Ogilvy on Advertising

If we’ve learned one thing from reality programming, it’s that everyone thinks they know how to make an ad. And that everyone is pretty much wrong.

Such was also the case when David Ogilvy wrote “Ogilvy on Advertising” in 1983. In Ken Roman’s 2009 biography of Ogilvy, the former Chairman and CEO of the venerable Scot’s agency described its reception this way:

“‘The book of David’ as Madison Avenue called it, was judged ‘as fine a primer on advertising as has ever been written.’ John Caples said it was ‘the most exciting and instructive volume about advertising I have ever seen’ and ‘a must for every ambitious advertising man.’ In a peculiar comparison, The London Standard named Ogilvy ‘the Einstein of Advertising.’”

Which is great, of course, but you have to wonder: why, after writing “Confessions of an Advertising Man” in 1962 – a book that has few equals in our industry – did Ogilvy feel compelled to write another book covering many of the same topics? What had changed since then?

Well, the industry, of course, and Ogilvy’s position in it. By 1983, the creative revolution had steamrolled across America, making celebrities of George Lois, Mary Wells, Bill Bernbach and dozens of others. Ogilvy’s long-form copy, iconic imagery, and reasoned presentations were, in many ways, relics of another age. “Ogilvy on Advertising” was, then, the master’s attempt to reposition his agency in this brave new world.

As a result, it is quite different from “Confessions…”. For one thing, it’s infinitely more visual. Where “Confessions…” was a collection of aphorisms and essays, nearly every page here brims with photography. There are illustrations both of his own work (the Rolls Royce “clock” ad, the Hathaway Shirt ads, the Commodore Whitehead ads) as well as others’ (Bernbach’s Volkswagen ads, Y&R’s “impact” ad, John Caples’ “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano” ad among others) – along with photos of those who inhabit Advertising’s Mt. Rushmore alongside him – Bernbach, Burnett, Lasker, Resor, Reeves, Rubicam (it’s a big mountain…).

Like “Confessions…”, however, it is humble. Ogilvy is not shy of admitting his mistakes. Like the ads the Container Corporation of America started running in the 1930s that he “denounced as an exercise in pretension. 45 years later I have come to think it is one of the best corporate campaigns that has ever appeared.”

Or the $35,000 he paid Eleanor Roosevelt to advertise Good Luck margarine – “In those days I did not know that it is a mistake to use celebrities. They are remembered but the product is forgotten.”

Or even the first ad he created, for Aga cookers (“it embarrasses me to reproduce it”) – the very stove he had sold door-to-door in England in the 1930s.

That experience is the key, I think, to understanding Ogilvy’s advertising. It is print based on the door-to-door personal handselling that he performed in his youth. Something intriguing to start the conversation, a lot of logic and rationale beautifully articulated, and tremendous respect throughout for the person whose home you were intruding upon. You know, the person who is not a moron, but who is your wife…

When ads competed with this kind of selling, Ogilvy’s work performed brilliantly. But when consumers lost that frame of reference – as they increasingly did in the 1960s – it became less effective. No wonder that he became such an advocate of direct mail (as he makes clear throughout this book). No wonder that he hated billboards (see pages 213-215) and that he never really succeeded with television as his Rushmore mates did.

So is the praise that was heaped upon “Ogilvy on Advertising” in 1983 still warranted now? Well, no, and yes.

If you take Ogilvy’s artistic dictums literally – for example that you should never reverse-out type or that you should never use sans serif fonts – well, you’re going to end up producing the kinds of ads he produced. And while they might have pulled great in newspapers in the 1950s, this isn’t the ‘50s and nobody’s reading newspapers anymore.

But if you take his advertising rules seriously – that you should do your homework, that you should keep it simple and out of the hands of committees, that you should raise your sights, that you should invent big ideas – then yes, “Ogilvy on Advertising” deserves all the praise it got and more

Because those are the rules that make great advertising, and they will never go out of style, no matter how ignored they may appear at times.

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy was published by Vintage on 3/12/85 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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5 thoughts on “Ogilvy on Advertising

  1. When I wanted to get my first job in advertising, I ignored everything I had learned in school about it, which was basically nothing anyway, and holed up with a copy of OOA for a weekend and made Ogilvy ads. I’m sure they seemed old-fashioned visually, as you say, but they got me the job because they demonstrated the basics of speaking to other humans in an ad. The rest is style, but that’s the bedrock. If people ask me for books to read to learn the business, I tell them OOA to understand where the industry came from, and Hey Whipple, Squeeze This to get a sense of what it’s really like now.

  2. Ogilvy on Advertising, was it really 27 years ago? I was a 5-year “veteran” AE when I read it and it made me start thinking of this as an actual profession built on insights and ideas. Like all professions, techniques and modalities come and go but the basics remain.
    I’m looking at it on my bookshelf and although it’s been a long while since I read it, I think it’s time to read OOA again now. Thanks!

  3. I rememeber them days quite like they were just a few weeks ago, NYC in the 70’s ad scene was a rush one only gets living in California these days

  4. Great article, Martin! I don’t think Ogilvy himself would disagree. After all, one only has to look at the differences from his ’62 book to the one in ’83, and realize it’s been nearly *30* years, rather than 20 since that last one.

    As with movie making, creating comics, fiction writing, painting, songwriting and any other creative endeavor, there are timely things that go with the current trends and things that never change. (I’d imagine Leonardo would be painting digitally these days, and his women would be thinner, but the same compositions, color relationships, lighting and so on would still apply, and work beautifully.)

    Well done in pointing out those for advertising.

    Best,
    Mike

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