Do The Classic Ad Books Still Matter?

Confessions of An Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

Even though David Ogilvy worked as a researcher before founding his agency, Confessions of an Advertising Man, relies much more on his opinions than on observable data. Of course Ogilvy, not a person hobbled by excessive modesty, thought his opinion was far more authoritative than mere facts.

Like Claude Hopkins and Rosser Reeves, Ogilvy was a copywriter (and, like Reeves, an agency head). And also like Hopkins and Reeves, he wrote his book as a publicity and sales tool for his agency and himself. Like them, he included long lists of rules for effective advertising. Some are wonderfully self-serving--such as advising clients to "Make sure your agency makes a profit."

But, self-serving or not, Ogilvy's rules for being a good client and for creating a great campaign are as valid today as they were when Confessions of an Advertising Man was published in 1963. Here are the lists without the pages of explanation each got in the book (with a little amplification when the meaning isn't immediately clear):

How To Be A Good Client:

1. Emancipate your agency from fear.
2. Select the right agency in the first place.
3. Brief your agency very thoroughly indeed.
4. Do not compete with your agency in the creative area.
5. Coddle the goose who lays the golden egg. (provide enough time and resources to do the job well.)
6. Don't strain your advertising through too many layers.
7. Make sure your agency makes a profit.
8. Don't haggle with your agency.
9. Be candid and encourage candor.
10. Set high standards.
11. Test everything.
12. Hurry. (Profit is a function of time.)
13. Don't waste time on problem babies (Back your successes and abandon your losses.)
14. Tolerate genius.
15. Don't under spend. (The surest way to overspend on advertising is not to spend enough to do the job properly.)

How To Build Great Campaigns:

1. What you say is more important than how you say it.
2. Unless your campaign is built around a great idea, it will flop.
3. Give the facts. (The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything.)
4. You cannot bore people into buying.
5. Be well-mannered, but don't clown. (You should try to charm the consumer into buying.)
6. Make your advertising contemporary.
7. Committees can criticize advertisements, but they cannot write them.
8. If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops pulling.
9. Never write an advertisement which you wouldn't want your own family to read.
10. The image and the brand. (Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.)
11. Don't be a copy-cat.

Ogilvy's rules on specific techniques for crafting ads and commercials have had mixed success at surviving the passage of the forty-six years since Confessions of an Advertising Man was published.

Some still work:

1, Every headline should appeal to the reader's self-interest.
2. Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
3. Don't be a bore. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.
4, Readership falls off rapidly up to fifty words of copy, but drops off very little between fifty and 500 words.
5. Twice as many people read captions as read body copy.
6. If you start your body copy with a large initial letter [Note: what we call a drop cap today] you will increase your readership by an average of 13%.
7. Photographs sell more than drawings.

Some don't:

1. When you advertise in magazines and newspapers, you must start by attracting the reader's attention. But in television the viewer is already attending [paying attention]. (We wish.)
2. Always try to inject news into your headlines, because the consumer is always on the lookout for new products, or new ways to use an old product, or new improvements in an old product. (Not is this era of information overload and surfeit of choices.)
3. Resist the temptation to write the kind of copy which wins awards. (Bob Isherwood, worldwide creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, commissioned research which showed that award-winning advertising is significantly more effective than the dull stuff.)
4. Good copywriters have always resisted the temptation to entertain. (One look at the awareness numbers of Super Bowl commercials makes it clear that entertainment value and awareness/preference track very closely today.)
5. [In television advertising] Words and pictures must march together, reinforcing each other. (Today pictures are frequently used to make an emotional connection while words carry a simple sales message.)
6. Don't sing your selling message. (We did a health insurance campaign that increased awareness 600% and revenues 44% by singing the main message.)

All in all, a much more than respectable percentage of the maxims in Confessions of an Advertising Man are still good guides for agencies and clients. And the book is still a good read.