8 Things You Can Learn from David Ogilvy

Nov 19th, 2013

Born in England in 1911, David Ogilvy was a man who was hailed in the 1960s as “the Father of Advertising.”

After trying his hand at being a chef in France, living amongst the Amish in the US and selling cooking stoves door-to-door in the UK, at the age of 38 Ogilvy decided he wanted to break into the world of advertising in North America, and founded the New York-based ad agency Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather.

As a marketing executive and copywriter, he crafted taglines and campaigns which introduced once lesser-known brands to wider markets; defining for an age the likes of Rolls Royce, Dove, Shell, Schweppes, Sears, General Foods, and American Express.

His lengthy marketing campaign for the island of Puerto Rico challenged the American public’s perception of an entire territory, and transformed it from a place of shanties and sandy beaches to flourishing factories and industry.

For all intents and purposes, he was Don Draper in the flesh.

Ogilvy accomplished these renowned advertising feats by following what I’ve come to believe is an absurdly simple set of marketing rules; rules which often seem to evade modern-day copywriters and have made me feel like I spend too much time overthinking everything instead of just writing.

I recently read a blog on Copyblogger detailing some of Ogilvy’s thoughts on various aspects of the industry, and what we could learn from his experiences as an ad man in the sixties and seventies.

I was initially sceptical that anything this guy said would be applicable, considering the advancements in the advertising and technology industries in the last few decades. But, after doing a little research of my own, I’m pretty convinced that a lot of the advice Ogilvy had to offer potentially holds more merit than the tips being handed out by so-called modern “experts”.

Quotable gold

Needless to say, I felt rather inspired, and so I decided to compile a list of some of my personal favourite Ogilvy quotes – namely ones which I felt could be especially useful to copywriters.

1.       “In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

This little nugget of advice is a helpful reminder that you have to hone your creativity, pin down you’re your ideas and make sure they don’t run away with you quite too much if you want to keep them relevant to whatever it is you’re selling. It really is no good having a boatload of awesome ideas if you can’t viably apply them, so make sure you stay realistic before you get attached to a particular idea or piece of information and find yourself putting too much effort into rationalising its inclusion.

2.        “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.”

Research is probably the most enjoyable part of the writing process; amalgamating your ideas and cool bits of information you’ve found and really getting absorbed in the subject you’re looking into. However, you still have to actually write about this stuff – so don’t procrastinate or build up the “moment of truth” (putting pen to paper) too much, or else you’ll only end up psyching yourself out and making actually writing anything ten times more difficult than it needs to be.

3.        “If something is important, get a colleague to improve it.”

Proofreading and reflecting are so very, very important, and yet are still two fundamental parts of the copywriting process which many fail to duly acknowledge. Even though we have Word’s spelling and grammar checkers – luxuries that the ad men of the sixties had to do without – it’s more imperative than ever not to underestimate the value of having someone else manually read through your work to point out any technical errors, or areas for improvement. People are hawk-eyed these days, and even just a few tiny spelling mistakes or convoluted sentences could call a brand’s credibility into question.

4.       “Never send anything on the day you write. Read it aloud the next morning – and then edit it.”

I sometimes feel like I’m so absorbed in something I’m writing that I lose a sense of perspective; like I can’t see the wood for the trees anymore, and the words I’ve written have lost all meaning. This quote reminds me that it’s important not to underestimate the benefits of a good night’s rest, a cup of tea and a biscuit, or a walk in the park for a fresh dose of perspective on the quality of your writing. (For instance, my Word doc for this blog was sat on my desktop for a week, and I came back to it several times before I posted it. And I bet there are still errors. :))

5.        “Write the way you talk. Naturally.”

“Never use words like reconceptualise. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”

These two quotes refer to something stupidly simple that I often forget whilst writing: write to communicate with the audience. It’s easy to get so caught up in using language you wouldn’t ordinarily use in day-to-day conversation when you’re writing about some client’s brand new program management software – but this kind of elevated jargon rarely connects with the audience, and could even alienate them.

6.       “Do not… address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone.”

Reading is an intimate experience. Even if you’re reading a poster on the wall of a train carriage that dozens of other people might be glancing at, too; your perception of what you’re reading and how you understand it is entirely unique to you. It therefore doesn’t make sense to write your copy in an abstract or impersonal way; it just won’t resonate with the reader in the same way as a direct tone.

7.       “On the 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.”

“Never use tricky or irrelevant headlines… People read too fast to figure out what you are trying to say.”

It’s no good writing and posting an amazing blog if no one reads it, which is why grabbing people’s attention with a good headline or title is so important. Your title or headline shouldn’t be just treated as a necessary evil; something you need to include because the rules of the game dictate it. A lot of thought and consideration needs to go into how your title can inspire the reader to click; otherwise the hard work you’ve put into writing your blog is just wasteful. Be wary of using something misleading to get someone to click, though (i.e. shoehorning-in a celebrity’s name when your blog only mentions them in one sentence), because when they do start to read your blog and see how irrelevant it is to the title, they’ll click off in annoyance and probably not bother seeing what else you have to offer. Make your title easy to digest and intriguing, and you’ll reap the benefits.

8.       “Talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels.”

I reckon this was Ogilvy’s way of telling us not to be afraid to think outside the box and deviate from the conventional. After all, your client or company won’t stand out if your copy blends into the background; your ideas and brand presentation has to be much more innovative than that if you want to get noticed. (London-based florist Arena Flowers’ Twitter account is a perfect example of out-of-the-box thinking paying off.)

If you have any Ogilvy wisdom-nuggets of your own that I’ve missed out, please do enlighten me by sharing them in the comments. 🙂

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