13 Timeless Lessons from the Father of Advertising
In 1962, Time magazine called David Ogilvy: “The most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”
During his years as an advertising executive and copywriter, Ogilvy created some of the world’s most successful and iconic marketing campaigns, including the legendary Man in the Hathaway Shirt, plus notable efforts for Schweppes, Rolls-Royce, and the island of Puerto Rico, among many others.
Ogilvy was one of the pioneers of information-rich, “soft sell” ads that didn’t insult the intelligence of the prospect.
Ogilvy’s successful advertising campaigns demonstrate how to persuade prospects, influence readers, and create memorable, evergreen content.
But “The Father of Advertising” also has plenty to teach us about productivity, branding, research, and ambition.
Let’s look at some things David Ogilvy had to say, and what we can learn from each of them.
On creativity and creative process
“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”
Cleverness doesn’t sell products and services.
Original thinking in marketing is great, but it shouldn’t be for the sake of being witty or clever.
When you sit down to write marketing copy, think about:
Create content that will be helpful, insightful, or interesting for your target audience.
“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising.
“But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.
“You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.”
I like the idea of “stuffing your conscious mind with information” in this quote.
Ogilvy wholeheartedly believed in research, and he was always prepared before sitting down to write.
Learn everything you can possibly know about your topic (and your audience) before you write — then unleash your unconscious mind, and see what bubbles up.
“If you have all the research, all the ground rules, all the directives, all the data — it doesn’t mean the ad is written.
“Then you’ve got to close the door and write something — that is the moment of truth which we all try to postpone as long as possible.”
Bottom line: inspiration comes to those who keep butts in chairs.
We all avoid the “moment of truth” to some degree, and dealing with resistance and procrastination is part of the writer’s life.
Ogilvy’s contemporary, Eugene Schwartz, had a simple technique for eliminating distractions.
He worked in blocks of 33 minutes, using a timer to structure his writing time. Don’t be afraid to use techniques like that to get to the moment of truth.
“Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels.”
Think different — the best thinkers often do.
On research and testing
“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”
It is vitally important that we research and understand how our prospect thinks, speaks, and searches, so that we can use that language in our headlines, content, and sales letters.
The better we understand how our readers think, the better we’ll be able to connect with them (and persuade them).
“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”
If you’ve done the research to understand what your audience needs (and the language they use when they’re speaking about your topic), you’d be a fool to ignore that information.
Use it every way you can, and let your research shape your decisions.
“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”
Regularly test how your copy performs and make tweaks that serve both your business and your audience.
On why we write
“Do not … address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.”
Sometimes the idea of trying to connect with a large audience is troubling.
Just like public speaking is often more intimidating than talking with someone one-on-one, writing for a group can be tough.
But Ogilvy’s advice — remembering that when each person reads your post, they are alone with your words — can help you get past the overwhelm and allow you to connect with your reader on a more personal level.
On standing out
“There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey or cigarettes, or beer. They are all about the same.
“And so are the cake mixes and the detergents, and the margarines. … The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”
You want your product or service to have a unique selling proposition — a public personality that defines who you are and what you do.
And as Ogilvy and other advertising executives remind us, the more sharply defined that personality is, the more successful you will be as a content marketer.
Ogilvy on headlines
“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
Continually hone your headline writing skills to lift your blog posts and sales letters to the next level.
“Never use tricky or irrelevant headlines. People read too fast to figure out what you are trying to say.”
Simple headlines are better. Always remember that on average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of the piece.
If your headline is confusing, tricky, or awkward, they won’t continue reading.
“Play to win, but enjoy the fun.”
Let’s make sure that ambition doesn’t crowd out true enjoyment of our craft.
“Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.”
This is my favorite Ogilvy quotation.
What we do in our day-to-day lives might occasionally seem mundane, but every day we have the opportunity to make a difference. To teach, to stimulate conversation, to persuade.
That’s pretty extraordinary.
So aim high. Make sure you’re always thinking, “How can I make more of a difference? How can I think bigger?”
David Ogilvy’s legacy
Ogilvy’s work continues to inspire us, and his world-famous marketing campaigns live on.
But some of Ogilvy’s best lessons are about how he approached his creative life, and how he aimed for greatness instead of settling for second best.