Known as “the father of advertising”, David Ogilvy was one of the inspirations behind hit TV series Mad Men. But come on! It’s the digital age. How relevant can his “rules” for advertising be today? In this era of information overload, we reckon they’re more relevant – and fresher – than ever.
David Ogilvy was the world’s most famous ad man in an era when ad men were regarded as wizards, gods almost. Or at least that’s how they saw themselves. But Ogilvy set out to revolutionise the advertising industry. Unlike most of his peers, he believed being creative and original wasn’t
He believed in results. "In the modern world of business,” he said, “it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create."
He believed you couldn’t achieve the best results without researching the market and testing your advertising until you got it right. "I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance," he said.
He believed in not talking down to his audience. “The consumer isn't a moron, she is your wife,” he said. “You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”
And he believed in creating advertising campaigns that resonated with the audience and were memorable because they oozed personality. He was a proponent of “the big idea”.
No wonder many of his most famous campaigns are still remembered today by those in the advertising industry. We’ve taken some of those campaigns to illustrate Ogilvy’s techniques and rules for advertising.
This advertisement, for Rolls Royce, is perhaps his most famous. Like all the classics, it doesn’t try to tell you everything about the car, but focuses a “unique selling point” – the car’s quietness.
The layout is another Ogilvy trademark. He said it was natural for a reader’s eye to be attracted first to the graphic element, in this case the large photo, so it made sense to put that at the top. People were
most attracted to other people, so he usually included people as well as the product in the shot, and they were almost always using and enjoying the product.
The headline was “as close to a magic bullet as you’re going to get”, according to Ogilvy. His research showed that five times as many people read the headlines as the body text, and he was adamant that headlines should always, always go under the graphic, not above it.
“It is what gets the reader’s attention and what makes them keep reading,” he said. “When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
His tips for effective headlines included putting news in them if possible (the words New and Free are the most powerful, but How to, Suddenly and Now are also effective), making them emotional, making a promise in them, or using them to make the consumer curious and want to read more.
“Do not use negatives in the headlines,” he warned. “Do not try to write tricky headlines, be simple and to the point. Longer headlines sell more than short headlines.”
The headline in the Rolls Royce ad appears to have been pulled directly from an article on the Rolls Royce in Motor magazine – it has quotation marks around it but isn’t actually attributed to the magazine – and that gives it more credibility.
The model for the long-running “The man in the Hathaway shirt” advertising series was a real baron, Baron George Wrangell, but no one knew where the rather aristocratic eye patch came from as the Baron did not need to wear one. It was probably a device dreamed up by Ogilvy to make the character stand out, and it worked for more than two decades.
Note the familiar Ogilvy layout of the ad. The Hathaway logo would always appear at the bottom right.
Another character used with great effect in introducing Schweppes into the US market was distinguished British gentleman Commander Edward Whitehead. Ogilvy used the photo and the long headline to support the single-minded proposition that whole fruit was used in Schweppes Bitter Lemon. The same slightly foppish and very British style of advertising is used by Schweppes to market its products to this day, as demonstrated by the current series of commercials running on New Zealand TV, one of which features a leopard in a British family’s living room.
Ogilvy also invented the term "Schweppervesence" which is a brilliant way to describe what Schweppes products do to the taste buds and one of the cleverest made-up advertising terms ever, in our opinion.
Making an ad look like editorial, and telling a story, was another favourite technique of Ogilvy’s. In this case the ad was part of a series promoting a country, Puerto Rico, which helped change the image of that country in the eyes of the world. Ogilvy said it was his proudest achievement.
Ogilvy was an expert at coming up with slogans which captured the essence of a product and often became part of common language usage – in this case, American Express’s “Don’t leave home without it”.
When asked about his secret of producing great advertising, Ogilvy replied with characteristic candour and uncharacteristic humility:
April 19, 1955
Dear Mr Calt:
On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:
- I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
- I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
- I am helpless without research material—and the more "motivational" the better.
- I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
- Before actually writing the copy, I write down every conceivable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organised and relate them to research and the copy platform.
- Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
- At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
- I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
- If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
- The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
- Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
- I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry - because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.
Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.
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