What Copywriters Can Learn From David Ogilvy

What Copywriters Can Learn From David Ogilvy

They call him the "father of advertising," a marketing pioneer, and a creative genius. He's the author of Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising. In this blog post, we'll talk about David Ogilvy, and what we can learn from his timeless marketing advice.

Many people ask me: Where can I learn about marketing? And I think there is no better place to start than history. By learning about how marketing was built, how it worked, and how it changed, you can better understand the practices that underpin our industry. Plus, you can also discover that the most talked-about marketing strategies that seem new and different were actually invented in the previous century.

With this article, I'm starting a series of posts on advertising history. And because history is always about people, we'll start with one of the most influential personalities in marketing and advertising – David Ogilvy.

Who is David Ogilvy?

A son of a stockbroker and a civil servant, an Oxford dropout and a former chef, a door-to-door salesman, and a farmer, a businessman who started his advertising agency with, as he recalled, ''no credentials, no clients and only $6,000 in the bank,'' David Ogilvy was an interesting guy with an incredibly wise view on marketing, so wise that his marketing advice is still relevant, even after 60 years.

Ogilvy was born in 1911, made success in the 50th, and died in 1999 at the age of 88 years old. His advice is old but it perfectly fits today's marketing environment. Let's see what copywriters can learn from Ogilvy's timeless lessons. 

What today's copywriters can learn from Ogilvy's advice

Lesson 1: Do your homework

Ogilvy said:

"There is no substitute for homework. The more you know about a product, the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it."

No matter how many psychological triggers, persuasion techniques, copywriting formulas, and killer frameworks you know, you won't be able to come up with an effective message unless you really know your product. 

I work in the software development industry, and what my clients sell is hard to understand, not to mention communicate about. You need to spend years working in software development companies to understand what they do, to be able to deliver their value proposition to their potential clients. 

Even after about 8 years of working in this field, I still spend a ton of time learning about my client's services before I can write a single word.

If you're a copywriter, I would recommend that you choose a niche where you can develop your expertise, instead of taking any gig that comes your way. Only knowledge can provide you with creative insights.

Lesson 2: Focus on benefits

Ogilvy said:

"Advertising which promises no benefit to the consumer doesn't sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise whatever."

Doesn't it surprise you that Ogilvy stresses the importance of benefits, one of the most repeated rules of writing compelling copy, at a time when the Internet hasn't been invented yet?

It surprises me even more that tons of copy on the internet contains no promises at all.

Your customers will only care about your product or service if you explain how they can solve their problems or address their needs. 

To extract true benefits, you need to make a list of every feature that your product or service contains and ask yourself why each feature is included in the first place. How does it connect to the prospect’s needs, problems, or desires? You need to get to the absolute root of what’s in it for the prospect.

Lesson 3: Write compelling headlines

Ogilvy said:

"Your headline should promise a benefit, or deliver news, or offer a service, or tell a significant story, or recognize a problem, or quote a satisfied customer."

Ogilvy is talking about advertising headlines, but I'd argue that his advice is also applicable to article headlines, and even more applicable to subheadings on your landing pages.

I have articles on how to write headlines and how to write landing pages. Make sure you check them out.

Lesson 4: Write lengthy and informative copy 

Ogilvy said:

"Long copy sells more than short copy, particularly when you are asking the reader to spend a lot of money. Only amateurs use short copy."

So many years have passed, and we still have these discussions about whether readers prefer long or short copy. Well, I'd say people read both, and your choice depends on your product and how much people need to know about it to move forward and take action. 

Ogilvy was a clear advocate of lengthy, informative, and benefit-oriented copy. And I totally agree with him, because long copy lets you include more detail about your product to persuade people to buy it. If people are interested in the product you offer, they always want more information about it, not less. 

That said, short copy can also work, especially for lower-priced items that require less persuasion to sell.

Lesson 5: Grab attention in your introductory paragraph

Ogilvy said:

"If you want your long copy to be read, you had better write it well. In particular, your first paragraph should be a grabber. You won’t hold many readers if you begin with a mushy statement of the obvious like this one in an ad for a vacation resort: ‘Going on vacation is a pleasure to which everyone looks forward.'"

Many writers don’t know what they want to say, and so they begin their articles with useless information that their readers didn’t ask for, don’t need, and most likely already know, such as ‘Going on vacation is a pleasure to which everyone looks forward."

To write a great introduction, you need to focus on the one thing you want your readers to remember and get straight to the point. Check out: "How to Write an Intro Paragraph That Pulls the Readers In" on my YouTube channel for some advice on how to write a great lead.

Lesson 6: Play it straight

Ogilvy said:

"Some copywriters, assuming that the reader will find the product as boring as they do, try to inveigle him into their ads with pictures of babies, beagles and bosoms. A mistake. A buyer of flexible pipe for offshore oil rigs is more interested in pipe than anything else in the world. So play it straight."

I remember a tagline on the website of one software development company saying: "Make your app shine like a star." I thought: Why on earth would you say that? Now I know why! Apparently, a copywriter who came up with that message found the service so boring they wanted to decorate it with some stars so people think it's interesting.

Copy isn’t about what you like or find interesting, it’s about what your audience cares about. And they obviously don't care about stuff that doesn’t fit.


Lesson 7: Be specific

Ogilvy said:

"Good ad: all facts, no adjectives, specific."

In my book "From Reads To Leads" I have an entire part about clarity. It's because clarity is a must-have ingredient of great copy. 

If somebody doesn’t want you to understand what they mean – or doesn’t know what they want to say – they use vague and ambiguous wording. Sometimes, they also use vague and ambiguous language when they want to sound clever, but instead they wind up sounding disrespectful. Not being clear shows that a writer doesn’t care about their readers. 

"Consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Try not to insult her intelligence."

This is another Ogilvy's quote on that matter.

You need to tell the truth and be specific. With concrete numbers, meaningful phrases, and precise details, your copy becomes real. And when things sound real, people believe them. 

Lesson 8: Write like your customers talk

Ogilvy said:

"If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language."

He also believed that copy should be written in the language people use in everyday conversation. "I once wrote that Dove made soap obsolete,’ only to discover that the majority of housewives did not know what the word meant. I had to change it to ‘old-fashioned.’" That's a good piece of advice on using words your customers understand.

Today, we have a specific term for discovering customers' words: voice of the customer research. People write entire books about it, but in its simplest form, voice of the customer research comes down to this: listen to what your customers say and use it in your copy. 

I have a blog post on voice of the customer research, you can check it out to learn more about how to mine customer reviews to find the words for your copy.

Lesson 9: Create content that educates the reader

In his book "Ogilvy on Advertising," there is a chapter called "How to get clients." I find this chapter particularly interesting not only because it teaches you how to get clients, but also because it talks a bit about how Ogilvy advertised his own agency, Ogilvy & Mather. Ogilvy says:

"The purpose of my ads was to project the agency as knowing more about advertising. You may argue that this strategy was ill-advised, knowledge being no guarantee of ‘creativity.’ But at least it was unique, because no other agency could have run such advertisements – they lacked the required knowledge. My ads not only promised useful information, they provided it. And they worked – in many countries."

Here is what those ads looked like:

With these house ads, Ogilvy & Mather tell potential clients about the agency’s wide-ranging expertise.

OMG, this looks like a blog on marketing in print! Ogilvy used content marketing long before it went mainstream. This was a clever strategy back then, and it remains clever today: by sharing knowledge and educating your potential customers, you tell them about your expertise and build trust. And this is a sure-fire way to attract new clients and differentiate your company from competitors. 

There you have it: 9 copywriting lessons inspired by Ogilvy:

  1. Do your homework
  2. Focus on benefits
  3. Write compelling headlines
  4. Write lengthy and informative copy
  5. Grab attention in your introductory paragraph
  6. Play it straight
  7. Be specific
  8. Write like your customers talk
  9. Create content that educates the reader

Now I can't leave without a few examples of ads that David Ogilvy created.

Watch it instead:

Every week (almost) I share videos on content marketing and copywriting. Subscribe to my YouTube channel so you never miss a new video.

Ads by David Ogilvy

"The man in the Hathaway shirt" 

The strategy behind this ad comes from a book by Harold Rudolph Attention and Interest Factors in Advertising, published in 1947. One of the author's observations that Ogilvy took notice of was that photographs with an element of ‘story appeal’ were far above average in attracting attention. "This led me to put an eye-patch on the model in my advertisements for Hathaway shirts," said Ogilvy.

A photo of an elegant man (played by a Russian aristocrat) with an eye patch and a headline "The man in the Hathaway shirt" looked mysterious. No wonder it attracted people's attention. 

When "The Man in the Hathaway Shirt" appeared for the first time in The New Yorker magazine in 1951, it caused an instant sensation. The company could barely keep up with demand for its shirts.

A man from Schweppes is here

Ogilvy made an ad campaign for Schweppes, a British manufacturer of tonic water that was struggling to gain a foothold in America. To design the print ad, Ogilvy convinced Colonel Edward Whitehead, who was a successful executive and head of Schweppes' American operations to become an icon for Schweppes. 

The ad had a similar snob appeal as "The man in the Hathaway shirt" and was just as successful. Within five years, Schweppes was selling more than 30 million bottles a year. But here is what Ogilvy himself said about his strategy: "After Commander Whitehead started appearing in Schweppes advertising, he became a popular participant in talk shows on television. This kind of thing is manna from heaven, but nobody knows how to do it on purpose. At least, I don’t."

"At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock."

Ogilvy wrote this headline in 1958 and it helped double Rolls-Royce's American sales in a year.

Here's what Ogilvy said about this ad: "When I got the Rolls-Royce account, I spent three weeks reading about the car and came across a statement that ‘at sixty miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock.’ This became the headline, and it was followed by 607 words of factual copy.

When I advertised Rolls-Royce, I gave the facts – no hot air, no adjectives. Later, my partner Hank Bernhard used equally factual advertising for Mercedes. In every case sales went up dramatically – on peppercorn budgets."

Other popular Ogilvy's campaigns include Shell Oil, Dove soap, Sears, and Merrill Lynch.

If you haven't done it already, I highly recommend that you read the book "Ogilvy on Advertising." It's full of insights and fun to read. It makes you realize that "nothing significant ever really changes."

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