"Oglivy on Advertising" by David Oglivy [BOOK HIGHLIGHTS]

How to write better headlines, create big ideas, and run an advertising agency

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How to write good headlines and copy

  • On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 per cent of your money. 🤯

  • The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit – like a whiter wash, more miles per gallon, freedom from pimples, fewer cavities. Riffle through a magazine and count the number of ads whose headlines promise a benefit of any kind.

  • Headlines which contain news are sure-fire. The news can be the announcement of a new product, an improvement in an old product, or a new way to use an old product – like serving Campbell’s Soup on the rocks. On the average, ads with news are recalled by 22 per cent more people than ads without news […] If you are lucky enough to have some news to tell, don’t bury it in your body copy, which nine out of ten people will not read. State it loud and clear in your headline. And don’t scorn tried-and-true words like amazing, introducing, now, suddenly. 🎯

  • When you advertise in local newspapers, you get better results if you include the name of each city in your headline. People are mostly interested in what is happening where they live.1 

  • On the average, long headlines sell more merchandise than short ones.

  • When I worked for Dr. Gallup, I noticed that moviegoers were more interested in actors of their own sex than actors of the opposite sex. People want to see movie stars with whom they can identify. The same force is at work in advertisements. When you use a photograph of a woman, men ignore your advertisement.

  • It pays to write short sentences and short paragraphs, and to avoid difficult words […] When copywriters argue with me about some esoteric word they want to use, I say to them, ‘Get on a bus. Go to Iowa. Stay on a farm for a week and talk to the farmer. Come back to New York by train and talk to your fellow passengers in the day-coach. If you still want to use the word, go ahead.’ Copy should be written in the language people use in everyday conversation, as in this anonymous verse: Carnation Milk is the best in the land, Here I sit with a can in my hand. No tits to pull, no hay to pitch, Just punch a hole in the son-of-a-bitch.

  • Don’t write essays. Tell your reader what your product will do for him or her, and tell it with specifics.

  • Always try to include the price of your products. You may see a necklace in a jeweler’s window, but you don’t consider buying it because the price is not shown and you are too shy to go in and ask. It is the same way with advertisements.

  • Short copy or long? All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short. […] Long copy sells more than short copy, particularly when you are asking the reader to spend a lot of money. Only amateurs use short copy. […] Direct-response advertisers know that short copy doesn’t sell. In split-run tests, long copy invariably outsells short copy. 💥

  • Readers look first at the illustration, then at the headline, then at the copy. So put these elements in that order – illustration at the top, headline under the illustration, copy under the headline. This follows the normal order of scanning, which is from top to bottom. If you put the headline above the illustration, you are asking people to scan in an order which does not fit their habit.

  • More people read the captions under illustrations than read the ’body copy, so never use an illustration without putting a caption under it. Your caption should include the brand name and the promise.

  • 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.

  • You think an advertisement can sell if nobody can read it? You can’t save souls in an empty church.

Your job is to sell, not make art.

  • I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’

  • Says Rosser Reeves, of the Ted Bates agency: ‘I’m not saying that charming, witty and warm copy won’t sell. I’m just saying that I’ve seen thousands of charming, witty campaigns that didn’t. Let’s say you are a manufacturer. Your advertising isn’t working and your sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it, your family’s future depends on it, other people’s families depend on it. And you walk in this office and talk to me, and you sit in that chair. Now, what do you want out of me? Fine writing? Do you want masterpieces? Do you want glowing things that can be framed by copywriters? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?’

  • “Rosser Reeves: ‘Do you want fine writing? Do you want masterpieces? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve start moving up?’”

  • “The Benton & Bowles agency holds that ‘if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.’ Amen.

How to create big ideas.

  • “You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas.”

  • I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea. I am supposed to be one of the more fertile inventors of big ideas, but in my long career as a copywriter I have not had more than 20, if that. Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

  • When asked what was the best asset a man could have, Albert Lasker – the most astute of all advertising men – replied, ‘Humility in the presence of a good idea.’ It is horribly difficult to recognize a good idea. I shudder to think how many I have rejected. Research can’t help you much, because it cannot predict the cumulative value of an idea, and no idea is big unless it will work for thirty years.

  • It will help you recognize a big idea if you ask yourself five questions: 1 Did it make me gasp when I first saw it? 2 Do I wish I had thought of it myself? 3 Is it unique? 4 Does it fit the strategy to perfection? 5 Could it be used for 30 years?

On running an agency

  • Make it fun to work in your agency. When people aren’t having any fun, they don’t produce good advertising. Kill grimness with laughter. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.

  • When you are appointed to head an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send you one of these Russian dolls. Inside the smallest you will find this message: ‘If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs, but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, Ogilvy & Mather will become a company of giants.’

  • “In most agencies there are twice as many account executives as copywriters. If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as cows?”

  • Is there any way of predicting the capacity to lead? The only way I know is to look at their college records. If they were leaders between the ages of 18 and 22, the odds are that they will emerge as leaders in middle life.

  • “The average profit in agencies is less than 1 per cent after taxes […] By dispensing with marketers, art directors, and researchers, Lasker saved so much money that he was able to make a profit of 7% — probably the world’s record. If an agency makes more than 1% today, it is exceptional.”2 

  • “My policy has always been that of J.P. Morgan – ‘only first-class business, and that in a first-class way’”

  • The easiest way to get new clients is to do good advertising. During one period of seven years, we never failed to win an account for which we competed, and all I did was to show the campaigns we had created. Sometimes, I did not even have to do that. One afternoon, a man walked into my office without an appointment and gave me the IBM account; he knew our work.

  • “Beware of ventures which spend little or nothing today but might become major advertisers, if all goes well. Servicing such non-accounts can be expensive, and few of them make it. Yes, there are exceptions. I once made the mistake of turning down a small company which made office machinery, because I had never heard of it. The name was Xerox.”3 

  • My personality has lost some contests and won others. Aside: I have resigned accounts five times as often as I have been fired, and always for the same reason: the client’s behavior was eroding the morale of the people working on his account. Erosion of morale does unacceptable damage to an agency.


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Jason Levin

1  You can do this with tweets. “SF nerds!.” “NYC friends!”

2  Oglivy would be fucking mindblown today. I run a creative agency at 80-90% profit margin thanks to a wider choice of labor + AI + software tools. That being said, my output is tweets, blogs, and TikToks—not long TV commercials. But even stilll… I think the margins would be 50%+.

3  I’ve never had a client start with a low fee and raise it. The lowballers always drop down. If you need the money, don’t hope “they might raise it more” and work your ass off—just take the low payment, do the work, and get some more clients. Sure, 1 out of 100 will raise it and be like Xerox, but it’s not worth getting your hopes up for what will probably be a churned client.