I spent a few winter months of my childhood living in an 1800s watermill on a small farm in England. Inside the traditional farmhouse kitchen sat a large, blue, four-oven Aga cooker. Little did I know when I first experienced the warmth of that Aga stove that one of the most famous Madison Avenue advertising men of all time – “The Father of Advertising” – got his start in his early 20s as an Aga salesman in the UK. He sold so many of these expensive ovens that the manufacturer asked him to write their sales manual. His classic 1935 sales playbook, The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker, would be hailed decades later by Fortune magazine as “probably the best sales manual ever written.” That young salesman was David Ogilvy. And here’s what he wrote about how to deal with your competitors …
1. Don’t sling mud.
“Try and avoid being drawn into discussing competitive makes of cooker, as it introduces a negative and defensive atmosphere. On no account sling mud—it can carry very little weight, coming from you, and it will make the prospect distrust your integrity and dislike you.”
Ogilvy’s advice is as relevant today as it was in 1935. Lashing out at your competition shows weakness and can undermine your sales message. Even if your product or service is far superior, no one wants to listen to you bad-mouth the competition. Focus your sales conversations on your customers’ unmet needs, instead of your competitors’ faults.
2. Study the competition, then keep quiet.
“The best way to tackle the problem is to find out all you possibly can about the merits, faults and sales arguments of competitors, and then keep quiet about them. Profound knowledge of other cookers will help you put your positive case for Aga more convincingly.”
The most successful athletes and coaches spend endless hours studying the game film of competitors. So should you. By digging in and learning all you can about your competitors’ messaging, you’ll be able to find a more compelling, differentiated sales message and positioning for your own product or service.
3. Lavish your competitors with faint praise.
“If you are invited to give your opinion of any particular make of cooker, damn it with faint praise. What you leave unsaid will kill.”
Don’t be afraid to complement your competition – especially if it’s about something that’s not central to what you’re selling. You might say something like, “Yes, they’re great at XYZ, but that’s not why people hire us.” Or, “Their product is really good at XYZ, if that’s what you’re looking for.” Then, move the conversation back to discussing your prospect’s specific challenges and how your product or service can help overcome those problems.
4. Study their methods. Do the opposite.
“In general, study the methods of your competitors and do the exact opposite.”
Ogilvy talks about things like doing house calls at unorthodox times of day or not bringing any sales literature with you at all on the first call. In B2B sales today, differentiating your selling approach might look like something as simple as not whipping out the PowerPoint capabilities deck in your first meeting. If your competitors are all relying on their polished PowerPoints to do the trick, why not scrap the PowerPoint deck altogether and use a whiteboard sketch instead? Visuals are great, but don’t get tied to the laptop. Shake up the monotony for your audience.
What made Ogilvy an advertising genius was his understanding of sales.
No wonder Ogilvy went on to be heralded as “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry” (Time magazine, 1962). Despite building a legendary agency, he never forgot the lessons he learned as a young, door-to-door Aga salesman. In fact, the Aga sales manual he wrote is what landed him his first ad agency job in London. The kind of principles Ogilvy taught about handling competitors were informed by his firsthand sales experience. Successful marketing and advertising always starts with a keen sales perspective. As Ogilvy put it, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”