12 Unforgettable Lessons from Legendary Advertiser, David Ogilvy

Legendary Advertising Quotes

David Ogilvy is a name that’s practically synonymous with advertising. If you work in marketing you’ve probably heard of him before. Often called The Father of Advertising, Ogilvy is one of the most influential figures in advertising history…and one of the most quoted. His advertising methods and ideologies have stood the test of time and are as valuable today as they were 50 years ago.

If you’re looking for inspiration, need a bit of guidance, or just want to be entertained, this post is for you. Here are twelve lessons from the master himself that will make you a better marketer:

1. You Must Believe in Your Products or Services

“Good copy can’t be written with tongue in cheek, written just for a living.

You’ve got to believe in the product.”

Writing is only great when there’s conviction. Have you ever tried to write about a product or service that you had no faith in, or just didn’t understand that well? Of course you have—we’ve all been there. To produce our greatest work, you must test, understand, and be enthusiastic about the product. Above all, you have to believe in the product.

Believing often requires placing yourself in the ideal customer’s shoes. Viewing the product through their eyes will help you to focus on the most valuable aspects and identify the elements that generate enthusiasm.

2. The Headline is “The Ticket”

“The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat.’ Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.”

A meat ticket is old slang for a soldier’s identification tags. Headlines need to be targeted, significant, and specific to make an impact. Ogilvy was famous for his headline philosophy: “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.

Want to know what Ogilvy’s favorite headline he ever wrote was?

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”

Notice that he didn’t use a single adjective? There are no sensationalized elements going on in this headline. It’s pure, unadulterated facts.

3. Testing is Your Lifeblood

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

How do you know if something is producing the best results possible if you never test? Ogilvy was an adamant believer in testing, testing, testing, even going so far as to say that “The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST.”

Try asking your coworkers how they respond to several different headlines or survey customers on which graphics resonate. Testing provides answers that will help you refine your messaging and delivery

4. You Don’t Need to Be a Great Copywriter

Creating compelling copy that sells is one of the hardest jobs in marketing. By his own admission, Ogilvy believed he was a terrible copywriter. Shocking to consider, right? Thousands of copywriters (myself included) have wished at some point that we were as “lousy” at copywriting as Ogilvy. In a 1955 letter, Ogilvy lays out his twelve copywriting habits:


  • I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
  • I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
  • I am helpless without research material–and the more “motivational” the better.
  • I write out a definition of the problem and statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
  • Before actually writing the copy, I write down every conceivable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
  • Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
  • At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
  • I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
  • If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
  • The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
  • Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
  • I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry–because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.


Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.

Yours sincerely,


5. Take Time to Produce Your Best Work

“I’m terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.”

As difficult as it might seem, you should never settle for a result after the first few attempts. Consider every angle, talk to as many different people as possible from a variety of backgrounds, and write as many variations as you can think of. Sure, the majority will stink. But if you put the time and effort into the process your final result will be exceptional.

6. Informative = Persuasive

“The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”

It’s important to remember that advertising isn’t there to just sell someone on something. It needs to inform people. Even if someone is considering the purchase, they might need a tad more knowledge to sign the check. For his Rolls Royce headline, Ogilvy spent three whole weeks absorbing information and pondering the perfect line of copy. While it sounds tedious, it works.

Focus on putting as much value, accuracy, and helpful information as possible into your advertisements. Just don’t try to put everything into one ad. It still needs to be easy to digest.

7. Words Matter

“What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.”

Delivering the message is the goal of every advertisement. You can’t make someone buy something or carry out a certain action, but you can do your best to reach an interested audience with a message that resonates and compels them to take action. Make sure that what you say is taking precedence over how you say it and your audience will understand the message every time.

8. The Best Ideas are Funny

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”

I’ve never participated in a productive brainstorm that wasn’t humorous. When we’re being silly we let our guards down, and that’s when the best ideas happen. Sometimes it’s not the actual joke or silly remark that produces a great idea, but the response to the ridiculous ideas that turns into advertising gold.

Try infusing some humor into your meetings to unleash your team’s creativity.

9. The Advertisement Should Sell Without Standing Out

“A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

Eye-catching advertisements are fine, but if they’re detracting from the focus of your advertisement (AKA the product or service) they’ve failed to fulfill their function. Ogilvy firmly believed that a successful advertisement would spur the audience to think, “I never knew that before, I must try this product.”

10. Branding Can’t Be Ignored

“Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.”

Everything that carries your logo and company name is a representation of your brand. Make sure your advertisements, blog posts, email campaigns, and every other piece of content does your brand justice and improves audience perception.

The best way to ensure your business is enhancing the quality of its brand is to create brand guidelines. When you document your brand specifications and acceptable practices, there’s very little room for interpretive errors.

11. Don’t Ignore Research

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

If you don’t study you can’t expect to be successful. This applies to marketing overall, and not just advertising. Researching your audience, client, and market are all essential steps to creating a great campaign. Fake it ‘til you make it isn’t a winning policy.

Create a research process that allows you to identify your ideal customers and how you can fulfill their needs. Buyer personas are one of the most valuable tools a business uses. They help identify the characteristics, buying behavior, and brand preferences of your audience segments, making it easier to target them with accurate messaging.

12. Sometimes, Alcohol Helps

“Many people – and I think I am one of them – are more productive when they’ve had a little to drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I’m far better able to write.”

Let’s clarify—Ogilvy isn’t talking about getting completely hammered. He’s talking about relaxing, having fun, and chilling out to get in a productive mindset. If you’re struggling to concentrate halfway through Friday, a cold, frothy beer could be just the pick-me-up you need to finish that analytics report. Or maybe it’s a 15-minute noontime break to meditate in the fresh air, or a quick run on the treadmill. Find something that helps you to relax and refocus, then make it part of your weekly routine.

There’s a golden nugget that can be derived from these twelve lessons (and, of course, the master himself puts it best):

“Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.”

Producing your best work means mustering your finest efforts. Hard work breeds success. It’s clear that Ogilvy himself was a believer that hard work, rather than talent, leads to exceptional results.

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