Copywriting Lessons from David Ogilvy
Copywriting Lessons from David Ogilvy
There aren’t too many famous advertisers in the world. And there are even fewer advertisers who are known to people outside of the industry.
But David Ogilvy is one of them. In fact, he’s probably the most famous advertiser there’s ever been. A born seller, he basically invented modern advertising.
Born in England, Ogilvy worked a series of odd jobs, including selling stoves, working at a search institute, and aiding the war effort by making diplomacy and security recommendations. However, a common thread unified his diverse list of jobs: his interest in people and how their minds worked.
It was in America that he brought together all this information and began putting it to good use.
After working in some ad agencies in the forties, Ogilvy founded his own ad agency with a few others in 1948. Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather (later: Ogilvy & Mather) became the go-to ad agency in the world.
Many of the world’s leading corporations, including Shell, Sears, American Express, and General Foods, all went to Ogilvy and his team with their advertising requests.
He died in 1999, at the age of 88. Yet his legacy lives on. Many of the leading advertising techniques that ad agencies use today come directly from Ogilvy. And that’s because he was a master.
In this blog, we’re going to take a look at some of his most brilliant tips, with specifically copywriting in mind. Take these tips on board, and your writing will be as sharp and effective as a knife.
Work on Getting Better
Writing is something everyone thinks they can do, but not everyone has a natural talent. People who work in copywriting have some experience of working with words, be it via their creative passions or through their degree.
But even a background in writing won’t make you the perfect copywriter right out the gate. If there’s one thing Ogilvy knew, it’s that you have to continually learn and improve your writing.
Take the time to tweak, refine, and all around make your writing better. There is no bad that will come from it -- and it’s possible that you’ll significantly improve your copywriting skills.
There’s a lot of written words out there. But most of them are forgotten almost immediately after they’re read. If you want people to take notice of your text, then go big.
Ogilvy’s advice was to take your writing and “aim out of the park.” There are plenty of occasions to be subtle. Your copy does not need to be one of those occasions.
The effectiveness of your copy depends on the strength of your message. And you can’t whisper a strong message. Say it as loud as you can.
Who Are You Writing For?
You’re not writing your copywriting for your own benefit. You’re not even writing it for your company. You’re writing it for the people who are going to read it.
As such, it’s important that you take the time to get to know who those people are. Who are they, how do they think, and what do they need? It’s only when you understand these essential pieces of information that you can craft something with which they’ll engage.
It’s a process to acquire this information. Many copywriters are tempted to cut corners or fill in their knowledge gaps with their own thoughts and beliefs.
That’s the easiest option, but it’s not the best one. To get people to pay attention to your text, it must be written with them in mind.
Treat Customers With Respect
You can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The foundation of great copy is respect for the consumer.
There’s a great Ogilvy quote that reads, “a consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence, and don’t shock her.” If you begin writing your copy “for the masses” and try to fool them with bombastic claims or, worse, text that is borderline insulting, then it’ll be no surprise if it doesn’t land well.
Always write your copy as if you’re writing to someone you know personally, rather than a distant person that you think you can hoodwink into a sale. You can’t.
Creativity Shouldn’t Be The Driver
If there’s one thing that has shifted in the world of advertising, it’s an overreliance on creativity. Ogilvy wasn’t skeptical of creativity, exactly, but he did know its limitations.
It shouldn’t be the driving force behind the ad. The message of the ad, and its ability to sell, is what works the most. The foundation of copywriting should be research and a powerful message.
You can dress that up in creativity, but it’ll have to come from those two things. All too often, copywriters and advertisers try shock tactics, such as creating something for the sake of it.
It’s not just the words that matter, but how they’re presented. Your text should have several components. How many depends on the length and requirements of the piece; for example, longer pieces may have bullet points and a subheadline.
All pieces should have a headline, visuals, well-researched text, and a call to action.
There’s some wiggle room here; that is, you can play around with different ways to dress it up. But if you’ve all you’ve got is more or less a wall of text, then something needs to change!
Make Your Word Accessible
You’re not writing for yourself. You won’t read the text again once it’s out in the world. You’re writing for your audience to read. As such, the text should mirror the language that they use.
Like many of Ogilvy’s words of advice, it’s a pretty basic idea, but one that people all too often forget. You don’t need to impress people with the superiority of your language. For one thing, they won’t be impressed by it.
You also don’t need to talk “up” to people and overreach. You should just talk to them as they would speak themselves. Again, this is where your research will come in -- you’ll need to know who you’re talking to in order to mimic their words!
You can think of “talking down” to your customers almost as “being too smart.” You don’t need to be a dazzling array of wit and long words. Just talk.
Focus on the Headline
Not all words in your copy have equal value. Ogilvy said that 80% of the work was in the headline. If you don’t get that right, then it doesn’t matter how great the rest of your content may have been -- no one’s going to stick around long enough to read it.
His famous line is: “when you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” Of course, coming up with a ten out of ten headline takes work. It might take you as long to write a seven-word headline as it would to write 100 words in the main body of the copy.
But it’s worth it.
A good idea is to split test a couple of headlines to see which one works best. Again, this will take time, but if it bumps up your engagement, then it’ll be worth the effort.
You could write a thousand words on your product and still get no sales at the end. Why? Because if it’s not persuasive, then there won’t be much incentive for people to go through the sometimes complicated process of buying your product.
There are a lot of details that you should address in your copy. These are the details that people will be having as they read the text. For example, why should they trust you, why do they need whatever it is that you’re offering, and why do they need it now rather than in the future?
The challenge of a copywriter is to get these answers into the body of the text.
The final piece of Ogilvy advice we have to offer is also the most fun: go for a walk. If you’re struggling with ideas, and it feels like you’ve hit something of a brick wall, then get up and walk around the block.
His tip was to fill your mind with information and then stop thinking consciously. There are many ways you can do this, but there’s arguably no better way than to go for a walk. Your mind will be at work behind the scenes.
And who knows what brilliant writing you may produce by the time you get back?
Ogilvy’s advice has stood the test of time in many ways because of how simple it was. None of his tips are overly complicated.
He had a deep understanding of people and their motivations, and while the world changes, the people that live there don’t really, not in any massively significant way.
So take the Ogilvy tips that we’ve outlined above, and you might just find that your writing hits new levels of engagement and effectiveness.