Listen now on
#82 David Ogilvy (Ogilvy on Advertising)
July 28th, 2019 | E82

What I learned from reading Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy.


Come see a live show with me and Patrick O'Shaughnessy from Invest Like The Best on October 19th in New York City. 

Get your tickets here


Join Founders AMA

Members of Founders AMA can:

-Email me your questions directly (you get a private email address in the confirmation email) 

-Promote your company to other members by including a link to your website with you question 

-Unlock every Ask Me Anything (AMA) episode immediately

-Listen to new Ask Me Anything (AMA) episodes every week 


In my Confessions of an Advertising Man I told the story of how Ogilvy & Mather came into existence, and set forth the principles on which our early success had been based. What was then little more than a creative boutique in New York has since become one of the four biggest advertising agencies in the world, with 140 offices in 40 countries. Our principles seem to work.

I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. 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. 

When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’

Does old age disqualify me from writing about advertising in today’s world? Or could it be that perspective helps a man to separate the eternal verities of advertising from its passing fads?

Consumers still buy products whose advertising promises them value for money, beauty, nutrition, relief from suffering, social status and so on.

All I do is report on how consumers react to different stimuli.

I ask you to forgive me for oversimplifying some complicated subjects, and for the dogmatism of my style – the dogmatism of brevity. We are both in a hurry.

I have seen one advertisement actually sell not twice as much, not three times as much, but 19½ times as much as another. Both advertisements occupied the same space. Both were run in the same publication. Both had photographic illustrations. Both had carefully written copy. The difference was that one used the right appeal and the other used the wrong appeal.

Do your homework You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start by doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious, but there is no substitute for it.

On product positioning: Now consider how you want to ‘position’ your product. This curious verb is in great favor among marketing experts, but no two of them agree what it means. My own definition is ‘what the product does, and who it is for.’ 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.

When asked what was the best asset a man could have, Albert Lasker – the most astute of all advertising men – replied, ‘Humility in the presence of a good idea.’ It is horribly difficult to recognize a good idea. I shudder to think how many I have rejected.

Make the product the hero.

There are no dull products, only dull writers.

The idea of a positively good product: It may be sufficient to convince consumers that your product is positively good. If the consumer feels certain that your product is good and feels uncertain about your competitor’s, he will buy yours. ‘If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don’t try to imply that your product is better. Just say what’s good about your product – and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.

Repeat your winners If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling. Scores of good advertisements have been discarded before they lost their potency.

You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a moving parade.

In my experience, committees can criticize, but they cannot create. Search the parks in all your cities You’ll find no statues of committees.

The good ones know more. I asked an indifferent copywriter what books he had read about advertising. He told me that he had not read any; he preferred to rely on his own intuition. Why should our clients be expected to bet millions of dollars on your intuition?’ This willful refusal to learn the rudiments of the craft is all too common.

For 35 years I have continued on the course charted by Gallup, collecting factors the way other men collect pictures and postage stamps. If you choose to ignore these factors, good luck to you. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they are found in oak forests.

Most good copywriters all into two categories poets and killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end. If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.

Set yourself to becoming the best-informed person in the agency on the account to which you are assigned. If, for example, it is a gasoline account, read books on oil geology and the production of petroleum products. Read the trade journals in the field. Spend Saturday mornings in service stations, talking to motorists. Visit your client’s refineries and research laboratories. At the end of your first year, you will know more about the oil business than your boss, and be ready to succeed him.

Be personal, direct and natural. You are a human being writing to another human being. Neither of you is an institution. You should be businesslike and courteous, but never stiff and impersonal.

Don’t get a job in advertising unless it interests you more than anything in the world.

St Augustine had this to say about pressure: To be under pressure is inescapable. Pressure takes place through all the world: war, siege, the worries of state. We all know men who grumble under these pressures, and complain. They are cowards. They lack splendor. But there is another sort of man who is under the same pressure, but does not complain. For it is the friction which polishes him. It is pressure which refines and makes him noble.

Any service business which gave higher priority to profits than to serving its clients deserved to fail.

Here I go, boasting again. There are better copywriters than I am, and scores of better administrators, but I doubt if many people have matched my record as a new business collector.

Focus on value not price: They want to know what commission you will charge. I answer, ‘If you are going to choose your agency on the basis of price, you are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. What you should worry about is not the price you pay for your agency’s services, but the selling power of your advertising.

Tell your prospective client what your weak points are, before he notices them. This will make you more credible when you boast about your strong points.

If you are lucky enough to have some news to tell, don’t bury it in your body copy, which nine out of ten people will not read. State it loud and clear in your headline.

Do not address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. 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.

All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short.

I suspect that there is a negative correlation between the money spent on producing commercials and their power to sell products. My partner Al Eicoff was asked by a client to remake a $15,000 commercial for $100,000. Sales went down.

Don’t dawdle. Most big corporations behave as if profit were not a function of time. 

When Jerry Lambert scored his breakthrough with Listerine, he speeded up the whole process of marketing by dividing time into months. He reviewed progress every 30 days, with the result that he made a fortune in record time.

Pricing is guesswork. 

Advertising is a production cost: I have come to regard advertising as part of the product, to be treated as a production cost, not a selling cost. It follows that it should not be cut back when times are hard, any more than you would stint any other essential ingredient in your product.

What did these six giants have in common? All six of them were American. All six had other jobs before they went into advertising. At least five were gluttons for work, and uncompromising perfectionists. Four made their reputations as copywriters. Only three had university degrees.

Advertising is salesmanship in print. A definition that has never been improved.

Albert Lasker made more money than anyone in the history of the advertising business.

Lasker held that if an agency could write copy which sold the product, nothing else was needed.

He once defined an administrator as somebody without brains.

He once said: I didn’t want to make a great fortune. I wanted to show what I could do with my brains.

After the war I decided to try my luck in advertising, but I stood in such awe of Young & Rubicam that I did not dare apply to them for a job. As I thought they were the only agency where I would like to work, I had no choice but to start my own. In one of his last letters before he died, Rubicam wrote, ‘We knew you before you started your agency. How come we missed you?’ By that time we had become great friends. ‘Friends’ is not the right word. He was my patron, inspiration, counselor, critic and conscience. I was his hero-worshipping disciple.

He didn’t leave behind a list of rules. He did leave behind an aphorism: resist the usual. In advertising, the beginning of greatness is to be different, and the beginning of failure is to be the same.

His attitude to the creative process can be summed up in three things he said: 

1 There is an inherent drama in every product. Our No. 1 job is to dig for it and capitalize on it. 

2 When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.

3 Steep yourself in your subject, work like hell, and love, honor and obey your hunches.

Claude Hopkins’ book Scientific Advertising changed the course of my life.

It is not uncommon for a change in headlines to multiply returns from five to ten times over.

Bill was asked what changes he expected in advertising in the eighties. He replied: Human nature hasn’t changed for a billion years. It won’t even vary in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man.


I have listened to every episode released and look forward to every episode that comes out. The only criticism I would have is that after each podcast I usually want to buy the book because I am interested so my poor wallet suffers. ” — Gareth

Be like Gareth. Buy a book: All the books featured on Founders Podcast