David Ogilvy – ‘The Father of Advertising’

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Megan Bradbury

In our previous article ‘How to Create Captivating, Clear and Concise Written Content’ we discussed what you should keep in mind when producing content, with a particular focus on these three Cs; captivating, clear and concise. These ideas, although still popular, are actually nothing new. Their importance has been evident since advertising and marketing began, and they have been reproduced, reimagined and redefined over the years, popping up again and again with a new spin.

In this blog we would like to explore industry examples of advertisement campaigns utilising these ideas, transporting ourselves back to the 1950s and 1960s with an in depth focus on ‘the father of advertising’ himself; David Ogilvy.

Ogilvy was born in 1911 to a stockbroker and a civil servant, and spent his youth and younger years as an Oxford dropout, a chef, a door-to-door salesman and a farmer. In fact, Ogilvy did not find success as an advertising mogul until his later years. He opened his agency in New York aged 38, backed by a London agency that he would later merge with to create international company Ogilvy & Mather.

Ogilvy recalled beginning his career with “no credentials, no clients and only $6000 in the bank,” and yet his practices and ideas are still relevant today, almost 60 years later. What truly set Ogilvy apart from his competitors was his dedication to research and attention to the smaller details that most people would overlook.

The Power of Headlines

“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

Ogilvy conducted a lot of research into the minds of consumers, he knew the importance of understanding an audience and using the information to engage with them properly. One of Ogilvy’s most famous advertising campaigns helped Dove to grow into one of the most popular soap brands in the world. The title?

“Darling. I’m having the most extraordinary experience… I’m head over heels in Dove!”

In his book, ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’, Ogilvy revealed that his use of the word ‘darling’ in the Dove campaign title was no accident. He said; “A psychologist flashed hundreds of words on a screen and used an electric gadget to measure emotional reactions. High marks went to darling. So I used it in a headline for Dove.”

A memorable headline is one of the most important things when it comes to any form of advertising or marketing, and even article or blog titles because in most cases, it is the only thing your reader will read. If you want to have any shot at convincing them to read further your headlines must be compelling.



“Your headline should promise a benefit, or deliver news, or offer a service, or tell a significant story, or recognise a problem, or quote a satisfied customer.” David Ogilvy

There are many examples of Ogilvy’s work where these ideas are portrayed, such as one of his most memorable campaigns; ‘The man in the Hathaway shirt’.

Again, this campaign was no accident, Ogilvy learned from Harold Rudolph’s 1947 book ‘Attention and Interest Factors in Advertising’ that images with an element of ‘story appeal’ were more inclined to attract attention, and so he used a photograph partnered with a mysterious headline to entice readers. Ogilvy said (about his research); “This led me to put an eye-patch on the model in my advertisements for Hathaway shirts.”

The main subject of the image was a Russian aristocrat pictured in a Hathaway shirt and wearing an eye patch. The body copy didn’t divulge any more information on ‘The man in the Hathaway shirt’ but the mystery on its own was enough to attract custom.

Ogilvy’s research paid off and proved his efforts to be extremely successful as once the campaign appeared for the first time in The New Yorker magazine in 1951, Hathaway shirts were inundated with customers and could barely keep up with demand.

“Advertising which promises no benefit to the consumer doesn’t sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise whatsoever.” David Ogilvy

Perhaps the most well known Ogilvy campaign was for Rolls-Royce, which featured the headline; ‘At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock’. This headline was taken from a quote from the Technical Editor’s write-up in the British motor magazine, The Motor.

Ogilvy believed in promoting benefits to customers as, ultimately, that was what would make them buy the product. This headline painted a picture to the consumer of sitting in the driver’s seat, putting their foot down on the accelerator and hearing nothing but the faint ticking of the clock. It is safe to say that he was right as 1958 saw sales rise by 50 percent compared to 1957, when he won the account.

Ogilvy himself said that this particular headline was “the best headline I ever wrote.” Ogilvy knew that sometimes the most simple headlines could be effective when tailored to the consumer mind, and the consumer looks for benefits.

Using quotes is an effective way to write headlines because it instils trust within the reader that the product has been tried and tested by humans and has been deemed a good investment. This is especially true when the product is expensive, it can be more difficult to persuade the reader to part with large amounts of money; such as when buying a car for example.

Consider the Body Copy

“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’.” David Ogilvy

If your headline has been successful and your reader has decided to take a look at the body copy of your campaign, the next thing you should worry about is the introductory paragraph. Ogilvy was just as attentive to his body copy as his headlines because he knew that once the reader’s attention had been caught, the body copy was responsible for sealing the deal and converting the reader to a customer.

This is still true today. The headline may pique an interest, but it is up to the body copy to persuade the reader to complete whatever action is desired, be that buying a product, signing up to a newsletter or even booking an appointment.

Take this advertisement for Puerto Rico’s tourism board, ‘Girl by a gate – in old San Juan’. The mystery of the headline definitely attracts attention, but the story in the body copy paints a beautiful picture in the reader’s mind of an idyllic location that must be visited. It is this clever use of language that persuades the reader to visit Puerto Rico.

“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.” David Ogilvy

There have been some changes since the 1950s and 1960s when it comes to writing copy, the main difference being that we now write mostly for the internet rather than for printed publications, however, this idea of long copy selling more can still be applied today.

Writing clearly and concisely is important for readability and accessibility, but it is still true that when writing online you need to produce enough content for your pages to rank successfully in search engines, especially when trying to sell a product. Which means that a couple of sentences usually will not suffice. You typically want to write a minimum of 150 words, which can be considered fairly substantial.

What Ogilvy means is that, if you are trying to convince somebody to part with their money or even their time, you should at least have the courtesy to fully explain something to them. A few bullet points doesn’t illustrate to the reader that you have taken the time to produce copy that wants to inform them of all aspects of your product for instance.

Short copy is great for a list of benefits or a summary, but it should accompany a proper explanation. Some readers may feel happy to scan over a few key points, but there are those that require more information to feel happy that they are making an informed decision.

Research is essential to success

“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.” David Ogilvy

The importance of conducting research relates to all forms of content writing, especially when trying to write clearly and concisely. In order to properly articulate what something does and why it would benefit somebody you need to have a solid understanding of it.

Ogilvy believed in fully immersing himself in any company that he was advertising for, he would use their products, and would even buy shares in the company. He believed that in order to sell something he had to be fully invested in the company, including financially. If he ever felt that he no longer believed in a company he would sell his shares.

In his book ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ Ogilvy said, “I buy shares in [my clients’] company, so that I can think like a member of their family … I also resign accounts when I lose confidence in the product.”

This was completely true. Once he lost confidence in cars made by Rolls-Royce he resigned their account despite producing some of his most famous and successful work for them.

“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.” David Ogilvy

It is evident in Ogilvy campaigns such as ‘Lemon.’ that he produced for Volkswagen that he had in depth knowledge of company practises. In this particular advertisement, Ogilvy used the intense process of checking all the cars produced for any blemishes as the base. This attention to detail is the benefit of buying a Volkswagen product.

The idea of the campaign and the headline is characterised by the last line, “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.” Without the knowledge of the company’s processes, this idea would never have come to fruition.

By conducting the necessary research, it opens more opportunities to create intriguing headlines and copy. Looking at a picture of a car and reading the accompanying headline ‘Lemon.’ encourages the reader to read further into the article to satisfy their curiosity.

Talk to the reader

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.” David Ogilvy

As a connoisseur of any product or service it is safe to assume that your own understanding and knowledge is immense, you’ll know it inside out and be extremely sure of it. Relaying that information to the reader often means simplifying and explaining because they do not possess any of that knowledge yet, but they are ready to learn.

Writing with the consumer in mind is important in any campaign as they are who your copy is trying to convince. Ogilvy made sure that everything he did was tailored to please and appease the reader.

Using language that is easy to understand needs to be prioritised if you have any chance of explaining anything to your reader.

“Consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Try not to insult her intelligence.” David Ogilvy

Being clear and concise does not mean that you have to write everything to a standard a child could read. It is about making a conscious effort to think about how your words will come across to somebody else who doesn’t have the insider knowledge that you have.

There is a balance between making yourself sound knowledgeable so that your opinion is welcomed without sounding condescending to the point you alienate your potential customers.

“When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing each of them a letter on behalf of your client. One human being to another, second person singular.” David Ogilvy

Talking to the reader should also be considered quite literally, in that you should address them as if they are sitting across from you and are the only person listening to what you have to say. By doing so, what you have to say becomes personal to them and they can begin to relate your offering to themselves and their circumstances.

Take one of Ogilvy’s campaigns for Schweppes for instance, ‘The man from Schweppes is here’. The copy says, “But it will take you only thirty seconds to mix it with ice and gin in a highball glass. Then, gentle reader, you will bless the day you read these words. P.S If your favourite store or bar doesn’t yet have Schweppes, drop a card to us and we’ll make the proper arrangements.”

The reader is now an active participant, they will be encouraged to try the product to see if they do in fact “bless the day”.

If the word ‘you’ were to be replaced with a generic word such as ‘someone’ or ‘one’ it would no longer pack the same punch. It is the second person singular that resonates with the reader and pushes them to take action.

Play it straight

“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.”
David Ogilvy

No matter what it is that you are selling or promoting to your audience, you should always play it straight and focus on the given topic. This idea has become even more prevalent with online ads, promotions and articles. In printed publications it is standard to stumble across topics that do not interest you, but the introduction of search engines means that it is usually no accident your reader has come to you for information.

Be precise about what it is you’re offering and give a clear delivery of all the information. The best way to come across as an expert in your field is to prove your knowledge on your given subject.

Including content that is unrelated to what you do doesn’t improve the relationship between you and your reader or customer, it actually has a negative impact and makes you seem untrustworthy. As Ogilvy said, if someone is looking for flexible pipe, all they want to know about is the pipe, and more importantly, why the pipe you’re offering to them is better than all the other pipes on the market.

Writing about anything other than the topic is selfish. You aren’t writing for yourself, you are writing for your audience and they are only interested in what they’re searching for, not what you may think will interest them.

Content marketing is important

“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.”
David Ogilvy

There is a reason that marketing strategies promote content marketing to clients. Producing articles and blogs that focus on topics around your sector are a sure-fire way to show off your industry knowledge and expertise. It is also a great way to differentiate yourself from your competitors.

The key relationship between yourself and your reader must have trust at its foundation. When there are so many options to choose between, trust is what will set you apart from everybody else. Taking the time to establish this trust should always be at the forefront.

Take a look at these examples of David Ogilvy’s articles that he published from his international agency Oglivy & Mather. Do you see the similarities between these publications and the blog sections that you see from companies and agencies today?

These practices have stood the test of time and are still as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.


  • Headlines hold power
  • The body copy must persuade the reader
  • Research is essential to success
  • Your words should speak to the reader
  • Always play it straight
  • Content marketing is important


If you want to produce written content that works for your business you should consider these ideas. Captivating, clear and concise content is key to elevating your business.

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