David Ogilvy, co-founder of advertising agency Ogilvy & Mathers, is the mentor I never got to meet. His book Ogilvy on Advertising is a classic, as much for its inherent readability as the pragmatism and sense of his thinking. In a world where advertising budgets are increasingly tight, it may be surprising to learn how many of Ogilvy’s points still resonate. In my world of coaching thought leaders to be more effective, it is stunningly relevant.

Advertising is designed to sell, not to be admired for its beauty  “When Aeschines spoke they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said “Let us march against Philip.’” What matters is not how many people admire your advertisement, but how many go out and buy the product as a result of seeing the ad. This is equally true for expertise-driven content – what will the reader DO?

Advertising needs ‘big ideas’, but it is astonishingly hard to generate those. Advertisements without a big idea would ‘pass like ships in the night’. However, he cautioned that he believed he had come up with very few big ideas of his own. Fewer than one campaign in 100 contained a big idea. Ogilvy advocates allowing your subconscious to generate ideas, based on wide reading and broad knowledge. Which is also why thought leaders need to read widely, and schedule time for reflection

If you come up with an idea that sells products, keep it running. Some marketers fear that people will get tired of an idea, and they stop using it too soon. If an idea continues to sell products or services, however, you should just keep using it. Some advertising ideas have run for 5, 10 or even 20 years: maybe not precisely the same ad, but on the same theme. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Positioning in marketing is simply “what the product does, and who it is for”. Ogilvy’s brief and succinct definition of a key marketing concept is a reminder that jargon and long words do not fool anybody for long. Know your stuff, and be able to state it in simple terms. It is far more impressive in the long term. Believe Winston Churchill: “Short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.”

Always seek to recruit people who are better than you.  Whenever a new office head was appointed at Ogilvy & Mather, Ogilvy sent them a set of Russian dolls. Inside the smallest was the message “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarves.” Aim high, and encourage those around you to aim higher still.

“The easiest way to get new clients is to do good advertising.” During one period of seven years, his agency won every account for which it competed. He used no tricks in his bidding: all he did was to show the potential client some of his campaigns. Good work, and especially good advertising, speaks for itself.

Make your advertisement effective by communicating what works Advertising which promises no benefit to the consumer does not sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise whatsoever. I believe this is the most important sentence in this book. Read it again. Only research can tell you whether your advertising actually communicates your message. In thought leadership, that research is frankly the call from your reader wanting to have the follow-on conversation. 

Photo by Maciej Pienczewski on Unsplash

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