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Ogilvy On Advertising

By: David Ogilvy

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy is highly regarded as one of the greatest books on advertising ever written and it's a must-read for every copywriter or aspiring Don Draper.

Despite the fact that Ogilvy wrote this book in the early 1980s, much of the information -- especially regarding print advertising -- is still spot-on today. In fact, the only vital aspect missing is the use of the internet for PPC advertising and inbound marketing.

Ogilvy praises the internet in his famous book for giving marketers access to targeted lists for the purpose of direct mail. At the time of publication, they had yet to realize the full potential that the internet presented for advertising to consumers.

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s very hands-on. Ogilvy shows an example for everything he discusses and there are very few pages without at least one image.

Ogilvy on Advertising is a practical guide filled with actionable advice and not stuffed with vague theories like most modern textbooks on the same subject.

The fact that so many of the principles from this book remain true today is a testament to Ogilvy’s mastery of his craft and this book deserves a spot on every marketer’s bookshelf. The following summary is an outline of Ogilvy’s approach to creating advertisements that sell.

How to Create a Successful Advertisement

“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.”

Ogilvy is clear on his stance that advertisements exist to sell, although he notes that bad advertisements can actually decrease sales of a product.

You’ll often find marketers today that are focused on the creative aspects of advertising and want to romanticize it as an artform, but Ogilvy only cares about one thing when creating an advertisement -- selling.

Do Your Homework

Ogilvy was ahead of his time in his level of preparation for creating advertisements. Of course, this is common sense today because of the level of information we have access to there’s just no excuse for not researching the product and company that you are creating an ad for.

However, this was a bigger challenge 30 years ago and many ad professionals simply didn’t invest enough time in research.

The first step in doing your homework is studying the product that you are going to advertise. Before writing the Rolls Royce ad that became the most famous automobile ad of all time, Ogilvy conducted three weeks of research.

Ogilvy also spent three weeks doing research for a Mercedes ad that increased sales in the US from 10,000 to 40,000 over the course of a year.

The next step is researching the advertising that the competition is using and measuring the success of those different ads. This gives you a milestone for comparison and insight into what has proven to work and what hasn’t.

The final step is to conduct research among consumers. Find out what they think of the product and identify the exact language they use when talking about it. Look for the claim or promise that is most likely to motivate them to buy from your brand.

According to Ogilvy, “if you are too lazy to do this kind of homework, you may occasionally luck into a successful campaign, but you will run the risk of skidding about on what my brother Francis called the slippery surface of irrelevant brilliance.”


Ogilvy defines positioning as “what the product does and who it is for.” Positioning makes it clear to consumers where your product fits into the market. Without proper positioning, you present no valid reason for people to choose your brand over one that already exists.

Ogilvy notes that he could’ve 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 position that he created over 50 years ago is still a central part of Dove’s marketing today.

Another example of successful positioning is how Ogilvy’s agency positioned SAAB as a car for winter, which up until that point SAAB had no clear profile that set it apart. Three years following the launch of that campaign, SAAB was voted best car for Norwegian winters.

Brand Image

The concept of brand image is at the forefront of marketing today, but this was still a relatively new idea when this book was originally published.

Every product has a personality, just like people do. This personality, or brand image, can make or break its success in the market. The product’s name, price, packaging, advertising style, and the nature of the product itself all contribute to its image.

Every advertisement you create should contribute to the brand image and that image should remain consistent year after year. This will get challenging as new marketing executives look to shake things up and leave their mark on the company.

Most products will benefit from an image of quality, especially products where the brand name is visible to the friends and family of customers, such as: clothing, beer, and automobiles. Cheap advertising rubs off on the product and no one wants to be seen using a product of low caliber.

According to Ogilvy, liquor distillers have to sell 90% image and 10% product. He cites research where participants were given a glass of whiskey and originally told that it was Old Crow.

Then they were served the same whiskey but were told that it was Jack Daniels. When asked which they preferred, they described two completely different drinks. They were tasting the brand image, not the actual flavor.

The Big Idea

What sets apart advertising campaigns that last for even five years or more, from those that don’t make through a year is the big idea.

Ogilvy admits that even though he is regarded as one of the best inventors of big ideas, he feels he only came up with 20 big ideas at the most throughout his career. That’s how rare the big idea is.

The big idea is where the art and science of advertising meet. You have to do your homework and understand the principles of advertising to come up with a big idea, but there is no scientific method for making it happen. It either comes to you or it doesn’t.

To recognize a big idea, you must ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
  2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
  3. Is it unique?
  4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
  5. Could it be used for 30 years?

A perfect example is how every Dove commercial since 1955 says “Dove doesn’t dry your skin the way soap can.”

Make the Product the Hero

“If you think the product too dull, I have news for you: there are no dull products, only dull writers.”

The product should be the hero of your advertisement whenever possible. Your product either solves a problem or makes life better in some way -- show consumers how that happens.

According to Ogilvy, this is best accomplished when the advertisement is written by someone that is genuinely interested in the product. He said that he never assigned products to writers that weren’t personally interested in it. He also noted that every time he had written a bad campaign, it was for a product that didn’t interest him.

One of the biggest problems that copywriters face is creating advertisements for products that realistically are no different from their competitors.

In some cases, different companies use the same manufacturer, the same technology, and the same consumer data to create products that are no different than their brand name.

In this case, Ogilvy says that all you can do is try to explain the benefits of the product in a more persuasive manner than the competition and try to add value through the style of your advertising.

Repeat Your Winners

“If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling.”

This principle is simple but often overlooked. Ogilvy notes that all too often good advertisements are discarded before losing their potency. This goes back to his first statement in the book about prioritizing selling over being creative or artistic.

He even mentions that research shows that readership of an advertisement does not decline when it is run several times in the same magazine -- it actually remains at the same level throughout the magazine for up to four repetitions.

Ogilvy stresses that you should continue to measure the effectiveness of your campaigns and only make changes after you see a decrease in performance.

As he puts it, “the advertisement which sold a refrigerator to couples who got married last year will probably be just as successful with couples who get married this year.”