“Confessions of an Advertising Man,” by David Ogilvy

Emma Rose of Britain (L) and Nils Westerlund of Sweden work in the office of the HowDo, a “how-to-do-it-yourself” app, start-up at the Wostel co-working…
Emma Rose of Britain (L) and Nils Westerlund of Sweden work in the office of the HowDo, a “how-to-do-it-yourself” app, start-up at the Wostel co-working…
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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Title: Confessions of an Advertising Man

Number of pages: 145

Year originally published: 1963

Who it’s for: Confessions of an Advertising Man was written for people working in the then-new field of advertising. Today, although dated, many of the ideas can be applied to other creative organizations.

The big idea: This book turned advertising on its head. Developing what was then a totally new way of thinking about how to sell products and services, Ogilvy wrote down his methods and operations as though it was advertising copy. His overall approach integrates specific techniques with creative processes.

5 things worth learning:

  1. Content first. No matter how glitzy the presentation, the content of what you say will convince people to buy your product. Fact and truthful promises ultimately sell better than anything else.
  2. “The headline is the most important element in any presentation—five times as many people read a headline as read the body copy.” Whether you are writing a newspaper article, an email with a subject line, or a presentation to clients, you’ve got to get their attention first.
  3. Boring facts, however, do not sell. Creative copy does. Oglivy writes that the most effective headline he ever wrote said, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” The reader was immediately hooked.
  4. The creative process cannot be forced. It requires time and space. Oglivy himself took hot baths, gardened, watched birds, and took frequent vacations so that his brain could lay fallow. He writes, “While thus employed in doing nothing, I receive a constant stream of telegrams from my unconscious and these become the raw material for my advertisements.”
  5. Teams are overrated. A final very controversial point in these days, when most training and work is done in teams, Ogilvy was not a fan. He wrote, “Nowadays it is the fashion to pretend that no single individual is ever responsible for a successful advertising campaign. This emphasis on ‘team work’ is bunkum. . .No  advertisement, no commercial and no image can be created by a committee.”

Quote it: In a list of behaviors he admires, Ogilvy includes: ”I admire self-confident professionals, the craftsmen who do their jobs with superlative excellence. They always seem to respect the expertise of their colleagues. They never poach.”

Read, skim, or skip? Skim. Ogilvy himself acknowledges that much of what he wrote in Confessions is out of date, and it is important to note that the book is both sexist and autocratic, perhaps at least in part because of the time in which it was written. But many of his ideas are thought-provoking and a number are quite useful when translated into contemporary life. Since advertising today is a radically different field, this book is less useful for its original purpose, but can be applied to other areas, including at many startups.