Ogilvy on Advertising … Best Lessons Learned from his Secrets

Have you ever studied the work of Ogilvy? There’s none better than David Ogilvy. He wrote the book that defined an entire profession, and it’s as relevant today as it was thirty years ago when first published. Here are the best lessons from Ogilvy on advertising that are just as effective today.

In 1962, Time magazine called David Ogilvy “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”

ogilvy advertising secrets
Ogilvy advertising secrets.

In his years as an advertising executive and copywriter, Ogilvy created some of the world’s most successful and iconic marketing campaigns. These included the legendary Man in the Hathaway Shirt, and notable efforts for Schweppes, Rolls-Royce, and the island of Puerto Rico among many others.

Check out our thoughts on creative marketing.

Here are some of my favorite secrets that I love to use.


The secret of attention grabbing headlines

 “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.”

You’ve heard it everywhere. Haven’t you?

Now you know the source.

And it is truer today because of the vast increase of content available.

The “media business” might be dying. But media has never been bigger. We’ve never been faced with the same onslaught of information (both good and bad).

The only way to cut through the clutter? Clarity.

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

Or, my favorite quote of Ogilvy’s that says the same thing from a different perspective:

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”

Decisions happen subconsciously. Not always rationally or emotionally. Don’t underestimate processing time. Because by the time it clicks, it might already be too late to click.


The secret of creative images

You’d have a better shot getting an image rejected on one of your Facebook ads than approved sometimes.

Oh. Then there’s that whole 20% text thing that severely cuts down on the word count you can use.

This puts you in a bind. How do you get your point across and use a captivating image that captures attention in milliseconds when there are SO MANY rules?

Let’s see what Ogilvy had to say:

“Most readers look at the photograph first. If you put it in the middle of the page, the reader will start by looking in the middle. Then her eye must go up to read the headline; this doesn’t work, because people have a habit of scanning downwards. However, suppose a few readers do read the headline after seeing the photograph below it. After that, you require them to jump down past the photograph which they have already seen. Not bloody likely.”

The illustrative image first, because that’s what people see first. Then the headline, to add context about what you’re leaving out in the image.


best advertising copy
Best advertising copy.

The secret of creativity

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 not just for the sake of being witty or clever. If you aren’t thinking about connecting with your audience and building trust, you need to reexamine your motivations.

Don’t just create content to get credit for being clever — 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.

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 know about your topic (and your audience) before you write — then unleash your unconscious mind, and see what bubbles up.

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

Think different — the best thinkers often do.


Ogilvy on advertising … great testing

You must understand how people buy your stuff. That whole customer journey thing. Figure out how they shop, using different channels, bouncing around to piece together clues, before eventually taking the plunge.

So. Why is this so complicated? Why do so many fail?

Because there’s no script. There are no “Step 1, Step 2, Step 3” instructions that you can paste into your business.

The only way to figure it out is through iteration. Testing. Not just A/B testing CTAs. But entire campaigns, audiences, and creative ideas. Think macro, not micro.

This process isn’t new. At least, it shouldn’t be. Here are Ogilvy’s thoughts on testing:

“The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST. Test your promise. Test your media. Test your headlines and your illustrations. Test the size of your advertisements. Test your frequency. Test your level of expenditure. Test your commercials. Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

Oh. Ok. But where to start?

“If you pretest your product with consumers, and pretest your advertising, you will do well in the marketplace.”

Ah. That’s right. The audience!

Aren’t people buying? Perhaps they need more nurturing. Still nothing? Go bigger. That is, in audience size.

Frequency (or the number of times you’ve shown ads to those same people) isn’t the problem (generally speaking). Not today when your customers are already seeing thousands of other competing messages.

Most conversion problems can be fixed through increasing reach. Testing and iterating at each of these steps is the only way to figure out what’s not working, why, and how to fix it.

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, speak, and search, so that we can use that language in our headlines, blog posts, sales letters, and ebooks. The better we understand how our readers think, the better we’ll be able to connect with them (and persuade them).

If you’ve done the research to understand what your audience needs, you’d be a fool to ignore that information. Use it and every way you can, and let your research shape your decisions and campaigns.

Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.


David Ogilvy ads … the secret of research

Ogilvy once said, “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

And yet, that’s what happens often, yes?

Ogilvy didn’t believe in “blowing smoke.” His copy was meticulously based in fact, and he did careful research to uncover the one amazing fact about a product around which he could build an entire ad campaign.

Without always thinking through the proper context and tweaking as needed.

Here’s why that’s a problem. Most companies will give you their “buyer personas.” That’s in air quotes because what they’ve barely scratched the surface on is their customer demographics.

But this information is mostly completely useless when it’s time to compel them to buy if we don’t know what motivates them.

That’s where good old-fashioned psychographics from the 1960s comes into play.

This is the good stuff. The stuff that uncovers what people are struggling with, why they’re struggling with it, and how to move forward despite it.

Only when we establish answers to these questions:

What are your prospects’ goals?

What are their pain points and common objections?

How can you help them?

Can we understand where to begin with an ad?

Ogilvy elaborated on his views of why research is so important:

“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.”

Not through magic. Or innate brilliance. But by simply going straight to customers’ vernacular.

Do your research!


David Ogilvy quotes … the secret of consistency  

the secret of consistency
The secret of consistency.

We are all enamored with shiny new things, aren’t we? New platforms. New channels. New hacks. New ad options.

And yet, the unifying factor of most great campaigns is execution. Which requires discipline.

“It takes uncommon guts to stick to one style in the face of all the pressures to ‘come up with something new’ every six months. It is tragically easy to be stampeded into change. But golden rewards await the advertiser who has the brains to create a coherent image, and the stability to stick with it over a long period.”

Ogilvy on advertising … the secret of 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 as writers, the idea of trying to connect with a large audience is troubling. Just like public speaking is often more intimidating than talking to 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. This allows you to connect with your reader on a personal level.


The secret of understanding people

The average blog post today takes 26% longer to write than just a year ago.

So… why? Are we getting dumber? The answer’s no, of course not.

The short answer is competition. Even a couple of years ago, 500 words would cut it (and only set you back 1-2 hours).

Not today.

Not when blog posts average ~2000 words (and getting longer), incorporate images every ~150 words or so, and require a little bit of, well, you know, writing.

In other words, when the bar raises, there are no shortcuts.

 “In most agencies, account executives outnumber the copywriters two to one. If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as you had cows?”

This one’s a little blunter:

“Advertising is a business of words, but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They are as helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.”

Technology moves quickly. People get hired and thrown into the deep end. Many times, before they’re ready. Capable or able even.

Ogilvy again:

“Training should not be confined to trainees. It should be a continuous process and should include the entire professional staff of the agency. The more our people learn, the more useful they can be to our clients.”

What works today and another decade down the line? Knowledge. Insight. Experience.


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The bottom line

It’s (unbelievably) 2017.

Soon it’ll be 2020. And then… what?

New advertising channels. New ways of doing things. New “best practices” that expire 12 months later.

You can’t prepare for that. There’s nothing you can do when machine learning upheaves our industry (because not even the machines know what will happen yet).

Need some help in capturing more customers from your advertising? Creative ideas to help the differentiation with your customers?


Call today for a FREE consultation or a FREE quote. Learn about some options to scope your job.

Call Mike at 607-725-8240.


All you get is what you bring to the fight. And that fight gets better every day you learn and apply new ideas.


When things are not what you want them to be, what’s most important is your next step. Call today.


Test. Learn. Improve. Repeat.


Are you devoting enough energy improving your advertising design?


Do you have a lesson about making your innovation  better you can share with this community? Have any questions or comments to add in the section below?


Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+Twitter, and LinkedIn.  


Digital Spark Marketing will stretch your thinking and your ability to adapt to change.  We also provide some fun and inspiration along the way. Call us for a free quote today. You will be amazed how reasonable we will be.


More reading on advertising from Digital Spark Marketing’s Library:

 What to Expect from a Creative Advertising Strategy

Creative Secrets from Budweiser Advertising Examples

Prudential Ad Makes Visualization Design Central to Story

Ten Deadly Sins of Advertising Design


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Ogilvy on Advertising … Best Lessons Learned from his Secrets