David Ogilvy, The Master Marketer

David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man” is perhaps the most popular book on the advertising business in history, and with good reason.

Granted, it doesn’t contain too many confessions, but it is funny, interesting, and full of actionable advice and “rules” of copywriting, client management, leadership, career advancement—and much more.

I would put it up there with other marketing books like, Scientific Advertising and the Boron Letters.

In case you’re not familiar with David Ogilvy, the man who served as inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men, here’s a quick introduction:

Background & early life

David Ogilvy was born into a British upper-class family in 1911. He received a scholarship to attend Oxford University but was soon expelled for poor academic performance.

He went on to work as an assistant chef at Hotel Majestic in Paris for a year, before he returned to the UK to become a door-to-door AGA stove salesman in Scotland. He was so good at his job that his employer asked him to write an instruction manual for his peers.

Advertising and years as secret agent

Thanks to the sales manual he wrote for AGA, Ogilvy was hired as an account executive by the British advertising agency Mather & Crowther (his brother, who also worked there, had shown management the manual and they were very impressed).

In 1938, he convinced his employer to send him to the United States for a year, to work at Dr. George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey. He would later credit much of his success to what he learned working for Dr. Gallup.

During World War II, he worked for the British Intelligence Service and became an alumnus of the secret Camp X, a British paramilitary installation located in Canada, where, allegedly:

It was there he mastered the power of propaganda before becoming king of Madison Avenue. Although Ogilvy was trained in sabotage and close combat, he was ultimately tasked with projects that included successfully ruining the reputation of businessmen who were supplying the Nazis with industrial materials.

After the war, Ogilvy and his wife bought a farm in Pennsylvania and lived among the Amish for several years, before moving to Manhattan.

Launching Ogilvy & Mather

With the backing of his old employer Mather & Crowther, which was now run by his brother, he successfully launched an advertising agency on Madison Avenue—Ogilvy & Mather.

Over the years, Ogilvy and his ad agency did work for Rolls Royce, Sears, the British government, the state of Puerto Rico, Dove, Shell, and dozens of major brands in the CPG industry.

In 1963 he published what would soon become a major best-seller, “Confessions of an Advertising Man”.

The book covers everything from practical rules of copywriting, to leadership, corporate culture, career advancement advice, to the controversial question, “Should advertising be abolished?”.

Ogilvy’s principles of marketing

“Confessions” contains an impressive amount of actionable advice, and I’m going to write up a more comprehensive review of the book soon.

In this article however, I have curated and organised what I perceive to be Ogilvy’s main principles of marketing.

Ogilvy’s principles, as I am presenting them here, are more or less timeless. But at the end of this post, I will also share with you a bonus idea which will help you create better landing pages—to make this post a little more contemporary.

1. Give the facts

Ogilvy was a staunch believer in laying out all the relevant facts of a product. In the book he refers to Dr. Charles Edwards of the Graduate School of Retailing at New York University, who said the following:

The more facts you tell, the more you sell. An advertisement’s chance for success invariably increases as the number of pertinent merchandise facts included in the advertisement increases.

You’ve no doubt heard that you should present prospective customers with “benefits, not features”.

Yes, benefits are important—and Ogilvy agreed: “The key to success is to promise the consumer a benefit — like better flavor, whiter wash, more miles per gallon, a better complexion.”

But that does not mean they are a substitute for features and other facts about your product or service. How likely are you to buy something without knowing what that something is, or how it works?

Customers want to know the facts just as much as they want to know how your product can help them.

Give the facts, and give them early. Here are some quotes from the book:

  • “Don’t beat about the bush—go straight to the point.”
  • “The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat.’ Use it to flag down the readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.”
  • “I have never admired the belles lettres school of advertising, which reached its pompous peak in Theodore F. MacManus’ famous advertisement for Cadillac, ‘The Penalty of Leadership,’ and Ned Jordan’s classic, ‘Somewhere West of Laramie.’”
  • “Avoid blind headlines—the kind which mean nothing unless you read the body copy underneath them; most people don’t.”
  • “The curious thing is that the techniques which work best in ‘direct’ advertisements are seldom used in ordinary advertising—like giving factual information about the product.”

Side note: Some of the quotes I presented above could probably use some nuance. For example:

There is obviously no use presenting facts which are irrelevant to the prospect.

Some demographic groups may require more facts than others.

I’m not sure it’s wise to reject so-called belles lettres advertisements completely; especially if they act in service of building your brand. One might argue that Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial was an example of belles lettres, for example.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to understanding your ideal customer.

2. Be truthful

Always stay faithful to the truth. Common-sense ethics should be enough to compel you to follow this principle. Just in case it isn’t, here’s something to consider:

Consumers aren’t stupid; they will catch onto you if you lie or mislead them. And once you lose their trust, it is damn near impossible to regain it.

One of the most oft-repeated sentiments in Ogilvy’s book is this:

Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your own family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine. Do as you would be done by.

And in fact, Ogilvy presents us with even more specific rules to follow:

  • “Good products can be sold by honest advertising.”
  • “Avoid superlatives, generalisations, and platitudes.”
  • “Avoid bombast.”

3. Be helpful

Next to presenting facts and being truthful, one of the main themes of the book is that you ought to be helpful.

Ogilvy basically promotes two different kinds of helpfulness:

  1. Helping the prospect understand your product
  2. Giving the prospect valuable information and advice for free

The latter basically boils down to promoting an early form of content marketing. As an example, Ogilvy suggests that advertisers who are in the food industry include recipes in their ad copy.

He isn’t suggesting that you do it out of the kindness of your heart, mind you, but because it compels more people to engage with your marketing, and to buy your product or service:

Another profitable gambit is to give the reader helpful advice, or service. It hooks about 75 per cent more readers than copy which deals entirely with the product.

Some other quotes, mainly concerned with the former kind of helpfulness (helping prospects understand your offer), include the following:

  • “Include your selling promise in your headline.”
  • “Every headline should appeal to the reader’s self-interest …”
  • “Research shows that it is dangerous to use negatives in headlines.”
  • “Some copywriters write tricky headlines — puns, literary allusions, and other obscurities. This is a sin.”

4. Have a Big Idea

Whether you’re drafting an advertisement, designing a website, or doing any other form of marketing initiative, you have to be ruthless about prioritising your objectives.

It is impossible to do everything at once. Quoth Ogilvy: “Most campaigns are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives, and try to reconcile the divergent views of too many executives. By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing. Their advertisements look like the minutes of a committee.”

Beyond that though, it is important to center your efforts around a Big Idea.

What is a Big Idea, you ask?

I’ve seen some definitions of it, but I don’t think any of them quite do the concept justice. It’s easier to just show you:

Here’s what Ogilvy had to say about Big Ideas:

Unless your campaign contains a Big Idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.

Don’t let your marketing efforts pass like a ship in the night. Find your Big Idea. Here are some helpful criteria, from the reputable marketing research company Millward Brown (source):

  1. Big ideas resonate with consumers
  2. Big ideas are disruptive
  3. Big ideas have talk value
  4. Big ideas stretch brands
  5. Big ideas transcend cultural and geographic boundaries.

5. Don’t be boring

One of the greatest sins of marketing (and of many other domains, too) is to be boring. It is rude and disrespectful, and, just as importantly:

You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it.

You need to capture people’s interests, and there is simply no way to do that if you are boring. But how do you avoid boring your prospects?

The same way you avoid boring a conversational partner: If you want to be interesting, be interested. Obviously, this will express itself differently in marketing and advertising compared to everyday conversation:

In order to gain people’s interest, you need to know who they are, what their needs are, and what motivates them. You should also find out what interests them and what their other brand affinities are.

If you want to be interesting,
be interested.

If you have all this information, you could be the most uncharismatic person on planet earth—and you’d still be able to capture your prospects’ interest.

Some quotes:

  • “People are more likely to read your body copy if your headline arouses their curiosity; so you should end your headline with a lure to read on.”
  • “Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.”

However, Ogilvy says, don’t overdo it. If all you accomplish with your marketing efforts is entertainment, you won’t sell anything.

Good copywriters have always resisted the temptation to entertain.

6. Understand your customer

This principle ties right into the previous one—“Don’t be boring”—and actually, all the other previous principles too:

If you don’t understand your customer, you will not be able to devise a Big Idea, you will not be able to present the right sorts of facts, and you certainly will not be able to capture their interest in any meaningful sense.

You need to employ empathy and demonstrate that you understand your prospect. You need to speak to them on their level, about the things they care about. Don’t be pretentious, and don’t be condescending:

The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence.

Two more quotes from “Confessions”:

  • “Unless you have some special reason to be solemn and pretentious, write your copy in the colloquial language which your customers use in everyday conversation.””
  • “Don’t let men write advertising for products which are bought by women.”

7. Stay true to your brand

Last, but very far from least: in all your marketing efforts, stay true to your brand.

Golden rewards await the advertiser who has the brains to create a coherent image, and the stability to stick with it over a long period.

Of course, in order to achieve long-term brand consistency, you must first define your brand.

This requires some amount of self-discipline and self-restraint. Quoth David Ogilvy: “Most manufacturers are reluctant to accept any limitation on the image of their brand. They want it to be all things to all people … They generally end up with a brand which has no personality of any kind, a wishy-washy neuter. No capon ever rules the roost.”

Brands can seem very intangible and fuzzy things, and to an extent, they are. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true exercises and methods you can follow in order to really nail your brand. It’s also a major part of what I do for my brand strategy clients, so if you need to define your brand, you know who to call.

Some more quotes on the importance of brand-building in marketing:

  • “Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.”
  • “Every radio programme, every TV commercial is not a one-time shot, but a long-term investment in the total personality of their brands.”
  • “The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”
  • “Nobody has ever built a brand by imitating somebody else’s advertising.”


“Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ballpark. Aim for the company of immortals.” — David Ogilvy

To refresh your memory, these are David Ogilvy’s 7 principles of marketing:

  1. Give the facts
  2. Be truthful
  3. Be helpful
  4. Have a Big Idea
  5. Don’t be boring
  6. Understand your customer
  7. Stay true to your brand.

Incidentally, this seems like an appropriate place for a full-fledged pitch. If you want to:

  • gain a deeper understanding of your ideal customers,
  • nail your brand definition,
  • develop a visual identity system (and marketing materials, like a website) that is easily extendable and congruent with the brand image you’re trying to cultivate, then…

Red can help! We are great at what I do.