Ogilvy on Advertising

date Jun 14, 2016
authors David Ogilvy
reading time 26 mins

I am not a professional marketer, PR person, growth hacker, etc etc. But I felt it was important to read how products get marketed. I wanted to read what David Ogilvy himself had to say. It gave me insights into the world of advertising. It was good and different from my daily dose of engineering and technical topics.

Advertising: Information that you would wanna buy it!

I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.

Why consumer buy?

Consumers still buy products whose advertising promises them value for money, beauty, nutrition, relief from suffering, social status and so on.

Advertising budget should be linked with sales!

So what? There have always been noisy lunatics on the fringes of the advertising business. Their stock-in-trade includes ethnic humor, eccentric art direction, contempt for research, and their self-proclaimed genius. They are seldom found out, because they gravitate to the kind of clients who, bamboozled by their rhetoric, do not hold them responsible for sales results.

Dog food the product you will advertise! Use it!

You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start by doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious, but there is no substitute for it. First, study the product you are going to advertise. The more you know about it, the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it. When I got the Rolls-Royce account, I spent three weeks reading about the car and came across a statement that ‘at sixty miles

One hit wonder or consistent success

If you are too lazy to do this kind of homework, you may occasionally luck into a successful campaign, but you will run the risk of skidding about on what my brother Francis called ‘the slippery surface of irrelevant brilliance.’ Your next chore is to find out what kind of advertising your competitors have been doing for similar products, and with what success. This will give you your bearings.

Big ideas!

You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product.

How to recognise a big idea?

It will help you recognize a big idea if you ask yourself five questions: 1 Did it make me gasp when I first saw it? 2 Do I wish I had thought of it myself? 3 Is it unique? 4 Does it fit the strategy to perfection? 5 Could it be used for 30 years?

Personal interest

Whenever you can, make the product itself the hero of your advertising. If you think the product too dull, I have news for you: there are no dull products, only dull writers. I never assign a product to a writer unless I know that he is personally interested in it. Every time I have written a bad campaign, it has been because the product did not interest me.

project period: 3-4 months

The average period of gestation is somewhere between that of hyenas (110 days) and goats (151 days). For example, storyboards for commercials are argued at level after level in the agency, and level after level in the client’s organization. If they survive, they are then produced and tested. The average copywriter gets only three commercials a year on air.

It’s never intuition!

I asked an indifferent copywriter what books he had read about advertising. He told me that he had not read any; he preferred to rely on his own intuition. ‘Suppose,’ I asked, ‘your gall-bladder has to be removed this evening. Will you choose a surgeon who has read some books on anatomy and knows where to find your gall-bladder, or a surgeon who relies on his intuition? Why should our clients be expected to bet millions of dollars on your intuition?’ This willful refusal to learn the rudiments of the craft is all too common. I cannot think of any other profession which gets by on such a small corpus of knowledge.

Why should we not be rigorous?

What is the reason for this failure to codify experience? Is it that advertising does not attract inquiring minds? Is it that any kind of scientific method is beyond the grasp of ‘creative’ people? Are they afraid that knowledge would impose some discipline on their work?

Work and study current and established ways

Do you think it means originality? Says Reeves, ‘Originality is the most dangerous word in advertising. Preoccupied with originality, copywriters pursue something as illusory as swamp fire, for which the Latin phrase is ignis fatuus.’ Mozart said, ‘I have never made the slightest effort to compose anything original.’


If you follow the advice I have given you, you will do your homework, avoid committees, learn from research, watch what the direct-response advertisers do, and stay away from irrelevant sex.

Working for an agency

I am competent to write only about jobs in agencies. I don’t know any other trade which offers such variety. The atmosphere is extraordinarily stimulating. Agencies are psychological hothouses. You will never be bored. All the big agencies are international and offer job opportunities in Europe, Asia and Latin America. If you are fluent in a foreign language, it helps.

Copywriters are most important

Copywriters may not be the most visible people in agencies, but they are the most important. The hallmarks of a potentially successful copywriter include: Obsessive curiosity about products, people and advertising. A sense of humor. A habit of hard work. The ability to write interesting prose for printed media, and natural dialogue for television. The ability to think visually. Television commercials depend more on pictures than words. The ambition to write better campaigns than anyone has ever written before.

Poets vs killers

‘Most good copywriters’, says William Maynard of the Bates agency, ‘fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.’ If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.

Best informed person!

Set yourself to becoming the best-informed person in the agency on the account to which you are assigned. If, for example, it is a gasoline account, read books on oil geology and the production of petroleum products. Read the trade journals in the field. Spend Saturday mornings in service stations, talking to motorists. Visit your client’s refineries and research laboratories. At the end of your first year, you will know more about the oil business than your boss, and be ready to succeed him.

Making good presentations

You will never become a successful account executive unless you learn to make good presentations. Most of your clients will be corporations, and you must be able to sell campaigns to their committees. Your presentations must be well written, and well delivered.

Don’t surrender on trivial issues… be persistent!

A habit of graceful surrender on trivial issues will make you difficult to resist when you stand and fight on a major issue.

Easy to understand writing

Learn to write lucid memoranda. The senior people to whom they are addressed have more homework than you do. The longer and more turgid your memos, the less likely they are to be read by executives who have the power to act on them.

Busy as a CEO

When I was the chief executive of my agency, I always took home two briefcases, and spent four hours reading their contents. Not much fun for my wife. Next to homework, my worst enemy was the telephone. I was usually 25 return calls behind.

Copywriters » Account executives

In most agencies there are twice as many account executives as copywriters. If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as cows?


The most difficult people to find are those who have the capacity to become good copywriters. I have found that they always have well-furnished minds. They give evidence of exceptional curiosity about every subject under the sun. They have an above-average sense of humor. And they have a fanatical interest in the craft of advertising.

Sounds similar to tech

It is a tragedy of the advertising business that its best practitioners are always promoted into management.


When someone is made the head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send him a Matrioshka doll from Gorky. If he has the curiosity to open it, and keep opening it until he comes to the inside of the smallest doll, he finds this message: If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.


Spot the comers on your staff, and plan their careers. Royal Dutch Shell has found that the most reliable criteria for selecting what they call Crown Princes are these: 1 The power of analysis. 2 Imagination. 3 A sense of reality. 4 The ‘helicopter quality’- the ability to look at facts and problems from an overall viewpoint.


This is one mistake I did not make; my son is in the real estate business, secure in the knowledge that he owes nothing of his success to his father.

Guts and passion

Great leaders are always fanatically committed to their jobs. They do not suffer from the crippling need to be universally loved. They have the guts to make unpopular decisions – including the guts to fire non-performers.

Writing inspiring speeches

Most of the great leaders I know have the ability to inspire people with their speeches. If you cannot write inspiring speeches yourself, use ghost-writers – but use good ones.

Go to their seats to talk… hierarchy!

Never summon people to your office; it frightens them. Instead, go to see them in their offices, unannounced. A boss who never wanders about his agency becomes an invisible hermit.

Meeting for decisions, talking for actions

If you want to get action, communicate verbally. If you want the voting to go your way at meetings, go to the meeting. Remember the French saying: ‘He who is absent is always wrong.’

Good work == more clients

The easiest way to get new clients is to do good advertising. During one period of seven years, we never failed to win an account for which we competed, and all I did was to show the campaigns we had created. Sometimes, I did not even have to do that. One afternoon, a man walked into my office without an appointment and gave me the IBM account; he knew our work.

Contests are not good for choosing agencies!

This long and expensive process does not necessarily result in the selection of the best agency. The agency which would create the best advertising over a period of years may not have the luck to come up with the best campaign in the few weeks allotted to the contest.

Mix up everyone!

At the meeting when you make your presentation, don’t sit the client’s team on one side of the table and your team opposite, like adversaries. Mix everybody up.

Rehearse but never speak from text

Rehearse before the meeting, but never speak from a prepared text; it locks you into a position which may become irrelevant during the meeting.

Weak points - be transparent and honest!

Tell your prospective client what your weak points are, before he notices them. This will make you more credible when you boast about your strong points. Don’t get bogged down in case histories or research numbers. They put prospects to sleep. No manufacturer ever hired an agency because it increased market-share for somebody else.

Don’t turn down small companies!

Beware of ventures which spend little or nothing today but might become major advertisers, if all goes well. Servicing such non-accounts can be expensive, and few of them make it. Yes, there are exceptions. I once made the mistake of turning down a small company which made office machinery, because I had never heard of it. The name was Xerox.

Bad clients - no!

I have resigned accounts five times as often as I have been fired, and always for the same reason: the client’s behavior was eroding the morale of the people working on his account. Erosion of morale does unacceptable damage to an agency.

Have a research org

It is important to know how your agency is regarded in the marketing community. Don’t trust your own ears; you will only hear favorable opinions. It is safer, if you can afford it, to have a research organization conduct an impartial survey. When they report weak spots in your reputation, you can probably correct them, but it will take longer than you expect. Opinion always lags behind reality.

Be on a lookout for adverts!

Start by leafing through some magazines. Tear out the advertisements you envy, and find out which agencies did them. Watch television for three evenings, make a list of the commercials you envy, and find out which agencies did them.

Headlines == benifits

On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 per cent of your money. The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit

Show numbers!

Specifics work better than generalities. When research reported that the average shopper thought Sears Roebuck made a profit of 37 per cent on sales, I headlined an advertisement Sears makes a profit of 5 per cent. This specific was more persuasive than saying that Sears’ profit was ‘less than you might suppose’ or something equally vague.


When you advertise in local newspapers, you get better results if you include the name of each city in your headline. People are most interested in what is happening where they live.

Write easy to understand headlines!

Some copywriters write tricky headlines – double meanings, puns and other obscurities. This is counter-productive. In the average newspaper your headline has to compete with 350 others. Readers travel fast through this jungle.

Photographs - rises curiosity

The subject of your illustration is all important. If you don’t have a remarkable idea for it, not even a great photographer can save you. The kind of photographs which work hardest are those which arouse the reader’s curiosity. He glances at the photograph and says to himself, ‘What goes on here?’

Some tips

Don’t show human faces enlarged bigger than life size. They seem to repel readers. Historical subjects bore the majority of readers. Do not assume that subjects which interest you will necessarily interest consumers.

Talks / converse

Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone talked to her as if he were addressing a public meeting. She preferred Disraeli, who talked to her like a human being. When you write copy, follow Disraeli’s example. It isn’t as easy as you may think. Aldous Huxley, who was once a copywriter, said, ‘It is easier to write ten passably effective sonnets than one effective advertisement.’

No superlatives - best, always, never

Stay away from superlatives like ‘Our product is the best in the world.’ Gallup calls this Brag and Boast. It convinces nobody. If you include a testimonial in your copy, you make it more credible.

No celebrities

Testimonials from celebrities get high recall scores, but I have stopped using them because readers remember the celebrity and forget the product. What’s more, they assume that the celebrity has been bought, which is usually the case. On the other hand, testimonials from experts can be persuasive – like having an ex-burglar testify that he had never been able to crack a Chubb safe.

Long copy == something to say

I believe, without any research to support me, that advertisements with long copy convey the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not.

Steal until you get better

I disagree violently with that. I’d like to propose a new idea for our age: until you’ve got a better answer, you copy. I copied Bob Gage for 5 years, I even copied the leading between his lines of type. And Bob originally copied Paul Rand, and Rand first copied a German typographer named Tschichold.’

Picture, headline, writing (like a Medium article?)

Readers look first at the illustration, then at the headline, then at the copy. So put these elements in that order – illustration at the top, headline under the illustration, copy under the headline. This follows the normal order of scanning, which is from top to bottom. If you put the headline above the illustration, you are asking people to scan in an order which does not fit their habit.

Look like an editorial

There is no law which says that advertisements have to look like advertisements. If you make them look like editorial pages, you will attract more readers. Roughly six times as many people read the average article as the average advertisement. Very few advertisements are read by more than one reader in twenty.

No full stop after headlines

Another mistake is to put a period at the end of headlines. Periods are also called full stops, because they stop the reader dead in his tracks. You will find no full stops at the end of headlines in newspapers.

Legible typography

The more outlandish the typeface, the harder it is to read. The drama belongs in what you say, not in the typeface.

Don’t mention your competitor, but hi Apple: Welcome IBM seriously

Studies conducted by Ogilvy & Mather found that commercials which name competing brands are less believable and more confusing than commercials which don’t. There is a tendency for viewers to come away with the impression that the brand which you disparage is the hero of your commercial.

Background music - neither good or bad

Many people use music as background – emotional shorthand. Research shows that this is neither a positive nor a negative factor. It does no harm and it does no measurable good. Do great preachers allow organists to play background music under their sermons?

Sound effects are good

While music does not add to the selling power of commercials, sound effects – such as sausages sizzling in a frying-pan – can make a positive difference.

Cur actors, save cost

The easiest way to reduce the cost of a commercial is to cut actors out of the storyboard. Every actor you cut will save you between $350 and $ 10,000, depending on how long you run the commercial. Copywriters specify that a commercial should be shot in Bali When it could equally well be shot in a studio for half the price.

More money spend == less power to sell?

I have no research to prove it, but I suspect that there is a negative correlation between the money spent on producing commercials and their power to sell products.

Make several audio adverts

Because radio is a high-frequency medium, people quickly get tired of hearing the same commercial. So make several. Compared with television, radio commercials cost almost nothing to produce.

Think Different is a corporate campaign championed by Steve Jobs

Corporate campaigns seldom have more than one supporter – the Chief Executive Officer. He alone has the vision to recognize its long-term value. His marketing executives regard any diversion of advertising dollars from their products as a frivolous waste of money, and his financial officers cast greedy eyes on the appropriation whenever there is a short-fall in earnings.

CEOs don’t need to be in the adverts! C’mon

A word of warning to Chief Executive Officers: if you appear in your own commercials, you will be recognized wherever you go and thus become an easier target for kidnappers. More serious, you may not say your lines as well as a professional announcer.

Who are thought leaders?

Many corporations have told me that they need only reach ‘thought-leaders’ – the people who influence other people. This sounds sensible, and not too expensive. The problem is that nobody really knows who the thought-leaders are. Bishops? Bartenders? Political busybodies? Garrulous taxi-drivers? Thought-leaders are spread throughout the population.

Travel adverts

People don’t go half the way round the world to see things they can equally well see at home. If you want to persuade the Swiss to visit the United States, don’t advertise ski resorts. If you want Frenchmen, don’t advertise American food.

Entice of the new and different

I particularly remember one which sought to persuade American tourists to visit the French provinces. ‘When you’ve seen France, you will never go back to Paris.’ I believe that charm works well in tourism advertising. And differentiation. If you write your headlines in French, everybody will know you are advertising France.

Test one variable at a time

You can test every variable in your mailings and determine exactly its effect on your sales. But because you can only test one variable at a time, you cannot afford to test them all. So you have to choose which to test. Experienced practitioners always test some variables, but seldom those which experience has taught them make little difference in results.

drawings » photographs

Good photographs of your product cost more than bad ones, but they also sell more. When you want to show something that cannot be photographed, like cutaways of the inside of your product, use a drawing.

Audience and sales are different

Remember, there is no correlation between the size of your audience and the number of orders you receive.

P&G’s rigorous advertising with free samples

First, P&G is disciplined. Their guiding philosophy is to plan thoroughly, minimize risk, and stick to their proven principles. To get a broad trial quickly, they distribute home-delivered samples on a massive scale. In 1977 their Chairman said, ‘The largest part of our initial investment is usually in the form of introductory sampling.…Only when satisfied customers have had firsthand experience with the product will the elements of the marketing mix, such as advertising and selling, be fully productive.’


Their Achilles’ heel is their consistency. They are always predictable. It helps to win battles when you can anticipate the enemy’s strategy. The best of all ways to beat P&G is, of course, to market a better product. Bell Brand potato chips defeated P&G’s Pringles because they tasted better.

Promise something in the advert

Dr. Johnson was right 200 years ago, and there is abundant evidence that he is still right today. Advertising which promises no benefit to the consumer does not sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise whatever.

Asking the correct question!

When Gone With the Wind was a runaway best seller, we asked a cross-section of the adult population whether they had read it. The number of yes replies was obviously inflated; people did not want to admit that they hadn’t read it. The following week we put the question differently: ‘Do you plan to read Gone With the Wind?’ It was easy for those who hadn’t read it to answer yes, they planned to read it, while those who had already read it said so. This produced a credible result.

With kids

Group dynamics. You show your commercial to a group of children and then get them to play games, like talking to a friend on a play telephone about your commercial. Or you get them to imitate the characters in the commercial. This procedure reveals misunderstandings and negative reactions.

How innovative is the company?

About 35 per cent of supermarket sales come from products which did not exist ten years ago. You can judge the vitality of a company by the number of new products it brings to market.

Why new products fail?

More often new products fail because they are not new enough. They do not offer any perceptible point of difference – like better quality, better flavor, better value, more convenience or better solutions to problems.

Reviving products?

Don’t waste time on problem babies. Most marketers spend too much time worrying about how to revive products which are in trouble, and too little time worrying about how to make successful products even more successful. It is the mark of a brave man to admit defeat, cut his loss, and move on. Concentrate your time, your brains, and your advertising money on your successes. Back your winners, and abandon your losers.

Good photos / picture are important!

In the long run, the manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined image for his product gets the largest share of the market. The manufacturer who finds himself up the creek is the short-sighted opportunist who siphons off his advertising dollars for short-term promotions.

Promotions are short termed

Said Bev Murphy, who invented Nielsen’s technique for measuring consumer purchases and later became President of Campbell Soup Company: ‘Sales are a function of product-value and advertising. Promotions cannot produce more than a temporary kink in the sales curve.’

When promotions work

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to all promotions. I would not, for example, think of launching a detergent without sampling to consumers.

Pricing is not a guesswork

It is usually assumed that marketers use scientific methods to determine the price of their products. Nothing could be further from the truth. In almost every case, the process of decision is one of guesswork.

No relation between quality and price

Yet when Professor Reisz of the University of Iowa tried to relate the prices of 679 brands of food products to their quality, he found that the correlation between quality and price was almost zero.

Cutting back during recessions

Studies of the last six recessions have demonstrated that companies which do not cut back their advertising budgets achieve greater increases in profit than companies which do cut back.

Recovery after the war

but Unilever continued to advertise one of their brands during all the years it was not on the retailers’ shelves. When the war ended and brands returned, the Unilever brand emerged at the top of the heap.

when is it cheaper

Advertising is still the cheapest form of selling. It would cost you $25,000 to have salesmen call on a thousand homes. A television commercial can do it for $4.69. If you spend $10,000,000 a year on advertising, you can now (1983) reach 66 per cent of the population twice a month.

Perception of active

Always hold your sales meetings in rooms too small for the audience, even if it means holding them in the WC. ‘Standing room only’ creates an atmosphere of success, as in theatres and restaurants, while a half-empty auditorium smells of failure.

Local offices vs parent office

The local agencies, even when they belong to the multinational agency which has the parent account, are equally resistant to dictation; they argue that their market is different, and point to the danger of being perceived by the local client as the tool of his multinational headquarters.

In tune with the locals

Says Barry, ‘What is the significance of a Western jingle to a person who dances beautifully to the sound of a bamboo flute?’

Another advertising …

He loathed talking on the telephone, and abominated committees. He never belonged to an advertising club, and avoided his competitors.