Throughout his wildly successful copywriting career, David Ogilvy coined some of the most celebrated slogans of all time for some of the world’s biggest brands. He worked with everyone from Rolls Royce to Schweppes, and was described by Time magazine in 1962 as “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.” 

Though the advertising landscape has changed considerably since Ogilvy’s time, he’s left an enduring and respectable legacy. But what’s perhaps even more timeless than his advertising efforts are the lessons he spun for aspiring ad-folk. 

Indeed, anyone in the marketing game can learn something from David Ogilvy. Whether it’s on branding, creativity, research, or productivity, he covered the lot. And we’ve rounded up 6 of these lessons so that we might all learn a thing or two from “the father of advertising.”

1 – Don’t forget to sell

“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.” — David Ogilvy.

There’s a lot of advertising out there, and a lot to compete with, and in trying to stand out from the crowd it’s tempting to be as eccentric and eye-catching as possible. The problem is that when we focus too much on the creative aspect of an advertisement, we can forget to actually sell the product

“Your role is to sell, don’t let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising.” — David Ogilvy.

So we need to remember that no matter how creative we try to be, the heart of our advertisements must be the products or services themselves

2 – Who’s it for and what does it do?

“I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin. This is still working 25 years later.” — David Ogilvy.

When we’re creating an advertisement, it’s crucial that we understand what the product/service being advertised actually does and who we’re aiming it at. Without this knowledge our ads won’t have any direction, and directionless ads are incredibly detrimental to our marketing efforts. 

An effective way to check if we’re on the right path is to look over our ads and see if they answer the questions “Who’s it for?” and “What’s it do?”. If the answer to one or both of those questions isn’t forthcoming, then it’s back to the drawing board! 

3 – Use relatable language 

“It seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.” — David Ogilvy.

Nobody likes jargon. And though it can be tempting to use technical, industry-specific, language to communicate your expertise, it’s best to be avoided where possible. People respond better when they don’t feel patronised, and one failsafe way to patronise your audience is to frazzle them with complex language

So how do we make sure our copy isn’t patronising? We’ll turn to Ogilvy for the answer to that one:

“Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read.” 

Think of the people closest to you when you’re writing advertising copy, and ask yourself how they would respond to the language you’re using

Also, really consider who your audience is and how they speak to one another. If you’re aiming a product at children, think how you can alter your words in order to make them more resonant. What kind of style and flow might be most effective? 

But in order to properly answer these questions, you also need to. . . 

4 – Do your research

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

Observe your competitors and the material that’s already out there. It’s always important to look at what’s already working and why. Equally, it’s also extremely valuable to look at what’s not working and why. By researching the competition, we can get a clearer understanding of what style of advertising is currently doing well, and how we might improve upon it.

It’s also crucial to conduct research into our own advertisements. By looking at how successful our previous efforts have been, we can start to uncover the aspects of our marketing that are driving sales. By testing, gathering feedback, and tweaking, we can start to fine-tune our ads in order to make them as effective as possible. 

5 – Focus on the headline

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” — David Ogilvy.

Writing good headlines is an art form in its own right, and a critical step towards advertising success. In essence, your ad’s headline is one of the first things your readers will engage with. So it acts as the hook. 

Let’s look at an example from the master himself: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”. This was actually one of Ogilvy’s personal favourites, and it’s easy to see why. There’s an immediate hook created by the apparent paradox of the statement. And any reader with even a slight interest in cars will have questions. Thus their desire for answers will lead to further engagement with the ad, and there you go. 

From a logical perspective it makes a lot of sense. Write a good headline and people will want to know more, write a bad headline and people won’t care.

6 – Utilise information

“The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.” — David Ogilvy.

Ultimately, what sells better than facts? Let’s say you see two ads. One lists ten positive benefits of a product, and the other lists three positive benefits of a similar product. Which would you be more likely to purchase? 

By sharing information about our products and services, we appear more transparent and trustworthy. We’re showing that not only do we have nothing to hide, but we take pride in what we’re offering.  

Also, information, facts, and figures can be incredibly persuasive. They help to validate the claims we make about the things we sell. It’s a sort of “don’t just take our word for it” approach. 

So use lots of information wherever possible, but remember to keep it engaging, on-point, and enticing.

Copy is key

Ogilvy would be the first to shout about the importance of words in any kind of marketing. Copy does, after all, make up a huge portion of our advertising communication. 

To learn more about the craft of good copy, take a look at our previous posts on how to write compelling content and brilliant straplines.