. Who are the best people in the business? Who
knows more about this than anybody else and I would try to hire them.

Ten years ago, or actually longer than that now probably, you wrote a
fabulous book on writing. The title I believe was Writing.

Writing that Works. It’s done pretty well.

I think it’s in the third printing now?

It’s the third edition. I rewrote the thing three times completely.

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Talk to me a little bit about some traits or some of the better traits of
great copywriters out there. At some point, we’re all copywriters and
we’ll get into kind of how to send an email and write a letter and so forth.
Everything that we’re doing I believe has something to do about who we
are as individuals.

You got two different subjects. Let me separate them. Writing copy, writing an
ad is one skill. So much has to do with knowing the customer and presenting it
in the right way. You might have a television commercial with no words at all,
no copy. It might be all visual. You might have an ad that’s a page that is all
print, the whole thing, and no visual. Every product is different. Every market
is different.

I was a writer and I wrote some ads but I’m really not a copywriter. The kind of
writing I’m talking about is how to communicate in business which has to do
with persuading people that you have the right idea. How do you communicate
effectively? How do you get things done?

When I wrote the first copy of my book, the Writing That Works book, it was
how to write good memos and letters. I said, what’s the model of the best
memo in the business? It’s the Procter & Gamble memo. We never did any work
with P&G but the reputation in the business was they were the best memo
writers. So I studied them and I put their principles down in this book.

Then the second edition came out and by this time, computers had come in.
You see how old this thing is. So I talked a little bit about writing on a
computer. When the third edition came out, the publisher said, we need a
fresh new third edition, some fresh examples and a chapter on email. I said, I’ll
write a chapter on email and then a few fresh examples. I found out everything
had changed.

As your audience knows, people don’t write memos and letters. They write
what? They write emails and Power Points. The whole communication structure
changed. In effect, I wrote the book again. And then I said, “Wait a minute
now, Power Points -- who is the master of the presentation deck?” It was
McKinsey.

So I went to McKinsey and I said, how do you teach your young partners, young
associates to write Power Points? Actually, one of our partners wrote a book on
that subject. I got the book and I put those principles in there. You try to find
the best people in the area and distill what they have learned and present it to
your audience.

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The last edition of the book talks about emails, presentations, proposals, and it
uses those disciplines.

Tell us the right way to craft an email. We’re all inundated with emails.
Talk to us about that.

I love writing emails. The first thing you have to do. Well, think about how
many emails you get. How many do you get?

Hundreds. It’s probably literally 200 a day.

The first thing you want to do is you can’t deal with them all. The ones that
get your attention are not the ones that have a subject line with “Re” this and
“Re” that. You don’t even know what it’s about.

Or Forward.

Why should you do this? On the other hand, if you got an email with a subject
line which is ‘Urgent: Budget Crisis,’ I got to pay attention to that or ‘Urgent:
Charlie’s Leaving.’ We can’t lose Charlie. The subject line is one thing.

Then after that, you make sure you send it to one person, not to 20 people. If
you send it to 20 people -- okay, somebody else will take care of it. You then
have to say, a long email, your eyes glaze over -- you have to get to the point
fast.

When I write an email, an important one, I cut, I rearrange, and I spend time. I
take an email and I boil it down to one or two key paragraphs. That’s all people
are going to read. You can put attachments on. You can do all these other
things but you really want to get to the point simply, forcefully, powerfully,
urgently, compellingly until people cannot ignore your email.

You have to tell them what you want them to do. So you edit, you keep cutting.
You go through an email and you delete about half of it and make sure you
start fast. That’s all it is. It’s very simple. You got to make the subject heading
clear and you got to cut to the point. I mean that literally, cut to the point.

I’m sure you get lots of emails. What ones do you open up? What inspires
you? Is it just the subject initially?

Well it depends. Sometimes it’s the person who sends it to me. When a
company, if your boss sends you an email you tend to open it right? If your

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client sends it to you then you pay attention then the next thing is the subject.
I’m talking about things that appeal to me and I have seen appeal to others.

How about PowerPoints? We’re all again inundated with PowerPoints.


Personally, I’m not a big fan of just a PowerPoint presentation. I know that
you have some ways that Power Points can be a bit more inspiring and a
bit more compelling. Can you share your thoughts on that?

There is sort of a pyramid principle there. The way you get information in a
PowerPoint even though it’s 15 slides, they are all in sequence. It’s a pyramid.
You start with what’s the major idea on top, the abstract idea? And then you
have the minor points underneath that. If you think of it as a pyramid with the
most important point and underneath there are following points that expands it.

It’s like an email again. You keep things simple. You keep on target. Tell the
audience where you’re going. Think about headlines not labels. For example, a
chart that says ‘trends.’ Well, what does it say? Instead use something like
‘Low price competition is gaining’ or ‘Conclusion.’ What is the conclusion? We
have to improve service. Think headlines. Think headlines not labels.

Great advice. Obviously, the internet has also dramatically changed the
way people advertise. In some ways, it has become much more accessible
but because it’s so crowded, it’s difficult to grab attention. As you kind of
see the evolution of what’s happening with technology, what are your
thoughts on what’s happening on the Internet and how do people grab
attention with Internet advertising?

I don’t think anybody has really figured that out. When I was promoting my
book on David Ogilvy, I had found that there were several hundred thousand
people on Facebook who listed the show Mad Men as one of their favorite shows.

Since a couple of my reviews had called David Ogilvy the original madman, I did
a little ad. I bought some ads on Facebook which said ‘The Original Madman’
and a picture of the book and it said, Newsweek, Business Week, somebody
else, BBC, all called David Ogilvy, the original madman. When I did that I could
measure the clicks and I could see my sales rank go up in Amazon. The great
thing about digital advertising is that you can measure it. It’s measurable and
accountable.

Now, I did the same thing on Google Adwords and it didn’t work as well. When I
had a chance to run another flight of ads, I ran them on Facebook not on
Google.

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Are you active with social media Ken?

No. I have a Facebook page but I’m just so busy. I don’t correspond. My kids all
correspond with each other on Facebook. I friend people but I don’t really use
it. I’m a lousy Facebooker but I am very good emailer. I respond within minutes
of getting an email as you noticed in dealing with me.

No question about it and I really admire that. Is there a brand out there
today that you most admire?

A brand of what?

Just a brand, any company-business that you really admire?

Yeah, I think there is. Some people have asked me who is the David Ogilvy of
today? I said, I’ll think about that. There is nobody in the advertising business
like that anymore. There are people who are big people but nobody who are
known around the world. I mean, David Ogilvy was the most famous advertising
man in the world. Not just in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The brand that I clearly admire today is Apple. I think Steve Jobs is a creative
genius. He has kept his product and his image consistent. From the product to
the design, the packaging, the instructions, everything is consistent and it has
never changed. He has a remarkably clear idea of what Apple is all about and
he keeps on innovating within that umbrella so people know what to expect
from Apple. He both it keeps it fresh and revolutionary.

I think the iPad is a game changer. I don’t think it’s because of my friends
saying you got get an iPad because look at what you can read on it. It’s
because companies are buying iPads by the tens of thousands to use for their
salesmen, their service operators, airline pilots are buying them. I really think
that what he’s created is a very big idea. I think Apple is a brand that has
shown remarkable capacity for growth and consistency and innovation.

You mentioned design, there is so much talk nowadays about the design
being central to any company out there whether it’s designers who are on
their board or designers who are playing big roles in their company. Is
design used loosely out there or do you feel that just almost design in
general is really critical from the thinking process for any business out
there.

Design is part of the brand. You can take a sleek design like Apple and that’s
one image. You can take a design like the Jack Daniels bottle and label and

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their ads which is old fashioned goodness. It’s just consistent with their image.
I think design is important with them.

I think a lot of the car companies don’t have the foggiest idea about design. I
watch the Super Bowl ads and those car commercials blended in to each other
for me. There were so many of them. Did one stand out? No, I don’t think one
stood out really. The only one that stood out for me was sort of CarMax where
they said, you can buy any brand.

I think what’s going on in the car business is that other end of what good design
is in terms of differentiated design. You could take, what used to be in my
mind good design, Volkswagen -- consistent image, ads, product, and
everything else. Mercedes Benz; engineering, on the road, test tracks, things
like that. I just think a lot of things fade. Volvo for safety. I don’t see any
strong images like that anymore.

The people that are the top of those agencies are changing. I got two more
questions for you and I’m going to let you go. Is there something in
particular that is grabbing your attention currently that’s keeping you
more inspired than anything else you’re doing?

I’m always looking around for new ideas and things. I’ll tell you the thing that’s
really -- there are two things going on, one is the world are changing very fast.
I’m a big believer in the writing of Alvin Toffler who wrote a book called
Future Shock. He said, “Change accelerates at an ever increasing rate.”

In other words, there is more change and it’s coming at us faster. How do
organizations deal with change? That’s a subject that I have given some
thought to over time because it’s very hard to change an organization and it’s
particularly hard if you have been successful. You don’t want to change and
that’s how companies go out of business or lose their edge. That’s one idea.

I don’t know maybe there is another. Thank you for not asking me about
madman. Everyday somebody says, ‘Ken Roman, advertising, what do you think
of madman?’

Is there a favorite quote that you have of David?

One of the things he built on his business was, ‘We sell (period) or else
(period).’ We’re all in the business of selling something. I think that’s what a
lot of advertisers could benefit themselves if they remember they are
advertising selling. I don’t have a favorite quote but it’s a clear one.

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The King of Madison Avenue (Unplugged) !Kenneth Roman with Moe Abdou
!

It is very clear to me as well. That’s what inspires me about the kind of


work that we’re doing is to be able expose those types of messages and
the thinking of brilliant minds like yourself with the world. I’m just totally
grateful for you to give us your time today.

This was fun. Thank you very much. I hope a few people find something that’s
helpful.

A bunch will.

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