Ogilvy on Advertising: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Business

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | 216 pages ex-notes

Blurb/Description: David Ogilvy – often lauded as the “father of American advertising” – deconstructs advertising as a profession and a business.

Summary: Ogilvy entered the advertising agency relatively late in life as an outsider with a colorful background.  With a unique focus on research that was uncommon among copywriters, he took the industry by storm, building one of the largest and most profitable advertising agencies in America – as a Brit (technically a Scot), nonetheless.

This book, written toward the end of Ogilvy’s career, can be viewed as the most elegant and straightforward distillation of his principles applied to advertising as both profession and business, superseding his earlier – still very popular – Confessions of an Advertising Man.”

Highlights: It feels like roughly half the book is examples – often full-page – of work by Ogilvy, or others, that’s good (or bad).  This is supremely helpful and interesting because it allows readers to use the book as a “workbook” – reading and reflecting on Ogilvy’s principles, then immediately and directly applying them to deconstructing the example advertisements cited.

Lowlights: None, other than that some of the examples are dated – but the principles hold up surprisingly well.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: Margin of safetymental models, utility, local vs. global optimization, base rates, cognition vs. intuition, schema, storytelling, opportunity costs, salience, empathy, activation energy, social proof, contrast bias, confirmation bias, disaggregation

You should buy a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising if: you want a practical, hands-on / illustrated “workbook” for applying mental models to deconstruct why one of the best in the advertising business made the choices he did.

Reading Tips: None.

Pairs Well With: The Unpublished David Ogilvy” (Oglvy review + notes).

These two books complement each other very well; “Unpublished” is more theoretical in nature while “Ogilvy on Advertising” breaks down a number of (pictured) ads to explore the exact reasons why they do (or don’t) work.

Ogilvy does have a third book as well – Confessions of an Advertising Man – but if you read Unpublished and Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions is rendered mostly redundant and not worth the incremental time to read.

How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (HWFIP review + notes).  Much of the idea behind what Ogilvy covers will not be unfamiliar to readers who own a copy of the Carnegie classic – though Ogilvy presents the material in a much more realistic and less Pollyanna-ish way.

If I disappeared, would you notice I’m not here?  Askeladden’s September 2018 mental models memo, summarizing some of the highlights of what I learned from studying advertising.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger (vrl review + notes).  Ogilvy’s work is all before the digital era, so it’s interesting to explores what’s changed – and what’s stayed the same.

Ogilvy highlights the importance of word of mouth in his books, and Berger dives deep into that topic, coming up with surprising, counterintuitive conclusions on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  It’s interesting to see how Ogilvy’s principles still apply – and how we can apply them via specific practices in the digital era.

Reread Value: 3/5 (medium)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Page 7: Ogilvy makes his premise clear:

When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. - David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

Ogilvy leveraged this core approach – with a heavy emphasis, as we’ll see, on base rates (which he calls “factors”) and a/b testing – to create one of the largest advertising agencies in the world.

Ogilvy here mentions the word “principles” – he notes that this book (written toward the end of his career) is based on the same principles he held when he wrote Confessions of an Advertising Man decades earlier.  

I would expound here, using “principles” the same way Stephen Covey uses them in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes) – a principle is timeless and universal.  A practice is how you apply that principle in a specific situation, which obviously changes depending on the situation.

Much of what Ogilvy says here has an underlying principle about the nature of advertising that transcends the medium.  So, of course, Ogilvy could not have anticipated Google, Facebook, and smartphones – and these tectonic shifts mean that many of the practices of advertising must, of course, change.

For example, direct mail is mostly dying – but many of the lessons Ogilvy sources from John Caples’ “Tested Advertising Methods” (which I’ve read) are still totally applicable in the digital era.

Anyway, the principles Ogilvy is referencing here are mental models: utility and local vs. global optimization.  As we’ll get into, there’s a tension between art and business in the advertising industry, and what you have to do to impress other advertisers – and/or award-offering agencies – is not necessarily what you have to do to impress consumers, who ring the cash register.  Of course, you can’t just prioritize the consumers, because your reputation in the industry probably matters as well.

Demonstrating that these principles are timeless, Jonah Berger notes in the very modern Contagious: Why Things Catch On (vrl review + notes) that many popular / awarded advertisements are actually ineffective: he highlights, for example, Evian’s smash hit “Roller Babies” commercial.  People remembered the babies… but not Evian, which saw sales implode despite the commercial’s popularity.

Page 8: Ogilvy, to his credit, also fully understands the nuance and complexity (the latter not in the formal sense) of the world – he notes:

“I am sometimes attacked for imposing ‘rules.’  

Nothing could be further from the truth. I hate rules.  

All I do is report on how consumers react to different stimuli.

 … I may say to an art director, ‘Research suggests that… black type on a white background [is read by more people than] white type on a black background.’

 A hint, perhaps, but barely a rule.”

What he’s saying here is that his “factors” are essentially base rates that help inform our analysis – but they’re a starting point, not an endpoint.  Sometimes it’s OK (and even good) to break the rules – to do that, though, you first want to know what the rule is.

Page 9: Ogilvy quotes John Caples for the first (not the last) time; Caples notes that getting it right can have a huge impact – he’s seen one ad sell ~20x as much as another.

Pages 10 – 12: Ogilvy’s famous Rolls-Royce advertisement (pictured in full on page 10) is counter to a lot of what you’d think about advertising… it’s purely factual, and it’s narrative / long-form.  In both this case, and later when Ogilvy made a similar advertisement from Mercedes, the advertisement was based on extensive research.

The process Ogilvy uses here is similar to what Jonah Berger discusses, in Contagious: Why Things Catch On (vrl review + notes) of finding a product’s “inner remarkability.”  

Note the parallels between BlendTec’s “Will It Blend” advertising campaign (highlighting the remarkable attributes of an otherwise unremarkable product) with the “remarkable” aspects here – the headline is that “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise is the electric clock,” and Ogilvy notes that engineers use a stethoscope to check for axle whine.

Also, I laughed at:

“It is hard to think of anything you could give children which would do them more good.  [margarine] provides about twice the energy of beefsteak.”  

Modern nutritionists might have something to say about that.  😛

Pages 14 – 15: On local vs. global optimization – Ogilvy here mentions that:

“Your advertising should consistently project the same image, year after year.”

He (elsewhere) discusses the need to balance short-term and long-term considerations.  

Meanwhile, he also notes that many brand-based purchasing decisions are driven less by rational considerations and more by feelings toward the brand – ex. People don’t choose Coke, per Ogilvy, because it contains 50% more cola berries.

Page 16: On cognition vs. intuition: Ogilvy notes that “big ideas” come from the unconscious.  But, mirroring Kip Tindell’s Principle 5 at The Container Store, as discussed in Uncontainable ( UCT review + notes), Ogilvy notes that:

“Your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant.  Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.  

You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath… suddenly… a big idea wells up inside you.”

Ogilvy, elsewhere, advocates working hard while you’re at work, but taking frequent vacations or sabbaticals.

Page 19: Ogilvy notes that we too often get caught up in contrast bias: his partner Joel Raphaelson states (lightly rearranged for clarity) that:

“[It] may not be necessary… to convince consumers that [your] product is superior to [your] competitor’s… it may be sufficient to convince consumers that your product is positively good.”

Raphaelson goes on to advocate that if your products are about the same, don’t (falsely) try to make yours sound better – just focus on doing a good job of telling the highlights of your own offering.

Page 20: On schema: Ogilvy notes that advertisers and executives may get tired of the same ad after seeing it over and over… but if consumers haven’t seen it as much as you have, it may still be effective to them.  Intriguing – especially from my standpoint.

What I mean by that: I don’t want to say the same things over and over in my quarterly letters because

A) I feel like I’ve written them before, and sometimes

B) I feel like I’ve read similar sentiments a million times before.  

But that may not be the audience’s perspective.

Page 21: On base rates: Ogilvy complains about the unscientific nature of much of advertising; he believes that by understanding “plus or minus factors” – i.e. things, like the aforementioned black-on-white vs. white-on-black text finding – that make, statistically, advertisements more or less likely to sell the product.  

Ogilvy goes on to cite a 1947 book on the subject.

Page 23: Ogilvy, long before Berger, identified the importance of what he calls “story appeal” – i.e. storytelling.  Ogilvy leveraged this by putting an eye-patch on the model for Hathaway shirts – you can think of him as a precursor to Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man In The World.

Ogilvy goes on to note that these “plus or minus” factors don’t tend to change much over time.

He also notes a variation on marginal utility – again, similar to one of the Container Store principles (1 Great Person = 3 Good People), Ogilvy notes that good copywriters reach many times more readers than average ones.

Pages 24 – 26: Here, Ogilvy discusses creativity (and sex) – ultimately, it’s fine to use salience to get people interested, but unless it drives actual results, it’s not helpful for its own sake.

Page 32: Ogilvy outlines some traits of successful copywriters: curiosity, humor, hard work, and the ability to think visually.

Page 35: Ogilvy notes a few interesting and important business practices here:

1) Provide advice to clients, but recognize that they have to make their own decisions, and be okay with that.

2) Understand opportunity costs – don’t die on every hill; save your challenges for important issues.

3) Write well.

Ogilvy also notes the importance of intellectual honesty and empathy toward the creative people in the organization (not in the touchy-feely sense, but rather being able to communicate with them in terms they understand.)

Pages 36 – 37: Much as Ogilvy admired research in advertising relative to others of his generation, his chief complaints about researchers included:

A lack of focus on utility (answering questions for their own sake) and specifically marginal utility(taking too long to get to perfect when good was good enough).

A lack of a system for retrieving research.  This one I’ve definitely found to be important to manage in investing, too.

Not writing in a way that the audience can understand.

Not taking the initiative.

Page 39: Ogilvy is a skeptic on formal education.

Page 41: I thought this advertisement/endorsement for Reader’s Digest was interesting.  Ogilvy praises the editors of Reader’s Digest for:

“Present[ing] complicated subjects in a manner that engages the reader… some highbrows may look down… at The Digest, charging it with superficiality and over-simplification… you can learn more [elsewhere]… but have you time?

I seldom read a highbrow magazine without wishing that a Digest editor had worked… upon it.  I would then find it more readable.”

Bad writers like David Foster Wallace are prime examples of the opposite of this – it’s irrelevant to haveuseful things to say if they’re buried behind mountains of horribly complex and unreadable prose.  It’s difficult to make a positive impact if people give up before they understand what you’re saying.

Anyway, Ogilvy goes on to note the importance of headlines… which we’ll come back to.

Page 44: Ogilvy unintentionally notes activation energy here – when applying for a job (or, really, anything else), propose a specific next step rather than leaving the situation open-ended.

See Sunstein/Thaler’s Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) – specifically the bit about Yale students and vaccinations – for some research on the power of this, that Ogilvy would probably love.

Page 47: Fun quip about the tragedy of:

“[advertising’s] best practitioners [being] promoted into management… I was infinitely more useful to my clients when I wrote copy than when I was Chairman.”

Page 49: Ogilvy doesn’t have a lot of rules, but one is never hire friends, clients’ children, or your own children.

Page 50: On navigating internal politics: Ogilvy recommends starting a lunch club.  

Cross-reference, again, “ Nudge ( ndge review + notes) – specifically the research on how anonymity weakens social proof.  Ogilvy’s previous recommendation here is to avoid “paper warfare” and make people settle fights face to face – it’s easier to find a way to get along face to face, and easier to be nasty or petty when you’re shielded from the other person’s feelings by paper (or pixels).

Pages 54 – 55: Ogilvy notes that having guiding principles is important… and the importance of focusing on profitability rather than revenue.  Bigger is not always better, whether in terms of revenue, services offered, etc. He notes, essentially, the opportunity cost of trying to do everything rather than focusing on what you’re good at.

He also notes Buffett found advertising agencies less risky than the general public… in an example of contrast bias, schema, and basic numeracy, he points out that while big client defections or additions made headlines, the majority of business in the industry was pretty stable.

Ogilvy, smartly, thought the conglomerate fad was dumb.

Page 56: Ogilvy liked having cash as a rainy day reserve.  He notes:

“On Wall Street they regard this as lunacy, but when times get hard, the lunatics may survive longer than their more adventurous competitors.”

Margin of safety, anyone?

Page 58: Ogilvy believes the easiest way to get new clients is to do good work.

Page 60: Ogilvy notes the importance of not always sitting on the opposite side of the table… this is discussed elsewhere in what I’ve read.  See Brene Brown in Daring Greatly ( DG review + notes) on sitting on the same side of the table being a literal best practice and also a useful metaphor.

Page 63: Ogilvy notes the importance of reputation long-term, as well as the importance of not trusting your own ears and instead seeking objective/impartial third party opinions – he notes “you will hear only favorable opinions.”

It’s not immediately clear if he means this in the sense of confirmation bias or people being nice to you, but regardless, it’s good advice.  Similarly, Tavris/Aronson, in the fascinating Mistakes were Made (but not by me)”MwM review + notes – drive home the importance of having objective third parties around who are willing to puncture our bubble when we need that.

Page 65: Ogilvy notes that some unique ads for Ogilvy & Mather were essentially whitepapers on advertising.  Of course, this approach has become more common now – in “Contagious” (vrl review + notes), Berger highlights sharing useful information as a great way to drive word-of-mouth response.

Page 68: Again on empathy and listening.

Page 70: Creative types don’t like to hear about formulas that work…

Pages 71 – 73!: Ogilvy notes:

“On average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.  It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money.”

Ogilvy follows up:

“The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit.”

Ogilvy cites as a great headline the title of the Dale Carnegie classic – How To Win Friends And Influence People ( HWFIP review + notes).  Finally, he observes:

“Include the brand name in your headline.  If you don’t, 80 per cent of readers (who don’t read your body copy) will never know what product you are advertising.”

There’s actually a further angle here elsewhere with long copy that we’ll get into… kind of a nice use of disaggregation.  Anyay, Ogilvy notes that using high emotional impact words in headlines is helpful.

Page 76: Back to storytelling appeal as well as the importance of a good subject/topic for photographs – see again the BlendTec campaign mentioned earlier.

Pages 80 – 81: Ogilvy notes that short paragraphs and sentences are easier to read than long ones.  He also notes that even though not everybody reads the body copy, those who do read are the interested ones.

Beyond the advice to tell stories, maybe one of the best lines I’ve seen anywhere is:

You cannot bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them in buying it. - David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

Cross-reference Richard Thaler and Brene Brown on academics viewing flair as unprofessional.  It’s idiotic. You want people to be interested, not bored.

Page 83: Similar to Berger’s discussion of Evian’s Roller Babies and Ogilvy’s own prior discussion of sex, he notes that celebrities get high recall scores, but not the product…

Page 84: Going back to the anonymity thing from Nudge ( ndge review + notes) – Ogilvy observes that when you ask copywriters to sign their ads, they do a better job.

Pages 88 – 89: Don’t bury the lede.

Also, a phenomenal example of disaggregation here as it regards length.

Ogilvy is a fan of concision in writing (see his earlier points about writing lucid memoranda), but there’s a difference between being concise and writing only a few words.  

He notes that long copy (if engaging and well-written) sells better than short copy.

Ogilvy doesn’t make the point literally, but my takeaway is that while only a few people may actually read past the headline, those who are engaged/interested/information-seeking want to learn as much as they can… so give ‘em what they came for.

Page 101: Make text easy to read.  Line spacing is your friend.

Page 103: On utility and the importance of measuring the right thing: Ogilvy notes that recall doesn’t always lead to purchase.  I recall the etrade baby pretty well, but I have no intention of moving to etrade. I recall Flo from Progressive and David Palmer from Allstate and the Gecko from Geico pretty well, but I have no intention of switching my insurance!

Ogilvy notes that humor sells.

Page 109: Ogilvy:

“Consumers also need a rational excuse to justify their emotional decisions.  So always include one.”

Pages 110 – 111: Some nice tips here.  Ogilvy notes the tendency of viewers to remember the commercial but forget the brand – a bit like many of us might remember a passage but forget the author – so include the brand name ad nauseam.  

Similarly to this – and in an example of activation energy (as well as memory) – Ogilvy notes that showing the package is more effective than not doing so (probably because it makes it easier for consumers to buy it – they don’t have to hunt for it).

And again on not being able to bore people into buying your product:

“People screen out a lot of commercials because they open with something dull.  You know that great things are about to happen, but the viewer doesn’t. She will never know; she has gone to the bathroom.”

Page 123: On the benefits of simplifying complicated issues.

Pages 138 – 139: On, again, useful information… as well as tying together what I mentioned earlier:

“Body copy is seldom read by more than 10 percent of readers… but that 10 percent consists of prospects: people interested enough in what you are selling to take the trouble to read about it.

What you say to them determines the success of your advertisement.”

Some of the best disaggregation I’ve seen anywhere.  

Page 143: On direct mail.  Of course, this is now e-mail marketing.

Page 146: Scarcity bias works.

Page 156: Ogilvy analyzes what made P&G successful – including a focus on effective communication, and a “moment of confirmation” that demonstrates the effectiveness of the product directly (i.e. squeezing a Charmin roll.)

Page 160: What is the most important lesson Ogilvy has on advertising?

“Advertising which promises no benefit to the consumer does not sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise whatsoever.”

For context, there’s a “five whys” approach here – Ogilvy notes as context that a boiler manufacturer isn’t selling boilers, but the profit that a company can make if it buys the boilers.

Page 161: Ogilvy notes that research (again, could substitute the objective third-party perspective from Tavris/Aronson MwM) helps you figure out whether your advertising communicates what you want it to communicate.

Page 170: On the 80/20 rule.


First Read: summer 2018

Last Read: summer 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: no


Review Date: fall 2018

Notes Date: fall 2018