David Ogilvy on the importance of understanding copywriting
David Ogilvy was one of the true giants of advertising. His name is often mentioned alongside other advertising legends like Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach, and Howard Luck Gossage. “The Father of Advertising” or “the original Mad Man” as he is known today, founded the agency Ogilvy & Mather in 1948 when he was just 37 years old. Today, it has more than 450 offices in 169 cities.
To get a glimpse into Ogilvy’s genius as a copywriter, just take a look at the letter below. It was written to Ray Calt in 1955, outlining Ogilvy’s “appalling” copywriting habits. I doubt that Mr. Calt ever expected such a response. But hopefully, he got a good laugh out of it.
I think every copywriter out there can relate to one or a few of the things mentioned in it. I can especially relate to bullet point #9—although rum is often replaced by really strong coffee and Handel on the gramophone is replaced by Jaytech or Blackmill on my Bose noise canceling headphones.
By the way, if you haven’t read Ogilvy’s iconic book “Confessions of an Advertising Man” you’re missing out on one of the most interesting reads in the business, still relevant decades later.
April 19, 1955
Dear Mr. Calt:
On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:
1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.
4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.
Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.