Professional Writing Write Heroes

Selling words – Ogilvy, advertising and what works

David Ogilvy took on the world by knowing the power of words and won, coming out on top with several million dollars and an advertising empire.

Advertising is a dirty word to some – in his 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man Ogilvy has a whole chapter defending it – but it does convert words into cash.

David Ogilvy
Professional gent

Flow of money and words

I like measuring things and money is the ultimate measure – people can profess, swear and blog as much as they like, but it’s not until they put their money into that we see they’re serious.

Advertising is all about making money flow, the ad world’s awash with half a trillion dollars of it each year. David Ogilvy, a Scot who at age 38 set up his own New York ad agency that soon became Madison Avenue’s giant, helped create this and he did this through his attitude and beliefs.

Professional gent

Ogilvy is happy to sell himself in Confessions of an Advertising Man, but what sets him apart from his rivals is his combination of attitude towards work, his setting of rules, focus on business and focus on research. And this is as relevant to ‘artistic’ writers as to the ‘selling’ writers in advertising.

His attitude to work was gentlemanly and professional. Don’t be a buck-passer, have gentle manners and take a risk on first-class talent, but keep defeats private and never lie.

Research power

Ogilvy also knew the power of research, something I too am only just beginning to discover. He was fortunate enough to have worked at the Gallup Audience Research Institute, and intelligent enough to have brought this experience with him into advertising.

He writes in depth about the importance of researching the product and market before launch, and this advice can apply to a creative piece – research what you’re writing and research your audience. If you don’t have an audience, you’re unlikely to get a market.



He also came up with some highly specific things writers need to think about, from the headline downwards.

The headline is “the meat on the ticket” and should appeal to the reader’s self-interest. It should also inject “newness” if possible and must convey as much appropriate information as possible as five-times more people read the headline than the body.

Images were to entice and body was to serve an audience need, particularly if it gave advice, but only if did so in a way that wasn’t pompous. I’ve just broken one of his other rules – don’t use negatives, particularly in headlines, as the reader will often misread it and focus on the negative.

Professional attitude

There are drawbacks to a book written half-a-century ago, and not all of it applies to writing.

Yet throughout the main thing that comes out, other than his self-promotion, which even he admits in the updated prologue was a bit much, is the professional attitude. He paid for top talent, he worked hard, he visited potential top men at home to see what they were really like – to confirm if they showed rather than told him.

At heart, David Ogilvy was a professional who not only cared about what he did but showed it by putting in the hours and researching it in depth so he had data to show others.

Confessions of an Advertising Man is still going strong and a good, quick read, but if you’d like to read a summarised version you can read my notes on David Ogilvy – Confessions of an Advertising Man.