David Ogilvy was right...

(except when he was wrong)

Welcome to Fifth Day, where I step back from the day-to-day of the media and marketing world to experiment with new publishing platforms. In this case, that means playing with the Substack email platform.

Despite this being the second Fifth Day email, it’s the first where I actually get to the point.

And in attempting to examine the ideas that have shaped the world of marketing (which is the rationale behind Fifth Day), there's an obvious place to start - the ultimate adman, David Ogilvy.

Once you’re immersed in the advertising industry, it’s easy to forget how little you used to know.

Remember when you were one of those people who’d never heard of media agencies, and had no conception of the curious combination of art and science that goes into an ad campaign?

Not long after I started writing about this world, I was lucky enough to stumble upon 1983’s Ogilvy On Advertising.

It became one of those books that I used to lend to new colleagues wanting to know where to begin, until I realised I was constantly having to buy replacements as they never seemed to give it back.

Amazing that a book first published nearly four decades ago still contains so many building blocks.

But it’s also the audience Ogilvy was aiming the book at. As he put it: “This is not a book for readers who think they already know all there is to be known about advertising. It is for young hopefuls - and veterans who are still in search of ways to improve their batting average at the cash register.”

It’s hard now to appreciate just how famous admen (and of course, they were all men back then) were, just a generation or two ago.

These days, better informed members of the public in the US might name David Droga. UK citizens might think of Charles and Maurice Saatchi. And Gruen-watching Australians might mention Russel Howcroft.

Ogilvy, who died back in 1999 at the excellent age of 88, was close to being a household name in his own right. So famous, he was even a guest on David Letterman’s Late Show when the book came out.

He founded the agency we now know as Ogilvy in New York in 1948, although it soon became one of the largest creative networks in the world, eventually ending up (to Mr Ogilvy’s initial displeasure) in the hands of WPP.

The problem with distilling Ogilvy’s wisdom is that there’s a lot of it. Re-reading the book for this project, I’ve ended up with sticky labels on most pages.

So I’ll focus on the areas where, on re-reading now, I felt a thrill of recognition and realised that they’d sunk in many years before but I’d forgotten where they’d come from. Somehow I’d started to think some of them were my own original thoughts.

Let’s kick off.

The big idea has always mattered

“You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

In the end, if I could only pick one paragraph of Ogilvy’s wisdom, it would be the one above. Every classic ad, had a big idea at the heart of it.

Creatives set themselves up to have the big idea by inhaling the brief. But just as hard, points out Ogilvy, is recognising the big idea when it arrives. One method for assessing a new approach? Ask whether it could be used for the next 30 years.

Adland chancers are no new thing

“There have always been noisy lunatics on the fringes of the advertising business. Their stock in trade includes ethnic humour, eccentric art direction, contempt for research, and their declared genius. They are seldom found out because they gravitate to the kind of clients who, bamboozled by their rhetoric, do not hold them responsible for sales results. Their campaigns find favour at cocktail parties.”

I can still think of big pieces of business that have shifted on the strength of a charismatic creative director. The next stage is the promise of amazing work in the pipeline, which never quite emerges.

I do wonder though, whether those types - the middle aged creative directors who haven’t quite grown up - are maybe finally on the way out . Perhaps the killer is that effectiveness has finally become fashionable, and more quantifiable.

And of course, those cocktail parties now take place in Cannes.

Not every marketer wants the cold hard facts

“I sometimes wonder if there is a tacit conspiracy among clients, media and agencies to avoid putting advertising to such acid tests. Everyone involved has a vested interest in prolonging the myth that all advertising increases sales to some degree. It doesn’t.”

While in a minority now, I’ve certainly come across the sort of client who enjoys the agency making them famous with the ads as much as they do shifting units. Indeed, they’re the type who allows the agency to host them in Cannes.

Avoid human centred design

“A problem which confronts agencies is that so many products are no different from their competitors. Manufacturers have access to the same technology, marketing people use the same research procedures to determine consumer preferences for colour, size, design, taste and so on. When faced with selling ‘parity’ products, all you can hope to do is explain their virtues more persuasively than your competitors, and to differentiate them by your style of advertising.”

It was an idea build upon 37 years later in Adam Ferrier’s Stop Listening To The Customer where he argues that the more brands homogenise, the more entire categories like identical to their competitors.

The tyranny of reverse typography

“I am sometimes attacked for imposing ‘rules’. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hate rules. All I do is report on how consumers react to different stimuli. I may say to an art director, ‘Research suggests that if you set the copy in black type on a white background, more people will read it than if you set in in white type on a black background.’ A hint, perhaps, but scarcely a rule.”

More than any other issue, the one topic Ogilvy keeps coming back to in all of his books is this hatred of the use of light type on dark backgrounds. Across Ogilvy On Advertising, Confessions of an Advertising Man, The Unpublished David Ogilvy and his autobiography Blood, Brains and Beer, I counted at least six different references to the issue. He hated light on dark.

It’s been a relief re-reading the books. The message sunk in, but I had no idea why as an editor I so strongly battled against it with designed. Like I say, I’d started to think it was my own thought.

The cult of the new

If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling. Scores of good advertisements have been discarded before they lost their potency. Readership remains at the same level throughout at least four repetitions.

“You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a parade.”

Again, so much is encapsulated in this advice. Marketers and their agencies live for so long with every ad, even before it launches, that they get bored of them long before the customers do.

And the same goes doubly for taglines.

British Airways dropped “the world’s favourite airline” far too soon. “Upgrade to British Airways” was never as strong.

And when Australian beer brand VB was persuaded by its new ad agency Droga 5 to drop “For a hard earned thirst”, sales fell. “The drinking beer” lasted a year before being replaced by “The real beer”. When Droga 5 was fired, the brand went back to “For a hard earned thirst” and sales recovered.

I’ve also met plenty of B2B marketers, who believe that their target audience reads every email the brand sends them, and act accordingly.

Table diplomacy

“At the meeting when you make your presentation, don’t sit the client’s team on one side of the table and your team opposite, like adversaries. Mix everybody up.”

The worst meeting I ever had with an ad agency came when I took my team in to meet the leadership of the local office of Saatchi & Saatchi.

It was excruciating. We met across a giant, square board table.

They sat distantly on one side, my team on the other. Like some sort of delicate diplomatic negotiation, the agency boss would make a statement to me, and I’d formally respond as the two groups’ heads swivelled back and forth, as if watching a really boring game of tennis.

It had no warmth whatsoever. No wonder they weren’t winning any new business at the time.

The cobblers’ children’s shoes

“It puzzles me why so few agencies advertise themselves. Perhaps it is because the partners cannot agree on what to say.”

It’s puzzled me too. Slightly more agencies do it in the US, and occasionally in the UK. But in Australia very few do.

Yet for a fraction of what a single pitch costs, there’s such an opportunity for differentiation.

Long form copy advertising with the agency as the client made Ogilvy & Mather (of course) - and later Saatchi & Saatchi - famous.

I suspect that deep down, most agency bosses don’t actually believe that advertising could work for creating new business for them. If only they understood B2B marketing as well as they did consumers.

How to be a client

“Clients get the advertising they deserve. I know some who are a malediction, and others who are an inspiration.

“Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself. Any fool can write a bad advertisement, but it takes a genius to keep his hands off a good one.”

Perhaps the hardest part of being a client is developing taste. There will be times charismatic agency execs try to sell in bad ideas. Developing the instincts to say no after being taken on the strategic journey towards a middling idea is, I suspect, harder than it sounds.

Ads that sell

“There is no law which says that advertisements have to look like advertisements. If you make them look like editorial pages you will attract more readers. Roughly six times as many people read the average article as the average advertisement. Very few advertisements are read by more than one reader in twenty.

“I conclude that editors communicate better than admen.”

True dat. Mind you, there are a few more rules these days about not allowing ads to look too much look like editorial. And therse days, print ads aren’t the marketing bullseye.

The original data led marketer

“I have been a voice crying out in the wilderness, trying to persuade the advertising establishment to take direct mail more seriously. It was my secret weapon in the avalanche of new business acquisitions which made Ogilvy & Mather an instant success.”

And from there, direct mail led to direct marketing, led to data-led marketing. Ogilvy may not have known about the internet when he wrote the book, but he’d already seen the personalisation opportunities opened up by the arrival of computers.

Of course, central in Ogilvy’s thinking when he wrote about advertising was print ads. TVCs were a new thing when he wrote Confessions of an Advertising Man in 1963 and by no means his favourite medium even when he wrote Ogilvy On Advertising two decades later.

And print ads were where he got to flex his formidable copywriting skills. It was where the art met the science.

It was, to paraphrase Binet and Field, also where the long met the short.

Ogilvy used research to test his wilder ideas.

And the book was also home to one of his most famous quotes:

I admit that research is often misused by agencies and their clients. They have a way of using it to prove they are right. They use research as a drunkard uses a lamp post - not for illumination but for support.”

How would Ogilvy market through Covid?

“What should you do in times of recession, when you need every penny to sustain your earnings? Stop advertising?

“If you stop advertising a brand which is still in its introductory phase, you will probably kill it - for ever. Studies of the last six recessions have demonstrated that companies which do not cut back their advertising budgets achieve greater increases in profit than companies which do cut back.”

Make that eight or nine recessions by now. I wonder how many marketers will listen.

The facts, the facts, the facts

“Recently I smashed my car beyond repair and had to buy a new one. For six months I read all the car ads in search of information. All I found were fatuous slogans and flatulent generalities." If their engineering were as incompetent as their advertising, their cars would not run ten miles without a breakdown.”

I know how he feels. A couple of years back, I finally needed to buy a car. As someone who was fortunate enough to have the budget to buy new, but not much actual interest in cars, I didn’t know where to begin.

At a loss where to start, I actually found myself googling the phrase “new car”, I’m embarrassed to say.

The choice I eventually made could so easily have been swayed by better crafted ads.

The man who hated billboards.

“Billboards represent less than 2 per cent of total advertising in the United States. I cannot believe that the free-enterprise system would be irreparably damaged if they were abolished. Who is in favour of them? Only the people who make money out of them.”

But one area where Ogilvy struggled was as a futurist. For someone who comes across in his writing as somewhat irascible, he should have stood up to his publisher when they “insisted”, to use Ogilvy’s word, that he concluded the book with some advertising predictions.

If only he could have recalled the final page of his book.

Among his misses:

“There will be a renaissance in print advertising.”

“Advertising will contain more information and less hot air.”

“Billboards will be abolished.”

“The clutter of commercials on television and radio will be brought under control.”

“Candidates for political office will stop using dishonest advertising.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

In those predictions, Ogilvy mistakenly thought that the industry would act in its own long term self interest. For once, he misunderstood human nature.

Even geniuses can be wrong.


In the meantime, thanks for reading the first proper email of my new Fifth Day project.

Do tell me what you thought - see the tiny little comment symbol at the bottom of this email? If you click on that, it takes you to the comments section.

As you may recall, the idea behind Fifth Day is that it’s what I do when I’m not doing Mumbrella while we’re down to four days per week.

But wouldn’t you know it, I’m already putting Fifth Day on hiatus.

Somewhat sooner than I’d anticipated, another project has emerged which is going to take up all of my spare time between now and Christmas. I’m very excited. More on that shortly. And Fifth Day should be back in 2021.

Toodlepip…