17 life-changing insights from David Ogilvy (that have nothing to do with advertising).

Written by Cole Schafer




 David Ogilvy was a business magnate and one of the top admen of all time. Better yet, he was a writer first and a damn good one at that.

As I’ve thoughtfully worked to piece together Honey Copy, my creative writing shop that grows brands with pretty words, I’ve constantly pulled inspiration from past writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and David Ogilvy.

The latter I have admired so much I’ve incorporated his name into Honey Copy’s slogan… “Words that read like poetry and sell like Ogilvy.”

Currently, I am tearing through the advertising genius’s greatest book, Ogilvy on Advertising.

I can’t put the damn thing down.

As you can imagine, it is chalked full of brilliant little gems pertaining to advertising. But, in addition to this, I’ve been blown away by the great insight Ogilvy shares about life, creativity, writing and being an entrepreneur.

Not everyone has time to read the book. Well, everyone has the time but not everyone is going to make the time. So, I took the liberty of curating my favorite Ogilvy insight. I hope you enjoy what you discover. But, more importantly, I hope you do something lovely with it.

A couple dozen lessons on life, creativity and entrepreneurship from Ogilvy on Advertising.  

1. Do your homework.

Head to Medium and for every ten reads you stumble upon, you will find nine terribly written, poorly researched pieces of garbage. Writers are lazier than they’ve ever been because of how easy it is to hit “publish”. You could replace writer with any creative occupation here… entrepreneur, marketer, advertiser, snow cone vendor. It’s easier than ever before to put out work. This doesn’t give us an excuse to put out shit work. Do your homework before you sit down with a pen.

2. If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.

There’s a fundamental difference between being a creative and making a living as a creative. If you’re looking to make a living as a creative, understand that if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative. If you just want to be creative and don’t want to worry about making money from your creativity, that’s fine. But, find a day job.

3. Repeat your winners.

In a world bursting at the seams with new (but oftentimes shitty) content, marketing, advertising, products and businesses… it’s tempting to want to recreate the wheel. Don’t. If you’re lucky enough to create a “winner” repeat it and double down on it until it stops selling.

4. To catch big ideas, unhook your rational thought process.

Ogilvy was infamous for being a big thinker full of big ideas, he describes his process as follows…

“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.”

Avoid this piece of advice at your own peril, he has sold billions of dollars worth of advertising.

5. Sex sells (only when it’s relevant).

There’s nothing wrong with using sex in your art, advertising and product marketing… just make sure it’s relevant to what you’re selling and non-sexist. For example, it makes sense to use sex to sell perfume or cologne. Less so when it comes to dictionaries. There is nothing sexy about dictionaries. For more on this topic, read my in-depth look at sex in advertising.

6. Marketers, designers and writers have to be “killer poets”.

This is beautiful advice for brands hiring creative positions (I believe marketing also falls in this category). David Ogilvy shares the following piece of advice in his book…

“Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end. If you are both a killer and poet, you get rich.”

Replace the word copywriter with any creative position you’re hiring for. If you run into someone that views their craft like art, but cares just as much about making good art as they do about selling the shit out of it –– hire them.

7. When writing… be personal, direct and natural.

You’re a human being writing to another human being. Cut the bullshit. Burn the buzzwords. Check anything fancy at the door.

8. When people aren’t having any fun, they don’t produce good advertising*.

*Replace the word “advertising” with whatever your brand is selling. Create an environment and culture where your people feel comfortable, laugh and smile. This happens from the top down, not by purchasing a few pingpong tables.

9. Hire people bigger than yourself.

When folks at Ogilvy & Mather would get promoted, they would receive the following note from David housed inside a Russian Doll…

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs, but if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, Ogilvy & Mather will become a company of giants.”

10. Never hire your client’s children.

If they suck and you fire them, you risk losing your client.

11. Never hire your friend’s children.

If they suck and your fire them, you risk losing your friend.  

12. Say it to their face.

David Ogilvy had no patience for office politics. He would fire the worst of the politicians. He would make everyone settle conflicts face to face (not through paper or what today would be emailed). He would never play favorites. And, finally, he offered the following advice when employees visit executives bitching about other employees…

“When somebody comes to your office and denounces his rival as an incompetent rascal, summon the rival and make the denouncer repeat what he has just told you.”

13. Never make your service (or product) too generous.

David Ogilvy had the following to say about pricing your services and products

“If your service is too generous, your clients will love you, but you will go broke.”

I couldn’t agree more. Honey Copy is expensive. Not everyone can afford me. This is intentional. Being overly-generous on price is a race to the bottom. Competitors can always undercut you when it comes to price. They rarely can outdo you when it comes to product quality and service. Price high but give your customer more than they pay for.

14. Make your dream list.

David Ogilvy made a list of his dream clients when he first started his agency –– General Foods, Lever Brothers, Bristol Myers, Campbell Soup Company and Shell. He eventually landed all of them. He also landed a few notable brands not on his list… American Express, Sears Roebuck, IBM and Merrill Lynch.

If you’re in a service business, make a list of your dream clients and hunt them down.

15. You cannot bore people into buying your product.

There is a lot of boring advertising, marketing and selling taking place today because brands are too afraid to be interesting and bold. Ogilvy’s advice is timeless… you cannot bore people into buying your product. Selling requires establishing a sense of “wonder” in the prospect.

16. Copy should be written in the language people use in everyday conversation.

Ogilvy was constantly pushing for simplicity in his writing and his agency’s writing. When Ogilvy’s copywriters would argue with him about using fancy language, he would offer the following advice…

“Get on the bus. Go to Iowa. Stay on a farm for a week and talk to the farmer. Come back to New York by train and talk to your fellow passengers in the day-coach. If you still want to use the word, go ahead.”

17. Work with clients that have the same ethos as you.

David Ogilvy was adamant about doing advertising the right way with clients that shared his same ethics. Sometimes, this meant saying no to clients and even firing clients.

Money has energy.

$1,000,000 earned the right way possess more value than $1,000,000 earned the wrong way… the latter comes with a cost (even if doesn’t make itself apparent immediately).

Make money in a way you’d be proud to tell your mother, your brother, your lover and your offspring.

Writing soon…

I have another one-hundred pages left in Ogilvy on Advertising. So, naturally, I will have more to say in this pretty little article. If you want me to let you know when I add to it, you can say so here.

By Cole Schafer.