David Ogilvy: Writing Tips for Ad Agency New Business

David Ogilvy ad agency new business content marketing

David Ogilvy remains one of the most famous names in advertising and continues to provide us with relevant content marketing tips. 

In 1948, at the age of 37, Ogilvy founded the agency that would become Ogilvy & Mather. Starting with only a staff of two and no clients, he built his agency into one of the eight largest advertising networks in the world. Today it has more than 450 offices in 169 cities.

“On the occasion of his 75th birthday, Ogilvy’s staff put a book together of all Ogilvy’s best memos and speeches [The Unpublished David Ogilvy]. This is a particularly insightful book, because Ogilvy was maybe one of the most gifted leaders when it came to creating a corporate culture. And as his company grew to over 200 offices, he knew the only way he could protect the culture was by constantly communicating with his people. This book is a collection of that philosophy in action.” – Terry O’Reilly, Pirate Radio & Television Co-Founder

Included in this collection of Ogilvy’s writings and speeches is a personal letter and a staff memo. Both are rich with tips and insights that will help you to create better copy to use as a magnet for new business.

In the following letter to Mr. Ray Calt, Ogilvy provides us with a list of his habits as a copywriter. 

April 19, 1955

Dear Mr. Calt:

On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:

  1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
  2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
  3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.
  4. I write out a definition of the problem and a 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
  8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
  9. 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.
  10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
  11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
  12. 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 to 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,

D.O.

Here are Ogilvy’s 10 writing tips he shared in an internal memo sent to all employees of his ad agency in 1982:

“The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”

  1.  Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing*. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualizedemassification,attitudinallyjudgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

The Unpublished David Ogilvy is currently out of print but will be released again on December 6, 2012. Used copies are still available via Amazon starting at $41.00.

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About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.

Comments

  1. Thanks for posting, Michael. These are timeless. As a copywriter, I especially like points 2,3 and 4 on the second list. So often I read copy that’s overwritten.

  2. Michael Gass says:

    Glad you liked it Scott. Amazing how relevant Ogilvy continues to be. He would still be flourishing in this new communications era.

  3. I have this book! I was working at O&M at the time and all employees got a copy. D.O. was my idol!

  4. Michael Gass says:

    Very cool Lisa.

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