The 5 Lessons From David Ogilvy That Marketers Continue To Ignore


As digital marketers we love to believe we’ve invented a whole new discipline in the last 20 years, but in truth little has changed; all the principles that defined the golden era of marketing half a century ago, in particular the work of copywriting legend David Ogilvy, are the same principles that define great marketing today.

That said, for each modern day campaign that embodies those principles, there are are fifty that ignore them. Here are some of the most costly…

  1. Number 1 – Ogilvy taught us that long form copy worked better than short form. Yes, people may buy on emotion, but to rationalise that emotion they need information. Information about the features and benefits. Information about the inner workings of the product. Information about how it will make them feel and how it will affect the perception of others towards them. Yet due to social media we now create more superficial content than ever. We justify this by saying that attention spans aren’t what they used to be. That we have to get the key points across in no more than a few seconds. Bullshit. No product – bar commodities or confectionary, is sold in seconds. We may only have seconds to capture our audience’s attention. That has always been true. But we then need to hold on to it while we drown the customer in rationale for taking action. And if we fail to do that it’s not because the human brain is different now from 50 years ago. It’s because our copy isn’t good enough.
  2. Secondly, he said to test everything – now in one sense he’d love this new world of digital. So many stats. So much data. But how much of it relates to sales? We focus instead on traffic, reach, engagement, follower numbers, open rates. I’m sure Ogilvy would have been fascinated by all of that. But only after he’d looked at how much stuff he’d sold.
  3. Thirdly, he said everyone in advertising should begin with an apprenticeship in direct response. Again, the digital world should have made this easier, and it’s certainly true that many brands have made their millions from PPC campaigns, display ads, affiliate marketing and other digital direct response methods. But what percentage of modern marketers have actually managed these campaigns and done so with complete accountability for the ROI. 20%, perhaps? The majority are far too busy creating yet inspirational quote for their company’s instagram.
  4. The fourth is research, which takes me back to the point about our inability to write long form copy about product. You see I believe this inability stems from the fact we often don’t know enough about the product we’re marketing, so we have little choice but to make it about broader brand and lifestyle factors. When Ogilvy won his account with Shell, he spent the weekend reading books about petrol so that he could write thousands of words about the ingredients and how the product worked. How many marketers nowadays would bother themselves with that kind of product research?
  5. Finally, he taught us the value of big ideas. He said “If you have a truly big idea, the wrong technique won’t kill it. If you don’t have a big idea, the right technique won’t help.” There are so many reasons why he was right and it’s a subject I’ve talked about lots before, yet we are now more channel and tactic centric than ever, exacerbated I think by a constant bias towards digital.

Ogilvy would love today’s world. He’d love the visibility of data, he’d love the speed with which tests can be conducted, and he’d love the abundance of information for research with which he could construct his long form copy. Most of all though, I think he’d love how little the average marketer makes of these assets, and just what an advantage they could therefore give him.

See you next time,


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