Reviving the Nobility of Sales

Gallup regularly ranks the most trusted professions and, year after year, near the bottom — below advertising practitioner — is the beleaguered car salesman. Admittedly, neither of us is as virtuous as nurses or police officers, but is this how we see what we do?

Sales, like advertising, is an easy profession to lampoon, but it’s a shame, especially now. Customers are overwhelmed with choices and brands need to do a better job guiding. A significant part of this is persuasion through the craft of sales. New tools and platforms are making it better for customers and salespeople alike to consider and connect over products. Social networks make it easier for peers to endorse a brand, databases can find patterns and tailor messages more intimately, ubiquitous and interactive video even updates the classic infomercial.

But for many of us in marketing who are supposed to be selling, there seems to be a reluctance to actually sell. It doesn’t sit well in our bellies, as if we’re doing something wrong. We as professionals — especially in direct marketing — must own up to what we actually do. And defend it.

Our agency founder, David Ogilvy, started as a salesman. He went door to door selling kitchen stoves, working on commission. “No sale, no commission. No commission, no eat,” he said. “That made an impression on me.” His relentless focus on sales was his crusade for us as an agency. “We sell, or else” is still our motto today.

Ogilvy had plenty of advice on selling. “You can’t bore people into buying your product,” he warned. “You can only interest them in buying it.” He also advocated the quality of one’s skill over the quantity of calls, and utter respect for the consumer. (“The customer is not a moron,” he said. “She is your wife.”). The principles of this wisdom are still true.

I believe we are all persuaders, wired to sell from the beginning. Growing up, we learn how to get a few minutes of someone’s attention, how to do our homework to find facts, how to turn no’s to maybe’s. We’re taught the value of a firm handshake, the politeness of maintaining eye contact and, hopefully, how to respect other people’s time and build a relationship that unlocks value over the years. Some people, of course, are far better than the rest of us. What do they know that we don’t? What does good salesmanship look like?

We certainly don’t know all the answers, but from our own experience and talks with experts, some guidance is emerging. Good salespeople know what makes their products special, but they start by listening. They focus on their customers’ successes — and how they can help them reach them. They prioritize creating value together rather than a quick yes. Sure, they try to make it easy for us to buy now, but they know better than anyone else that the most profitable and meaningful relationships are long term.

These are good lessons for us in marketing. There is much to learn from those who do it very well and much to celebrate about the value of good salesmanship together. If Gallup talked to customers of these great salespeople, I bet their ranking would be quite different. Ours too.

Mat Zucker, executive creative director at OgilvyOne Worldwide New York, is currently helping run the agency’s Search for the World’s Greatest Salesperson. He can be reached at and you can follow him at @matzucker.