Aidan Leather

What I learnt from Ogilvy on Advertising

December 27, 2022
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Who was David Ogilvy?

Scotsman David Ogilvy is lauded as one of the founding fathers of modern advertising. He founded the advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, in New York in 1948. It remains one of the most well-regarded agencies in the world (now called Ogilvy).

He lived a varied, interesting life. By way of scholarship, he attended a well-regarded private school in Edinburgh, followed by Christ Church, Oxford. But, after 2 years, he was kicked out. So, he moved to Paris to work as a chef for a year, before returning to Scotland to sell AGA cookers door-to-door.

(It's worth noting that Ogilvy’s time as a door-to-door salesman had a significant impact on his approach to marketing later in life.)

A whistle-stop tour of Ogilvy’s other pre-Ogilvy & Mather occupations:

  • he was an account executive at Mather & Crowley;
  • worked as Research Director for Gallup;
  • during WW2 he was tasked by the British Intelligence Service with ruining the reputations of businessmen who supplied the Nazis;
  • and finally, he bought and ran a farm in an Amish community.

And only then - after realising that he wasn’t best suited to farming - did he decide to up sticks to Manhattan to found Ogilvy & Mather.

Advertising pioneer, David Ogilvy

Enjoyable and easy to read

First things first, I really enjoyed reading Ogilvy on Advertising. From the off, it’s laden with charming examples of 20th-century advertising. This makes Ogilvy's wisdom easy to follow — and easy to use in practice, too.

It’s worth mentioning that - aside from being an excellent primer in advertising - the book itself is beautiful. (It might not be the most important thing, but the simple, striking cover looks rather nice around the house.) And if you’re short on inspiration, flicking through the book will surely jolt your brain into action.

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”

Still relevant today

One could say there’s talk of outdated mediums; or mediums that have fallen out of favour. For instance, print and TV aren’t exactly the be-all-end-all in marketing anymore. And unfortunately, there are no chapters on LinkedIn ads.

But Ogilvy focuses on principles that underpin every channel. So, outdated or not — the historical insights certainly don’t detract from the relevancy of the book and add a whole load of charm.

Ogilvy's ad for Rolls Royce

Focuses on the fundamentals

The book is a great primer on advertising fundamentals. Not just the fundamentals that one should learn at the start of their career — the kind of fundamentals that one should always be relearning.

Central to this is the importance Ogilvy places on research and testing, which I found particularly interesting. (As mentioned, before founding Ogilvy & Mather, Ogilvy was a research director at Gallup.)

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

Given how easy it is to test copy and creative in 2022 - especially when compared to most of the 20th century - we ought to routinely remind ourselves of its importance.

There’s plenty on copywriting, brand, layout and other disciplines that it’s well worth keeping front of mind, too.

The sale is king

The way he approached each discipline piqued my interest. Ogilvy unpacks each discipline - copywriting, brand, layout, etc. - through the same lens: that the primary goal of marketing is to sell. The time Ogilvy spent as a door-to-door AGA salesman seemed to instil this in him. Understandably so.

(The book has made me consider a stint in sales, or at the very least, writing direct response ads. Watch out, QVC.)

He suggests that too often marketing departments focus on creativity over results. Marketing isn’t about gratuitous copywriting; artsy design chops; or shock value. Rather, Ogilvy says that a marketer's should first-and-foremost be selling at scale. It’s nice to get back to basics!

Ogilvy literally wrote the manual on selling AGA cookers

What I’m chewing on

So, what were my main takeaways?

  1. Weirdly, the thing I keep thinking about is that serif fonts are more readable than sans-serif fonts. Supposedly, serifs help to guide the eyes of a reader, thus making the copy more readable. Consequently, Ogilvy recommends exclusively using serif fonts. This has messed with my head, a little bit.
  2. Getting the fundamentals right is 95% of the work. It’s something I think about a lot, but I’m not sure this point could be over-laboured. It’s always useful to hear additional reasons to make ads that are simple, engage the reader and are well laid out.
  3. Ogilvy was a cool guy. It’s nice to have people - greats, if you will - to look up to. Ogilvy’s personality really shines through in his copywriting — which I suppose isn’t surprising. I’m not sure how many advertising “heroes” I have… but Ogilvy is certainly up there.
  4. People used to be really sceptical of advertising. It’s interesting to remember how sceptical people were of marketers when the profession was in its infancy. I’m not sure “the people” love marketers now - most are probably indifferent, at best - but it makes me think about Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix and so on — the kind of scandals we see today.
  5. There are lots of other classic advertisers I should read about. I think Rubicam is next on my list, though I’m currently blasting through Joseph Sugarman’s guide to copywriting, which I’ll also probably write about here.
  6. Sales/revenue/cash/converting is king.

Marketer? Try it

If you’ve read the book, let me know what you think on LinkedIn. And if you haven’t, I recommend it. Plus, it looks quite charming on your coffee table when you’re done.

Find the book on Amazon...or AbeBooks.


Written whilst listening to What’s Real by Jazz Liberatorz [Spotify | YouTube]