Over half a century later, David Ogilvy’s wit and business acumen still has a spot on the required reading list.
Considered required reading for all advertising professionals, Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, aka “the father of advertising,” still reads like an advertising 101 manual 60+ years after it’s publication. At the time of writing Confessions in 1963, Ogilvy estimated the average consumer viewed 5,000 ads/week. That number has grown between 4,000 to 10,000 ads/day, with each one directly or indirectly influenced by Ogilvy and his work. Confessions, in Ogilvy’s own words, was “to make myself better known in the advertising world,” but went on to become an instant success with millions of copies sold worldwide in 14 different languages and influenced countless advertising professionals. Ogilvy transformed the advertising industry during the mid-twentieth century with his creative genius, inspirational philosophy, and pioneering ideas. Confessions is a must read for all professionals who sell anything to customers due to Ogilvy’s unique ethos on management, communication, sales, client relationships and life at large that accelerated him to the top of Madison Avenue during the advertising heyday.
Written in a conversational and endearingly British 1st person voice, Confessions outlines Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency’s successes along with colorful anecdotes from Ogilvy’s life outside of advertising. Although Confessions does not have a story arc or traditional textbook style, Ogilvy espouses advice on both professional and personal life. Despite the title, the book does not actually detail confessions but rather rich vignettes of Ogilvy’s personal history and lessons learned from dropping out of college, working as a chef in a high-end French restaurant, selling stoves door-to-door, conducting Gallup research and growing Ogilvy & Mather into Madison Avenue’s top ad agency. Many of the business principles discussed still hold true today; however, Ogilvy’s 1983 “Ogilvy on Advertising” publication is better suited for the classroom or learning environment.
Using his unique personality and experience in writing copy, Confessions is a very personable read, where one actually walks away feeling like they just met and interacted with the Ogilvy in real life. His style, wit and advice pepper the text in the form of memorable quotes. When talking about a product, Ogilvy recommends “tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.” When discussing stale client accounts, Ogilvy “resign[s] accounts when [he] lose[s] confidence in the product. It is flagrantly dishonest for an advertising agent to urge consumers to buy a product which he would not allow his own wife to buy.” Ogilvy-isms go beyond business and include personal recommendations such as “leav[ing] the children with a neighbor” and “tak[ing] a sleeping pill every night for the first three nights” during a vacation. His ability to charm via copy and salesmen demeanor shines through even in his non-advertisement writings.
Aside from humorous and witty one-liners, would someone picking up the book today still find value in reading it? Would a business school student or marketer early in their career gain the same insights today as readers 60+ years ago? It’s hard to weigh in on such a paramount text, especially when one review goes so far as to compare Confessions to Mt. Rushmore in terms of momentousness and the impact it still has on advertising to this day.
With the advent of the internet, social media, mobile, and countless other new-age ad distribution channels, not everything Ogilvy discusses remains relevant in 2019. At the time of writing, television was still nascent as a distribution channel for ads and telling of the time, Ogilvy is explicit in his decision to stay away from TV ads as he was yet to see an effective one. Regardless of the time period, the tenets that are presented in Confessions, such as “the customer is not a moron; she is your wife,” will always hold true in the business world. Amidst the vignettes and Ogilvy-isms, there is business acumen and inspiring advice that any young professional should review. Ogilvy’s clients hired him and his agency for their advice and professional opinion, not because they were more adept at the mid-twentieth century equivalent of Photoshop and Instagram marketing.
Here are the (my) top 5 takeaways presented in Ogilvy-isms:
“Your role is to sell, don’t let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising.”
The purpose of advertising is to make sales. Ads should be simple and state the value of the product. Creativity in copy or illustration does not sell products nor impress Ogilvy.
“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.”
Product positioning is central to advertising. Ogilvy liked to approach positioning by answering what does the product do and who is it for? In answering these questions, Ogilvy conducted market research and then created campaigns.
“Advertisers who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore the signs of the enemy.”
Ogilvy worked for Dr. Gallup, of the Gallup Poll, and was an expert in market research and understanding the buyer persona. To understand his product position and buyer persona, he utilized research.
“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”
Ogilvy respected his target buyers by providing them relevant product information in simple terms. He was not impressed with overly creative or clever advertisements whose relevance were often lost on would-be buyers.
“On 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.”
Ogilvy understood that successful advertising starts with a headline. Capture attention, provide information and speak in plain language to a well understood audience. Creating a headline that sticks only comes after knowing the product, understanding the customer, and communicating in terms the customer understands.
There is no denying that “things have changed” since Ogilvy’s time occupying the top spot on Madison Avenue. The only recommendation would be for an enterprising, and equally endearing/witty, advertising professional to update Confessions with an afterword highlighting where Ogilvy-isms still ring true today and the 2019 updates. All around, Confessions is a worthwhile read for any young professional looking for both lifelong business and personal lessons.