Ogilvy on Advertising | Email Marketing & the Father of Online Advertising

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February 28, 2012 by David Miller


I’ve recently finished the eponymous ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’, written by David Ogilvy, who I see on his Wikipedia page is cited as the ‘father of advertising’[1]. The edition I purchased from Amazon was the 1983 edition, updated in 2007. A fantastic physical feel to the book – square, large (but not too large) and this terrific eye-grabbing front page:


Ogilvy on Advertising – Front Cover

Having worked the last year in a successful online advertising and email marketing firm, I was particularly struck by the relevance of Ogilvy’s central tenets (as I took them to be) for successful advertising, especially in relation to the visual format of his advertisements.

In his whole career, Ogilvy writes that he had 2 particularly successful templates for adverts for clients, namely:

  1. His first involved using a large photograph/image that takes up about 80% of the advertisement; with an emboldened header of max. 9 words; and 240 words of content/copy[2].
  2. The second perfect layout, in Ogilvy’s words, ‘ gives a wide shallow’ ‘banner’ type photograph/image at the top of an advertisement, a headline of up to 20 words, a sub-header of up to 28 words, and 3 or 4 columns containing a maximum of 600 words content (about 1 and half to 2 sides of A4 sized content – recommended when copy is more important than the illustration/image/photo).[3]

30 years on from when he wrote of those templates, I find it hard to argue with him.

But, when I look at the format and content of much of the email marketing produced in Ireland today, I find it hard to establish any connection between the central tenet’s of Ogilvy’s advertising format faith, and the majority of email marketing and online advertising which is produced today.

Ogilvy also held a fervent belief in ‘long copy’ – i.e. being unashamed to give a detailed, factual account about the service or product advertised.

Oh, and he seems to have abhorred white font on a black background (what’s your site got?), was a big fan of font size 11, and pointed out how the use of CAPITAL LETTERS is so difficult for the eye and mind to absorb, and just feels like the reader is being shouted at.

And why does font size, white text on a black background, serif -v- sans serif actually matter? Well, Ogilvy was working for hard-nosed commercial clients with advertising spends sometimes running into the tens of millions of dollars. Just changing something as seemingly innocuous as the font size, type or colour had a financially dramatic effect on the bottom line in terms of increased sales.

The purpose of the email marketing campaign – to get people to read about your content and take some form of preferred action (make a complaint, register an interest, click here for more) often plays 2nd fiddle to the sheer amount of generally unhelpful (in terms of market differentiation) marketing text that has basically been lifted from a website or template information source.

Why does this matter?

Well, to many it appears that it doesn’t matter. But to those people and companies who actually want to engage with their audience in the fast-moving, often-chaotic world of online advertising and email marketing, getting noticed – and staying noticed – is key to being able to share your message. It seems to me that if Ogilvy found success in the confidence he had in a simple set of advertising templates, perhaps more people and companies should be striving to follow his example today?

At the end of his book, Ogilvy pens portraits of the great advertisers of the previous few generations. He quotes Claude C. Hopkins (1867-1932) who wrote:

“Almost any question can be answered, cheaply, quickly and finally, by a test campaign. And that’s the way to answer them – not by arguments round a table” [read: Google AdWords today?]

“Ad writers forget they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause” [this is my personal favourite]

“It not uncommon for a change in headlines to multiply returns from five to ten times over” [Claude was a Google AdWords early adopter it would seem]

‘I hate rules’

And why, of all the phrases that this father of advertising could have put on the cover of his autobiographical work, did he put ‘I hate rules’?

Well, it seems that what he hated was people going for what is today known as Copycat Marketing – ‘I might as well copy what my competitors are doing as if I did something different I might – perish the thought! – get a different result from them’. This sameness comes across as fear – a lack of courage or belief in the product or service being sold, and produces a complete failure to differentiate one company from another. That’s why Ogilvy hated rules: he wanted results (=increased sales), and success, and in the absence of the accepted methods giving him results and success, he wanted to find a way to break out of the rules to deliver to his clients.

Definitely some lessons to teach online advertisers and email marketers in the 21st century.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ogilvy_(businessman)

[2] Ogilvy on Advertising, p. 86, 2007 edition

[3] Ogilvy on Advertising, p. 87, 2007 edition

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