A review of ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’

David Ogilvy. Photo courtesy the Advertising Hall of Fame via Wikimedia Commons

David Ogilvy. Photo courtesy the Advertising Hall of Fame via Wikimedia Commons

In a company I recently worked with, the management expressed what could be described as an extreme admiration for what many call “The Father of Advertising,” David Ogilvy.

Of course, I had heard of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the great global marketing firms of the Golden Age of Madison Avenue. Ogilvy himself served as something of a model for roles played in the recently popular serial drama “Mad Men,” a U.S. cable television program that real-world advertising men themselves regarded as a “well-done soap opera” depicting people in their profession. But I was mostly unfamiliar with what exactly Ogilvy himself had to say about marketing. It wasn’t covered in the journalism courses I took way back in the 1980s, and it was well outside of the scope of my civil engineering education (for obvious reasons).

I was asked by the gentleman who was my boss to read through his work, “Ogilvy on Advertising,” presumably to report on my understanding of the work later and adapt some of the techniques he espoused (i.e., short lead sentences, etc.) inside the work I did for them. I had completed reading his book, but before I had a chance to report, the work relationship effectively ended. Still, I think its probably worthwhile to share the impressions I formed of Ogilvy, even if it is with an audience that includes mostly people I’ll probably never meet face-to-face. 

First, some background on the author. David Ogilvy was born to Scottish parents, the son of a Highland-born financier who suffered badly in the English financial depression of the mid-1920s, and a mostly Scot-Irish mother. He flopped around in the early part of his life, first securing reduced fees and scholarships to attend St. Cyprian’s School, Fettes College in Edinburgh, and Christ College in Oxford, but left school without a degree. He left the country to apprentice as a chef in the renowned Majestic Hotel in Paris. After a year of struggling at fine dining preparation in the French capital, he gave that career up to return to Scotland, where he sold door-to-door Swedish-made AGA stoves. This he did remarkably well, so much so that his manager asked him to write a manual for other sales personnel. Despite a lack of academic success, he could write quite well, and his manual eventually circulated around to the Mather and Crowther advertising firm, opening for him the door to the advertising world. They offered him an account executive position.

His path to stardom in the advertising world began here with a “little-fish” account that his partners effectively threw away to him, a small country hotel with an ad budget to match. Applying his door-to-door experience, he sent out targeted direct mailers, which proved to be a remarkable success. He then went to the United States in the late 1930s to work with George Gallup (founder of the “Gallup Poll”), who taught him the importance of adherence to well-researched realities. Shortly after, all his accumulated knowledge of human behavior was put to the test in the Second World War, where he made use of it to help the Allied cause in the psychological warfare department. After the war, and after a few years respite among the Pennsylvania Amish, he returned to the advertising world, this time as an owner.

Château de Touffou, David Ogilvy's castle, located near Poitiers, France. Photo by Gossin, via Archives Photographiques (Médiathèque du Patrimoine) and Wikimedia Commons

Château de Touffou, David Ogilvy’s castle, located near Poitiers, France. Photo by Gossin, via Archives Photographiques (Médiathèque du Patrimoine) and Wikimedia Commons

Partnered with Mather and Benson, Ogilvy achieved his greatest success on Madison Avenue with Hathaway Shirts, Schweppes, Rolls Royce, Dove Soap, Shell Oil, and the US territory of Puerto Rico. After achieving the rank of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1967, he retired to a castle in France in 1973. However, he returned to the fray in the 1980s, pursuing advertising adventures in India and Germany and elsewhere in the world. He was finally sidelined by a hostile takeover of his company in 1989 (just as my own first career in journalism and page design was getting its start), about a decade before he died.

In “Ogilvy on Advertising,” a lot of what he had to say was summed up in his chapter on how to sell. I’ve always been cautious of people who are of the school of thought that one size can fit all, but most of his universal constants at least made some level of sense. For instance, he advises that you should know thoroughly what it is you are selling before you start, you should be clear on the position and brand image you’d like to achieve, and you should come up with a “big idea,” something that catches the imagination and sticks in the memory for a very long time, preferably decades. As he described it, you must gasp when you first see your “big idea”, it should inspire envy, be unique, and fit the advertising strategy perfectly. Ultimately, it should generate a significant amount of marketing by word of mouth (or, ideally, become embedded in the target audience’s culture).

The book’s real benefit to me came as a result of his background in writing, which meant that he offered advice from his useful experiences and general appreciation of well-written advertising copy. Concepts like making the product the hero of your writing, emphasizing its positive good without mentioning any of the competition, and using longer but coherently written copy, were all useful points. Being obsessively curious about your subject he regarded as something compulsory. Having a sense of humor is a big plus, as copywriters must be able to produce interesting material, all of which must be written in language that the target audience would describe as “regular”. Writers should think visually and be driven to write better than anyone else. Ogilvy described, based on writing philosophy, two types of ad copy producers: poets and killers. Poets see the ad copy as the end to the means (the product that they produce), while killers see copy as a means to an end (the way they produce their results). He described successful copywriters as being both poet and killer.

He applied his experience in advertising research to writing, and for this he had advice as well. Meeting deadlines was first and foremost. It is very easy to get bogged down on peripheral subjects, or be paralyzed by perfectionism. He suggested not to be frightened so much by mistakes, but rather to be frightened by deadlines. In general, I’d have to agree with this. As long as reasonable deadlines are set and effectively communicated by management, there should be no reason to miss a deadline. Of course, on the other hand, where deadlines aren’t reasonable or presented to the writer in a time-frame that isn’t even possible, that’s usually a sign either of disorganized direct supervision, or that management simply isn’t interested in having you around anymore – often both.

His idea of strategy was very much a top-down approach. The top management should set the direction for marketing. This isn’t really a unique approach, to insist that consensus really has very little to do with this particular management task. Most gurus of quality management likewise say the same thing of anything strategic. One very useful tip was that a company’s (or even one’s personal) goals should not be limited by what is thought to be possible. If you are in charge of marketing, management, or anything that sets the direction in your company, you should shoot for what you want, no matter how big, as, you never know, you might just get it.

Having been at the top of his field from the 1950s through the 1980s, Ogilvy presided in an era where creativity and originality was succeeding in making inroads into the marketing world. Although he saw images that serve as an adjunct to good copy useful for capturing attention, Ogilvy was not an advocate of excessively clever images that creative art managers usually proposed to clients. Creative people usually communicate in ways that require people to think, and most people who glance at print ads in between the stories they are trying to read will simply not take the time to think about what an ad communicates. Like pop art (music, visuals, etc.), an ad has to quickly appeal or capture attention, get across what it needs to get across, and then allow a person to move on quickly, but with the ad’s unforgetable message implanted in that person’s mind. Usually ads that win awards for creativity fail in this most critical task, because they require you to take that extra time to think for the desired message to set in. However, images that do capture attention and help to quickly communicate what the marketing campaign wants to say should be re-used over and over for as long as that image sells the product.

There was a lot more to “Ogilvy on Advertising”, of course. He had a treasure trove of useful advice for ad creators and ad buyers, ranging from the use of direct response marketing (a field for which he is probably the most renowned in the ad world) to his thoughts on the success of Proctor & Gamble in reaching the worldwide market for its products. The writing style was very self-aggrandizing, of course. He had a lot of achievements to brag about. But once you read past all the self-congratulations, there were a lot of nuggets to pull from the text.

If I had any criticism of the philosophy he espoused, it was that he probably placed too much value in money. When you think about it, though, this is probably a predictable end result of people who pursue a career in advertising and marketing. When your job is to extract as much cash out of the market as you can, money becomes an understandable, and probably inevitable, obsession. But of course that eventually leads to an unbalanced excess of materialism, a pitfall that can blind you to the best things that life really has to offer.

For me (to the probable disdain of my student loan creditors), materialism has always been something foreign. I’ve found I had really to force myself to take an interest in accumulating things, where it served a purpose. That’s not to say that I don’t like having money (and wouldn’t like to someday restore my credit rating), but I’ve always held that God put us on this world for other reasons than to try to collect as large a pile of as many things (dollars, real estate, toys, etc.) as possible. As Douglas Adams, perhaps my favorite writer of all time, once wrote, we “ape-descendants” seem to focus too much of our pursuit of happiness in the movement of whatever currency is the coin of the day. Which, as he pointed out, is kind of silly when you think about it, as “it’s not the small green pieces of paper that are unhappy.”

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