David Ogilvy

I am going to be really, really honest and tell you that I’d never heard of David Ogilvy until last month. Of course the second I flicked through his books, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising, I recognised a few of his campaigns; even though they are ‘before my time’.

Both books are filled with his experienced advice on creating advertising that works. True to my graphic design head I flicked straight to chapter seven How to Illustrate Advertisements and Posters in Confessions of an Advertising Man. He firstly comments that the illustration – drawing or photograph – should convey the same message as the ‘promise’ made in the headline. He goes on to say that photographs are much more successful than drawings.

“Photographs represent reality, whereas drawings represent fantasy, which is less believable”

The results he has gained by switching to photographs proves that they work better. He comments that art simply does not telegraph its’ message quick enough for use in advertisements.

Initially, I didn’t quite like this piece of advice but I have come to understand it. I just have a thing for good illustrations but I know that sometimes personal taste has to be sacrificed. Good evidence or research is one sure reason, for me, for resignation. Even from the few chapters I have read I already know that Ogilvy did his research – lots of it.

Sometimes this was simple test research. He recounts that one time his agency were in doubt (dispute) as to whether a photograph of an aircraft or a destination should be used to advertise KML airlines. They ‘split-run’ them in a newspaper and the one which pulled the most coupons gave them the answer: destinations.

Sometimes it was desk research:

“If, for example, it is a petrol account, read text books on the chemistry, geology and distribution of petroleum products. Read all the trade journals in the field.”

In his other book, Ogilvy on Advertising, he spent three weeks reading about the Rolls Royce car he was to advertise. During this research he came across an unassuming statement about how the only noise you would hear at sixty miles an hour was the electric clock. It became the headline.

Sometimes it was more psychological research. He refers to a substantial number of Doctors which have helped him understand human behaviour. One interesting analysis was that when watching films, people are more interested in actors of their own sex.

“In general, people take more interest in film stars they can identify themselves with”

He supports this research done by Dr. Gallup with analysis done into ‘3,874 dreams’ by Dr. Hall. A photograph of a woman will be ignored by men – apparently. One the same page, a photograph of a man will be ignored by woman. I thought about this in relation to perfume adverts, look at this:

Apparently though, the best way to get a woman’s attention is babies. Hmm, I guess it would depend on the product being advertised and the appropriateness of using a baby…

Oh dear…

Anyway. I watched Mad Men for the first time last night and I remember one of the stories (in the first episode) linking to this idea. It was the very first episode and Don gave an inspired off-the-cuff saga about the experience of going on a plane.

“You want to get on a plane to feel alive. You want to get on a plane to see the hint of a womans thigh because her skirt is just *this much* too short”

Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Box of Broadcasts: BBC Four, Online, (13/10/2011)












Peggy – a flourishing copywriter – comes in later on in the episode with an updated ‘comp’ which illustrates the saga and indeed the air hostess. Don looks at it and comments:

“It’s obvious, I’m uninvolved”

Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Box of Broadcasts: BBC Four, Online, (13/10/2011)












He then squares off the small child running to greet her father:

Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Box of Broadcasts: BBC Four, Online, (13/10/2011)












Peggy quickly denounces it as “sentimental” but Don counters her by saying that something with sentiment is not necessarily sentimental. Peggy raises the point that it’s being advertised at business men and “sex sells”. I loved Don’s reply: “Says who?” He then goes on to say:

“You are the product. You feeling something – that’s what sells”

He then encourages her to think about a question the girl could ask her father rather than a statement. She comes up with “What did you bring me daddy?”

I realise this didn’t involve a man being directly used to advertise to a man but in a way it did. The question spoke directly to the man in a way that he could relate to. A man looking at that advert could identify himself in that situation.

Don’s selection of focusing on the little girl and cutting out the rest of the scene is a tactic Ogilvy actually mentions! He says that crowd scenes don’t pull, illustrations should be kept simple and the interest should be focused on one person. He also notes that you should avoid large close-ups of the human face because, in his experience, they repel readers.

The chapter was filled with lots of simple, one sentence tips like this together with more detailed stories. It’s the kind of book you could pick up and just read a random chapter – or even page – and learn something. In fact both books are. Of course it’s bias, slightly out of date and you may disagree with the moral implications on some of the things. However he gives some solid, practical advice that you could easily apply. E.g:

“If you start your body copy with a large initial letter, you will increase your readership by an average of 13 percent”


2 thoughts on “David Ogilvy”

  1. The Confessions book is referred to in the series (they’re angry he’s giving away all their secrets!) The writers of Mad Men (or writer, rather) undoubtedly based a lot of the material on Ogilvy’s advice.
    Advertising has moved on, for sure, but it’s still interesting advice in there. I’d say illustrations aren’t “better’ than photos. Sometimes an illustration strikes just the right level of fantasy or non-realism. If you want to depict a “perfect” family, do it in an illustration rather than a photo because the photo will look false…
    Good review! Watch the whole series of Mad Men – the lipstick episode in series 1 is particularly interesting.

  2. Is it really – will listen out for it! Yea that was one of the things I didn’t like too much, I understand that a photo might translate quicker but as you say, illustrations have their purpose.

    Will do, I actually thought that was the first episode, realised last night that it was the first of the second series! I have started the first series now :) The surprise of finding out Don had a family was lost on me however because of that!

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