Often described as “The Father of Advertising” and “The Original Mad Man,” David Ogilvy is an advertising legend.

Ogilvy is largely known for his advertising work for Ogilvy & Mather, the Madison Avenue agency he founded in 1948. Over the years, Ogilvy and his ad agency created hugely successful campaigns for Rolls-Royce, Sears, the British government, the state of Puerto Rico, American Express, Dove, Shell Oil, and dozens of major brands in the CPG industry.

Ogilvy’s principles are still as relevant today as they were during the Golden Age of Advertising. Apply them to your advertising campaigns, creative copy, social media strategy, or branding strategy, and you’re sure to see results. 

Do Your Research 

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” -David Ogilvy 

Most agencies will simply create a “brand persona” and call it a day. That’s in quotes because these personas usually barely scratch the surface of their true customer demographics. 

Here’s where good old-fashioned 1960s advertising psychographics come in handy: 

This is how you uncover a problem people have, why they’re struggling with it, and how to move forward. 

Only when we find the answers to these questions (What are your prospects’ goals? What are their pain points and common objections? How can your products or services help them?) that we can understand where to begin with crafting content and ads for your brand.

Ogilvy elaborated on his views of why research is so important:

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.” -David Ogilvy 

Thinking out of the box is imperative for researching your prospective client––especially if you are unsure where to start.

Several years ago, the brilliant Joanna Wiebe, founder, director, and editor of Copyhackers, found herself with a new client in an industry with which she was completely unfamiliar: addiction rehabilitation.

Given the demographic, the likelihood of interviewing a target customer was unlikely. 

So, in order to paint a fuller picture of her new client’s target market, Wiebe went to Amazon.com, pulled up six best-selling books on addiction recovery, and read “500 reviews in 2 or 3 hours,” copying the phrasing and terminology directly from people who’ve struggled with addiction. 

Wiebe placed those phrases into a chart containing three categories: memorable phrases, what people want, and what people are mad about/in pain over.  

She studied and analyzed the direct quotes she had copied before settling on a landing page headline: “If You Think You Need Rehab, You Do.”

The results? Wiebe tested that headline against the control, which was “Your Addiction Ends Here.”

The new headline––the one she found in Amazon reviews––brought in 400% more CTA clicks and 20% more lead-gen form submissions. Wiebe accomplished this not through a magic trick or blind luck, but by simply going straight to her target customers’ vernacular. 

The bottom line? The foundation of a successful marketing strategy is research. This cannot be overstated.

Give the Facts 

If you’re a marketer, you’ve no doubt heard that you should present prospective customers with “benefits, not features.” And 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. And it’s important to remember that some demographic groups may require more facts than others.

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

Use Headlines with Immediate Impact 

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” -David Ogilvy 

Headlines are as close to a magic spell as you’re going to get, and if you’re going to be perfect in only one place, do it here. Write a strong headline that works.

You’ve only got one shot with a headline, 5 to 10 words, before your customer scrolls down to the next one. Get. Their. Attention. 

The key secret? Clarity. And a few Power Words won’t hurt either. 

“Never use tricky or irrelevant headlines… People read too fast to figure out what you are trying to say.” -David Ogilvy 

When in doubt, keep it simple. Say, for example, you’re crafting content about the latest iPhone. One of the phone’s strongest selling points? It has a TON of storage.; 256 GB of storage, to be exact.

So, how do you express this in your copy? Not “256 GB of Storage.”

Yes, it’s factual, but it’s also quite technical. Most people won’t understand what it means and will keep scrolling.

What does that even mean? Nope, customer’s not clicking; instead, they keep scrolling. 

So, instead of “256 GB of storage,” people want to know how many photos and songs they can have on their phones. (For the record, that’s 71,111 photos or around 30,000 songs). Focusing your marketing strategy around the fact that the phone can hold more than 70K photos would be much more attractive than the fact that it has 256 GB of storage.


Did you know? 95% of our purchase decisions, according to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, take place unconsciously. 

The bottom line: Decisions happen subconsciously, not always rationally or emotionally. You need a headline that grabs attention and curiosity while being clear and to the point. 

Here are some of the best-selling headlines from Ogilvy’s career: 

“It’s a mutiny to mix a Gin-and-Tonic without Schweppes!”

“Some clients can be used as human symbols of their own product. Eight years after this campaign started, Schweppes sales in the United States had increased 517%.” -David Ogilvy

“The man in the Hathaway shirt

“When we were asked to preside over Hathaway’s debut as a national advertiser, I was determined to give them a campaign which would be better than Young & Rubicam’s historic campaign for Arrow shirts. But Hathaway could spend only $30,000 against Arrow’s $2,000,000. A miracle was required.” -David Ogilvy

And Ogilvy’s personal favorite:

“At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in the New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”

“The more you tell, the more you sell. Notice the very long headline–and 719 words of copy, all facts.” -David Ogilvy

Published by Merilyn Ritchie

Merilyn Ritchie is the Director of Media Services and Content Strategy at EX Media. She has crafted content for small businesses, large non-profits, tech startups, and everything in between. Writer by day and reader by night, she loathes to talk about herself in the third person but can be persuaded to do so from time to time. So it goes. Find her on Instagram: @MerilynMcg