David Ogilvy – The Advertising Classicist

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David Mackenzie Ogilvy, a renowned advertising executive and a skilled businessman, was born in 1911 in West Horsley, England. He attended both Fettes College in Edinburgh and Christ Church, Oxford on scholarships, but never graduated. After leaving school, he went to Paris in 1931 and became an apprentice chef at the Hotel Majestic. He famously said, “If I stayed at the Majestic, I would have faced years of slave wages, fiendish pressure, and perpetual exhaustion.”

From Paris, Ogilvy returned to England as a door-to-door salesman for Aga Cookers selling stoves in record numbers. His success led the company to commission him to write a sales manual for the rest of their sales team. Fortune Magazine called it “probably the best sales manual ever written.”

The manual, together with the help of his brother Francis, won him a position at the London advertising agency of Mather & Crowther. One day, not long after he started at Mather, a man came into the office asking to advertise the inauguration of his hotel but had just $500. He was sent to the novice, David Ogilvy. Ogilvy simply purchased postcards and sent invitations to names in the local telephone directory. The hotel opened completely full. In Confessions of an Advertising Man Ogilvy said, “I had tasted blood.” This also gave him a better understanding of the importance of direct advertising. He remained at the agency until 1938, when he decided to relocate to the United States, a country that had long intrigued him.

Soon after his arrival in the US, he was asked by pollster George Gallup to join his Audience Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, as associate director. Ogilvy later called this “the luckiest break of [his] life.” While at Gallup, he conducted over 400 surveys, many of them for the major Hollywood studios. Few other positions could have provided him a crash course in the ways of the American market.

During the World War II, Ogilvy worked at the British Embassy in Washington, analyzing and making recommendations on matters of diplomacy and security. He applied his knowledge of human behavior from consumerism to nationalism in a report which suggested “applying the Gallup technique to fields of secret intelligence.” The Psychological Warfare Board under President Eisenhower successfully adopted Ogilvy’s recommendations to operations in Europe in the last year of the war.

After the war, he and his first wife bought a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and lived a quiet life in Amish Country for several years, but soon realized that he was better suited to city life and returned to New York.

With financial backing from his former employer, Mather & Crowther, Ogilvy opened his first agency, Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson, & Mather, in 1948. Until this time he had never written an ad! And years later, he sent the following memo to one of his partners:

Will Any Agency Hire This Man?

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college.

He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer.

He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy.

He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year.

I doubt if any American agency will hire him. However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

Ogilvy’s agency mantra was to create powerful, sensible copy with the deepest respect for the prospect’s intelligence. Using these principles, in the first 20 years in business, he created blockbuster ads for Hathaway Shirts, Schwepps, Lever Brothers, American Express, General Foods, Shell Oil, IBM, International Paper, Sears, Pepperidge Farm, and Rolls Royce, among others.

In 1961, Ogilvy was selected as one of the first inductees into the Copywriters Hall of Fame, and the following year, honoring his creative instinct and sharp business acumen, “Time” magazine referred him as “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry” in 1962.

In 1965, Ogilvy merged the NY agency with Mather & Crowther, his London backers, to form a new international company called Ogilvy & Mather. One year later the company went public — one of the first advertising firms to do so. Before long, it became one of the top, in demand agencies worldwide.

His books, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising, remain a bestseller today and required reading for copywriters and marketers alike. They’ve been translated into 14 languages and sales have topped one million copies worldwide.

David Ogilvy semi-retired from Ogilvy & Mather in 1973 and moved to his chateau in Touffou, France. He stayed involved in the firm’s business by mail. And came out of “retirement” in the 1980’s and served as a temporary chairman in his offices in India and Frankfurt, Germany. He represented the firm at conferences and in the media. Ogilvy continued his involvement throughout the 80’s and in 1989, the Ogilvy Group was bought by WPP, making them the largest marketing communications firm in the world. David Ogilvy became the company’s non- executive chairman until 1992, when he turned 81 years old.

David Ogilvy died at home in Touffou in 1999 having become one of the most famous names in advertising.

Creativity and Morality: David Ogilvy’s Contribution to Copywriting

Having been called the “Father of Advertising,” David Ogilvy is respected as a genius and expert in the field of selling a product. He strongly held that “the consumer is not a moron” and is revered for the creativity of his ads.

His talents first came to the attention of a national audience in 1951 when he wrote the copy for an ad campaign for Hathaway, a small Maine clothing company, to promote its line of moderately priced shirts.

Knowing from previous research that a strong dose of “story appeal” would make readers stop and take notice, he came up with eighteen different ways to inject a story element into the advertisement. The eighteenth was using a $1.50 eye patch purchased just before the ad shoot at the studio. The decision by Ogilvy to add the eye patch caused a sensation and firmly placed this campaign into ad history.

Similarly, in 1953, Ogilvy created a print campaign for Schweppes, a British maker of tonic water trying to break into the US market. He used the image of Commander Edward Whitehead, a bearded, well-dressed, distinguished Englishman, who was the head of Schweppes at the time. At the time, both a large beard and an eye patch were exotic and unforgettable, and caused both companies to obtain wild success.

The Schweppes and Hathaway campaigns were primarily tributes to Ogilvy’s visual gifts. But he was equally adept at moving consumers through the power of his words. The headline he composed for the Rolls-Royce automobile company in 1958 (“At sixty miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”) helped double that firm’s American sales in a year.

The true genius behind Ogilvy’s use of these words was not that he had thought of them, which he didn’t. He read them during his three-week investigation of the Rolls Royce plant. His genius in this case was his willingness to accept what he called “big ideas” from whatever source they came.

David Ogilvy is one of the first — if not the first — advocates of using big ideas in advertising.

He states in Ogilvy on Advertising: “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 convince them to buy your product.”

Ogilvy understood the critical importance of headlines soon after becoming a copywriter. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, he gives a counter example of the first ad he wrote — one for Aga Cookers — that he says embarrasses him because, among other failings, it lacks a headline.

After this rocky start, he learned crucial secrets for making headlines appeal to potential customers, which we share in the final part of this article. One such secret is the importance of using emotional words in headlines. His understanding of this principle is shown in his ad for Dove soap.

Ogilvy also understood the importance of long copy. “All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short.” His very effective use of long copy — as well as an effective secret-based headline — can be seen in his ad for his own book Confessions of an Advertising Man.

David Ogilvy’s Impact on Copywriting

David Ogilvy is renowned for his advertising copy in magazines, on billboards, on transit ad cards, and on early television. He is lesser known for direct mail, but he called that venue his “first love and secret weapon.”

  • He developed much of his overall advertising savvy from his early work in direct mail. Here are the core secrets he learned and passed on in his books.
  • Do your homework “You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start by doing your homework.”
  • First, Ogilvy says, you must study the product. The more you know about it, the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it.
  • “You cannot bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them.” — Ogilvy
  • Second, study the advertising your competitors have been doing for similar products and determine what success they’ve had. In Ogilvy’s words: “This will give you your bearings.”
  • Finally, research your prospects (“consumers” in his terms). What do they think about your kind of product? What language do they use when they discuss it? What benefits and features are important to them? And “what promise is most likely to make them buy your brand.”


  • Headlines that work best promise a benefit — like a whiter wash, more miles per gallon, freedom from pimples, fewer cavities.
  • Also, according to Ogilvy, headlines that offer the reader helpful information, like How to Win Friends and Influence People, attract above-average readership.

Body Copy

  • Ogilvy’s main point about body copy is “You cannot bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them.”
  • Address your prospects as individuals, not as though “they were gathered together in a stadium.”
  • Use short sentences and short paragraphs
  • Avoid difficult words. Write the way people speak in everyday conversation.
  • Tell your reader what your product will do for him, and tell it with specifics.
  • Avoid analogies. In Ogilvy’s words: “If you show a Rembrandt and say, ‘Just as this Rembrandt portrait is a masterpiece, so too is our product,’ readers think you are selling the Rembrandt.”
  • Stay away from superlatives like ‘Our product is the best in the world.’ It convinces nobody.


  • Testimonials make your copy more credible. Readers find the endorsements by fellow consumers more persuasive than your words.

These advertising secrets made David Ogilvy a success. If you follow them with attention, you’ll follow in his footsteps into the success.

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