The Original Mad Man

by Common Thread Collective Collaborator

Nov. 27 2017

How Ogilvy on Advertising Is More Than Relevant – it’s Essential to the World of E-commerce


The most prominent pop-culture touchpoint for the advertising industry is the “Golden Age of TV” stalwart Mad Men, a portrait of the industry in the 1960s. Mad Men comes up a lot less often than you’d think around here, partially because modern e-commerce advertising looks nothing like the glamor of mid-century Madison Avenue—at CTC, there’s far less problematic drinking and we barely ever eat oysters Rockefeller for lunch.


But one echo of that era reverberates as much through CTC as it does through Mad Men: David Ogilvy. Often called “the father of advertising,” Ogilvy is thought to be the inspiration for Mad Men’s Don Draper, and his 1983 book Ogilvy on Advertising is CTC’s guiding light. Ogilvy himself wrote the print ads that turned Dove, Rolls-Royce, and Schweppes into massive international brands, and he went on to become the undisputed king of the advertising industry until his death in 1999.


Ogilvy pioneered a style of advertising that centered around four basic principles—principles that inform everything we do at CTC:


Advertising Doesn’t Matter if it Doesn’t Sell


This principle is so obvious that it’s hard to believe Ogilvy had to say it. However, at the time he came to prominence in the 1940s, advertisers seemed to operate under the shared delusion that, as Ogilvy puts it, “all advertising increases sales to some degree. It doesn’t.” Advertisers often prided themselves (and still do!) on the creativity or artistic merit of their ads, even if they didn’t make any difference in revenue, or even caused a decline in sales.


Ogilvy believed that advertising ought to fulfill its fundamental purpose of driving sales. We’ve taken that strongly to heart at CTC—it’s why we think of ourselves as a “sales agency” and not a “marketing agency”. “Marketing” is not an end in itself. A click on the “buy now” button is.


As he put it, “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.”


Find the Big Idea


This is not to say Ogilvy wasn’t creative—he was a firm believer in creativity’s importance in  advertising: “The creative process requires more than reason. Most original thinking isn’t even verbal. It requires ‘a groping experimentation with ideas, governed by intuitive hunches and inspired by the unconscious.’ The majority of businessmen are incapable of original thinking because they are unable to escape from the tyranny of reason.”


Ogilvy centered his creative process around finding a big idea—an advertising vision that would take a brand into the stratosphere. But he was also adamant that this inspiration could only come after meticulous, painstaking research about the product and customer had been performed first (we’ll go deeper here in a bit).


Don’t Insult Your Audience’s Intelligence


Ogilvy’s most important creative insight was that the medium of advertising was personal. “The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife,” is perhaps his most-repeated quote. Advertising is not read by many people at the same time (at least in the context of both Ogilvy’s print advertising and our social media advertising); it is read by one person, in their own home, in their own head. It establishes a one-on-one relationship with a potential customer.


To recontextualize Ogilvy’s quote, the customer isn’t a moron, he’s your friend who loves baseball. Or your uncle who needs relief from plantar fasciitis. Or your fashion-obsessed sister.


Do the Research


This forms the core of Ogilvy’s entire philosophy—do your homework. Do the research. Hard as it might be to believe, Ogilvy’s essential innovation is that, yes, you can actually figure out what does and doesn’t work through gathering concrete data. Strangely, this made him persona non grata in some advertising circles, no doubt because his emphasis on data analysis challenged advertisers’ self-image as cosmopolitan creatives who were especially blessed by some Muse of marketing.


Some of Ogilvy’s specific observations in Ogilvy on Advertising are no longer applicable. For instance, Ogilvy strongly suggests that celebrity testimonials don’t work, because the audience feels that they’re inauthentic. He’s not just making an assumption here: in his era of television advertising, celebrity testimonials consistently translated to a loss in revenue.


Our research, however, suggests that celebrity testimonials work well—when they’re shot on an iPhone and show up in a Facebook feed. Ogilvy’s lesson is not that celebrity testimonies don’t work, it’s that the research shows that the combination of a universal truth (humans need authenticity) with a specific context (the medium of television) means that celebrity interviews don’t work in that instance. Transpose the testimonial to a different medium (iPhone video on Facebook), and all of a sudden the celebrity testimonial works in the way the old TV advertisers no doubt hoped it would.



The advent of social media means we suddenly have access to more data than Ogilvy could have ever dreamed of—if I could take one person out to lunch, living or dead, one of my top choices would be a three-martini lunch with Ogilvy where I sit down and show him Facebook Ads Manager. I don’t know if he’d be delighted or horrified, but he would no doubt recognize that we’re all still living in the world he pioneered more than 60 years ago.

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