Mike Fromowitz
Mar 2, 2012

David Ogilvy — “I am a lousy copywriter”.

British-born David Ogilvy was one of our greatest ad men. In 1962, Time magazine called him "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry." During his illustrious career he ...

David Ogilvy — “I am a lousy copywriter”.

British-born David Ogilvy was one of our greatest ad men. In 1962, Time magazine called him "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry." During his illustrious career he expanded the bounds of both creativity and morality.

In 1948, he started his Manhattan-based ad agency Ogilvy & Mather—the agency we all know—that has been responsible for some of the world's most iconic ad campaigns. For those new to the advertising world, his 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man, remains the best-selling book that is still to this day considered essential reading for all who enter the industry.

In 1989, The Ogilvy Group was bought by WPP Group, a British parent company, for US$864 million in a hostile takeover. During the takeover procedures, Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder of WPP, who already lead a similar successful takeover of J. Walter Thompson, was described by Ogilvy as an "odious little jerk", and he promised to never work again.

David Ogilvy was later named the company's non-executive chairman, and eventually, he became a fan of Mr. Sorrell. A letter of apology from Ogilvy adorns Sorrell's office, which is said to be the only apology David Ogilvy ever offered in any form during his adult life. Only a year after his derogatory comments about Sorrell, he was quoted as saying, 'When he tried to take over our company, I would liked to have killed him. But it was not legal. I wish I had known him 40 years ago. I like him enormously now.'

Ask people in the business "Which individuals - alive or dead - made you consider pursuing a career in advertising?" and David Ogilvy tops the list. Even in today’s world of digital marketing and social media, one can still learn invaluable information from David Ogilvy’s writings and musings.

David Ogilvy was a great believer in taking the time to think and research a subject. ‘I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the chaos of ignorance.’ he once quipped. He also said: “The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”

Given how modern technology is evolving us and changing the way we live, think and feel, we now spend much of our time clicking buttons and staring at screens, rather than taking the time to do some deep thinking. We're virtually always connected to our gadgets, which are either giving us an alert or tantalizing us with something new. The minute we finish inputting one thing, we're inputting the next. The question is, are we taking enough time time to “think” before we “do”?

Big ideas take time, yet many of us seem to be taking far less time these days to think anymore, to ponder, to mull, to integrate or to consider. Perhaps that’s why I am seeing so much advertising that is me-too, commodity stuff. With all the new digital gizmos and gadgets we certainly have the technology, but we’re failing to take the time to think. Do we not need to rethink our work expectations to make the most of our time and our talents?

This fascinating letter below, written by Ogilvy in 1955 to a Mr. Ray Calt, offers some insight into David Ogilvy’s methodology. Perhaps his words will inspire to consider how valuable thinking time is and how important it is to learn as much about your subject as you can before jumping to make an ad.

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 conceivable 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.

Yours sincerely,


Let me leave you with one more gem from David Ogilvy.

‘I once asked Sir Hugh Rigby, surgeon to King George V, “What makes a great surgeon?” Sir Hugh replied, “There isn’t much to choose between surgeons in manual dexterity. What distinguishes the great surgeon is that he knows more than other surgeons.” It is the same with advertising agents. The good ones know more.'

(Source: The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners




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