Confessions from Ogilvy: Brand Building 50 Years Later

12 04 2014

When I first  began my higher education, now roughly a decade ago, I was dead set on being an artist. My practical parents insisted I take a business class for every art class, and somewhere along the way my interests merged with their practicality and I started fantasizing about becoming a hotshot marketer… advertising manager, copyrighter, creative director, whatever. That’s when my love affair for Ogilvy & Mather began. After all David Ogilvy is the “King of Advertising,” so not surprisingly, his book Confessions of an Advertising Man was on my list of must-reads.

It was first written in 1963, so I was expecting it to be a bit archaic. Yet it was republished in 1987 and again in 2004 with forewords addressing how relevant it is nearly fifty years later. Sure, I caught some datedness as related to the male dominance in Ogilvy’s examples, but the only time it bothered me was when it occasionally confused me. At one point, he writes about “the young housewife of 1963…” and it wasn’t immediately apparent that he was talking in current context about his demographic.

Some things just haven’t changed though. Core psychology addressing salespeople and purchasing behavior is still very much the same. While there were a few technical differences with advertising effectiveness today, Ogilvy addressed himself in his own forward. For example, research states that coupons are more successful at the bottom-right now where they can be caught visually even if a reader is quickly flipping through pages, as opposed to the top-middle as they were in the sixties. Similarly, pitchmen in commercials used to sell more products at 90 words per minute, but are now more effective at a faster pace of 200 words.

In many ways Ogilvy & Mather was so far ahead of it’s time that it’s not difficult for Ogilvy’s advice to transcend the fifty years since first publication. While his book never addressed the term “corporate culture,” his ad agency has had the most reputable culture for decades. Ogilvy is the one that coined the phrase, “pay people peanuts and you get monkeys.” He was also more in tune with the work force than most office environments in the 1960s when he declared: “When people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.”

This book provides many obscure advertising facts that it would take years of marketing research to learn on your own. For instance, using factual information is employed most to sell with direct response marketing, but are rarely used in ordinary marketing, to a fault. Additionally, though white text on black background may look trendier, it’s more difficult to read and will most likely be passed over by consumers. And contrary to popular belief, according to Ogilvy, what works in one country will also be effective in others. Another good one: five times more people will read the headline than the body, so essentially the headline will make eighty cents of every dollar. One of my favorite pointers though, was that advertising isn’t really to persuade people to try your product; more often it’s to persuade them to come back to the brand more than any other competitor.

This leads me to the most powerful theme that I took away from Confessions. Branding can produce decades of sales, but selling products with discounts or any other means will usually stop being useful by the time the product runs out. Ogilvy quotes a speech that he made in 1955, “The time has come to sound an alarm, to warn manufacturers what is going to happen to their brands if they spend so much on deals that there is no money left for advertising to build their brand. Deals don’t build the kind of indestructible image which is the only thing that can make your brand part of the fabric of life.”  The companies that took heed to this warning half a century ago are still going strong today. Nike, Johnson & Johnson, Dove, Coca-Cola, and Budweiser are iconic. Their branding has been so successful that every reader can fondly recall commercials from at least one of those companies because they’ve successfully penetrated our culture. This didn’t come by accident. In fact, Dove’s campaign was written by Ogilvy himself and ran for over thirty years.

It’s no secret that people have an unsavory opinion of salespeople, and marketers are lumped into the same category. This notion exists because of too many “suits” taking advantage of their customers and not following Ogilvy principles. He only represents good products with good brands which can be sold with honest advertising. Ogilvy insists that if you tell lies about products you’ll be found out and reprimanded by the government – or worse, the consumers who will never buy from you again. He says bluntly, “You wouldn’t tell lies to your wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

This book excited me in marketing all over again. Confessions teaches something that was beyond me when I was simply a college beatnik imagining that I could transform this whole art thing into a marketing career: successful marketing is only part creativity, mostly it’s hard work and research. Honestly, I learned more in the preface than I’ve learned in many entire series of self-help books. However, as this really wasn’t a self-help book, there’s not much that’s designed to take away and apply to daily professional life. There are still tips that everyone should be mindful of though, such as not taking credit for collaborative work, not doing something you wouldn’t show your family, and surrounding yourself with people at least as good as you rather than creating inferior subordinates to make yourself look better. That being said, this isn’t the type of book that I’ll highlight areas for personal improvement, but rather it is an advertiser’s bible that will perhaps someday rest on my desk to be thumbed through for daily inspiration.

-Nikki M Jones-