David Ogilvy

What I Have in Common With a Legend

I don’t wear tweed suits or smoke a pipe. And my real estate holdings may not run to a chateau in the South of France.

But I still have one important thing in common with David Ogilvy.

We both worked in sales before we worked in advertising.

At fifteen I worked Saturdays at the local department store selling bedding.

Before university I spent a year selling wine at a 300 year old London wine merchant.

These two jobs taught me basic sales techniques.

How you never lead with a closed question.

(I’m amazed how many retail salespeople still get this wrong.)

It’s never, “Can I help you?”

It’s always, “How can I help you?”

The first question can be answered with a No!

And if you don’t want to hear No!—don’t make it easy for prospects to say it!

The more open-ended your questions, the more you find out what’s on a prospect’s mind.

That’s how you get inside their head.

And once you’ve poked around in there and made some sort of connection, you ask the obligation question.

If I throw in a sheet set with this deluxe mattress you like, would you buy it today?

After university I talked my way into Advertising.

And what I’d learnt in sales was useful in a couple of ways.

First, I was comfortable presenting, internally or to clients, and I could usually sell the work I wanted to sell.

Second, because I’d spent a few years selling to different people, I could empathize with them.

Selling to people face to face is much easier than selling to people you never meet.

Selling to people you’ve never met is akin to a thought experiment.

And I had a better idea how to think my way into the head of a mum with 2 kids, or a 19 year old bloke going out with his mates or whoever the target was.

I had a better idea of what they would respond to, because I had a better idea of who they were.

Einstein used thought experiments to understand the universe.

A famous one had him imagining a man floating in a box in zero gravity.

I never fully understood it.

But there was one I could understand and I used it to write ads.

I’d imagine the target in a shop so I could talk with them one-on-one.

And I could usually visualize this quite well because I’d spent a lot of time talking with prospects in shops.

John E Kennedy, another advertising legend described advertising as, “salesmanship in print.”

How exactly do you write that if you’ve never really sold anything?

It’s hard enough when you have.


The New Door-to-Door

Not so long ago business was simpler. You had a brand.

You advertised it.

It was called brand advertising.

You had a sales force.

They knocked on doors (figuratively or literally) and sold your brand.

There was a clear delineation between advertising and selling.

Now the distinction is blurred beyond recognition or no longer exists.

You’re selling to someone on their mobile while they’re waiting for the bus and watching videos on Facebook.

Screen-to-screen selling is the new door-to-door.

It’s versatile. It can sell you Grumpy Cat or financial services with a couple of clicks on Apple Pay.

It’s infinitely scalable.

It’s granularly trackable.

You don’t need an army of sales people demonstrating your vacuum cleaner house by house.

All you need is a great demo video and Fulfillment by Amazon.

Screen-to-screen selling is the future, but the switch from traditional advertising can be a tricky one to make.

Tricky enough that eCommerce accounted for a mere 6.5% of overall retail sales in 2014.

While marketing fundamentals haven’t changed that much, the peripherals are quite another story.

Half the lessons learned from a hundred years of marketing history no longer apply.

And no one seems entirely sure which half.

Here are a few things we do know:

Only one opinion counts and it’s not the agency’s. It’s not even the client’s.

The only opinion that matters is the click-through rate.

And there, in a nutshell is the good and the bad of digital advertising from a creative perspective.

It’s good knowing what works and precisely how well it works.

It’s not so good when what works isn’t what you hoped would work.

Say your finely crafted headline is out-performed by a meat and potatoes headline.

Once this happens, there isn’t much you can do about it.

It’s hard to argue with analytics.

And digital produces lots of analytics.

Sooner or later they will make a mockery of your judgment and kill your favorites.

When this happens you either learn to roll with it, or face a lifetime of frustration.

And this happens on a macro level too.

When Y Combinator’s Paul Graham was asked to invest in Airbnb—here’s how he reacted, in his own words:

“I thought the idea was crazy. … Are people really going to do this? I would never do this.”

Clearly not a potential customer, but he still became an investor.

He didn’t go with his gut, he went with the numbers.

And today Y Combinator’s seed investment is worth north of half a billion.

Here’s another thing we know.

Benefits don’t need to be spelled out. If your phone has 24 hours of battery life, while continuously web surfing over a 4G LTE network, people will quickly figure out they need to recharge it less.

Increasingly, features are benefits.

And unless your product benefits are mind-blowingly esoteric, or earth-shatteringly new, you probably don’t need to explain them.

This is nothing new. Back in the 60’s David Ogilvy wrote, “Headlines that promise a benefit sell more than those that don’t.”

A phrase which has often been misunderstood to mean: Headlines with a benefit sell more than those without one—which is not the same thing at all.

The key word is promise.

Let’s look at one of Ogilvy’s most famous ads: rolls_royce_ad The benefits are inferred not stated.

The clock can be heard because the engine is quiet.

The engine is quiet because it is well-engineered.

The benefits of good engineering are twofold.

Passengers can hold a conversation without shouting, and a well-engineered engine is presumably, a reliable engine.

But the reader has to join the dots to get there.

The headline doesn’t directly promote these benefits; it just nudges you towards them.

It’s the promise of a benefit that does the heavy lifting.

And online, a feature is often enough of a promise for the benefit to be understood.

Consumers are savvier than they were in the 60’s.

And that’s good news, because it allows for more direct sales communication.

Something Ogilvy, a former door-to-door kitchen stove salesman, would have appreciated.

What he would have made of screen-to-screen marketing, sadly remains conjecture.

Killers and Poets

David Ogilvy once said, “Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers...If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.” Poets understand emotion.

They know how to make you feel what they want you to feel.

They work magic.

Killers understand strategy and know how to stay on it.

They work logic.

Clients love killers.

Then there’s the unicorn, the mythical killer poet, who can stay on strategy while making you give a damn about dish soap, or margarine, or just about anything.

These killer poets don’t only write advertising.

Some write about killers.

And these ex-copywriter’s have been responsible for some of the best crime novels ever written.

There’s logic to this.

A large part of copywriting is problem solving.

But problem solving is rarely straightforward, as Dashiell Hammett pointed out:

“The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.”

For a couple of years Hammett was the highest paid writer in America.

In the end he drank it all away, but not before banging out classics like, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

While he was learning his craft, he worked as copywriter for Samuel Moss, a San Francisco jeweler.

Hammett, an ex-Pinkerton man was every bit as tough as his creations, in spite of bad health.

During the McCarthy hearings he refused to name names, preferring to serve time.

Legend has it that when he went to prison the guards addressed him as Mr. Hammett out of respect.

The late Elmore Leonard was another ex-copywriter.

He worked for several years at Campbell Ewald, in Detroit.

Then he wrote more than 40 novels, including some great ones like: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch.

A master of quirky dialogue and stripped down prose, around 15 of his books have been made into movies.

His 10 rules of writing are excellent advice and #10 should be hung over every copywriter’s desk:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Philip Kerr worked as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi.

His Bernie Gunther novels may not be a household name--yet.

Tom Hanks is producing a series for HBO based on Kerr’s brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy.

Kerr’s hero Bernie Gunther, is a grouchy ex-cop, caught up in the maelstrom of Berlin between the wars.

Tough, cynical, funny, Gunter is a classic private dick.

He’s talking about crime, but could just as easily be talking about advertising, when he says:

“The man who succeeds is the man who is able to reduce problems to their simplest terms and who has the courage of his convictions.”

As every reader of crime fiction knows, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s a pattern.

Copywriting sometimes feels like looking for clues; discover one and you get a better idea of what the next one looks like, a better idea for conjuring up your own blend of logic and magic.

A better shot at becoming a killer poet.

Advertising -- the Worst Profession in the World

Try this. Ask a member of the ad industry what percentage of ads they think are crap.

Most will say 90%.

Some will say 95%.

David Ogilvy said 99%*

No one I’ve ever asked has gone below 90% but lets allow a big margin for error.

Let’s say 70% of ads are crap.

I don’t think anyone is going to say it’s less than that.

And the hypothesis also means 30% are good, right?


Can you imagine if bus drivers operated with a 30% success rate?

Or heart surgeons?

Or refs?

There would be carnage on the roads, corpses piling up in hospitals and riots in every football stadium.

No other profession I can think of would tolerate a 30% success rate.

But in advertising it’s par for the course.

Which suggests that as a profession we seem to be OK with being crap.

Of course it’s not all crap.

Any given year Cannes, CLIO, D&AD and The One Show, among others, hand out awards that prove it.

Even if you disagree with some of the stuff that wins, it’s undeniable each year turns up a slew of very good work.

It even gets published in convenient annuals to inspire us to do more good work the next year.

But we keep right on producing 70% crap.

It’s amazing we even get paid for being so ineffective.

Why do we do it in the face of all that excellence?

Not to mention a whole literary sub-genre dedicated to producing great advertising.

From Claude Hopkins' Scientific Advertising or Ogilvy on Advertising to Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor from Jerry Della Femina through to Sorry for The Lobsters by Neil French.

There are bookcases of erudition aimed at fostering excellence, and most of all, of avoiding crap.

Doesn’t anybody read them?

If they do then, why doesn’t all this knowledge improve things?

Or does it?

Would we be suffering even more than 70% crap without it?

Maybe we should take a closer look at what we mean by crap.

If I don’t like something, I may well say it’s crap.

And I probably like different ads than you do.

So your crap and my crap may be poles apart.

You may even like my crap and vice versa.

Crap is subjective.

A creative person’s criteria for good advertising may be freshness and imagination.

A client’s may centre around ROI.

An account exec's may revolve around a happy client.

As much as I believe creative advertising is the way to go to maximize ROI.

It’s also undeniable that crap can be effective.

Think about all that dreary financial direct mail.

Or all those bad infomercials.

Someone is crunching the numbers.

They don’t keep them coming because they’re ineffective.

They work.

But just because they work, doesn’t mean they’re not crap.

Since they work, does it matter?

That depends on your point of view.

And what is advertising, if not a point of view?

Theoretically you could give the same brief to two different agencies and get exactly the same ROI.

But one agency's work would win loads of awards and the others' would be crap.

So does it really matter?

Well, I like to sell stuff with a bit of dignity, style and wit.

I think it works best and it’s the way I prefer being sold to.

And if it makes the industry a little less crap.

I’m all for it.

* "Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn't sell much of anything." -David Ogilvy