The Unpublished David Ogilvy: Book Review, Notes + Analysis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: ⅕ (None) | 190 pages ex-notes

Blurb/Description: A collection of previously-unpublished memos, letters, and musings by David Ogilvy – the witty, hard-hitting father of American advertising.

Summary: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of this book, but it delivered on my expectations – and then some.  Ogilvy’s writing, naturally, mirrors his advertising: clear, persuasive, and informational.

Don’t let’s be dull bores. We can’t save souls in an empty church. - David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

Highlights: Ogilvy takes a very mental models esque approach to advertising: for example, he’s constantly hunting out “factors” (i.e. base rates) that make audiences respond better or worse to advertisements.

In short order, he manages to identify many important principles of human nature and behavior, and apply those in a multidisciplinary fashion – i.e. applying the same premises to managing his agency(and his clients) as he does to writing his advertisements.

Lowlights: Many of the points made regarding advertising are somewhat intuitive if you’re familiar with incentivesempathy, and schema and have read books like Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (HWFIP review + notes).

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: base ratestrait adaptivitysaliencememorycognition vs. intuitionnonlinearitylocal vs. global optimizationschematradeoffsconfirmation biasn-order impactscultureempathy,

You should buy a copy of The Unpublished David Ogilvy if: you want a book applying a thoughtful outsider’s perspective to advertising, business, and life.

Reading Tips: None in particular.

Pairs Well With:

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  These two books complement each other very well; “Unpublished” is more theoretical in nature while “Ogilvy on Advertising” breaks down a number of (pictured) ads to explore the exact reasons why they do (or don’t) work.

Ogilvy does have a third book as well – Confessions of an Advertising Man – but if you read Unpublished and Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions is rendered mostly redundant and not worth the incremental time to read.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

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.

Pages 3 – 4: Ogilvy’s insight and precision here are delightful.  In a memo he wrote at 25, he notes:

“Every advertisement must tell the whole sales story, because the public does not read advertisements in series.”

He goes on to discuss the importance of conciseness and plain language, which he expounds on in “Ogilvy on Advertising” (OnA review + notes).

Ogilvy’s approach to writing (whether for advertising or internal communication) is essentially a strong focus on clear communication: lucid, straightforward prose that the audience can easily understand, where the focus is on the message rather than the writing.  Basically, the opposite of David Foster Wallace and other similar bad writers.

Ogilvy also constantly discusses what he calls “factors” – analogous to our base rates – basically, Ogilvy’s factors are small statistical advantages that make the audience more likely to respond to advertising.  For example, in Ogilvy on Advertising, he notes that white text on black is harder to read than black text on white – similarly, here, he advises (in his “The Theory & Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker,” written at 24) that salesmen study the best time of day for calling.

Page 5: One of Ogilvy’s catchphrases is:

 “you cannot bore the consumer into buying your product.”

See salience and memory.  Here, he notes the same thesis as it relates to door-to-door sales: he essentially advises taking the Dale Carnegie approach, advising salesmen to:

“Pretend to be vastly interested in any subject the prospect shows an interest in.  THe more she talks the better, and if you can make her laugh you are several points up.”

In Ogilvy on Advertising, he does mention Carnegie’s famous “ How To Win Friends And Influence People ( HWFIP review + notes).

Page 6: In an example of trait adaptivity, Ogilvy notes that you need many sales arguments because what might work with one demographic may be irrelevant or boring to another: he advises finding out as quickly as possible what the consumer values, and tailoring your sales pitch thereto.

Page 9: On where Madison Avenue draws its inspiration: “Modesty forbids.”  Ha.

Page 10: More on the “know your audience” bit.  Meanwhile, on the importance of humor.  Ogilvy cites this as one of his “factors” elsewhere, too.

Page 13: In Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy discusses how when your product is more or less the same as competitors’, it’s better to (honestly) focus on the good aspects of your product, rather than (dishonestly) try to compare it with competitors.

Pages 14 – 15: Ogilvy’s approach here reminds me a little bit of high school debate.  He advocates, first of all, having prepared counterarguments ready for all of the most common arguments against your case.  Second of all, in some situations (such as pricing), he even recommends what we called “spiking” – i.e. addressing a potential counterargument before it’s even been brought up, to render it null and void.

Page 16: Ogilvy noticed that many American advertising agencies were in Britain… so why not vice versa?

Page 21: On the benefits of being unorthodox in hiring: Ogilvy himself was, of course, unorthodox.

Page 22: Ogilvy focuses on both intelligence/competence and character, noting the meaningful long-term impacts of reputation.

Page 24: An example of what Ogilvy views as a fantastic headline:

“America is alive and well and living in new Hampshire.”

Here, and in Ogilvy on Advertising, I enjoyed trying to deconstruct what made certain ads / headlines good (or bad).

Pages 26 – 27: Ogilvy is outspoken against creativity for its own sake – but simultaneously, he’s outspoken about not tolerating dry, dull advertising.  He notes:

“I plead for charm, flair, showmanship, taste, distinction.”

Page 27: Ogilvy stresses the importance of hiring people who are strong in areas you are weak – elsewhere, there’s a nice Russian dolls metaphor about the agency becoming a company of Lilliputians if they only hired people who were smaller than them.

Page 28: Ogilvy goes on to add:

“Don’t compound your own weaknesses by employing people in key positions who have the same weaknesses.”

Cross-reference, here, how Jeff Bezos missed building a dominant position in music because he loved books but had no real fondness for music – see Brad Stone’s “ The Everything Store ( TES review + notes).

Ogilvy further notes that the challenge is that nobody wants to admit their own weaknesses – on this topic, see of course Tavris/Aronson’s wonderful “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me) – MwM review + notes.

Ogilvy also notes, in a handwritten letter, that it says a lot about people who ask for advice on topics they don’t know much about – a surprisingly uncommon activity.

Page 29: Like one of the scientists in “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb” TMAB review + notes), Ogilvy didn’t really like the culture of seniority – he wanted junior people to be able to speak up if they had information he didn’t.

Page 31: Another interesting passage to deconstruct… my sense is that the author cleverly documents his rise from humble beginnings.

Page 34: Ogilvy & Mather was not the biggest agency by revenue, but they were substantially more profitable than most.  This was achieved via intentionality: Ogilvy didn’t want to offer all services or service all clients for the sake of it (if doing so didn’t drive profit).  Here, he notes as well his commitment to frugality.

Page 35: Aside, but I recently read an article about why turbulence really isn’t all that dangerous.  Of course, we respond to it because it’s salient!

Page 36: Ogilvy was not unaware of the fact that Warren Buffett made a lot of money on Ogilvy & Mather stock.

Page 39: Ogilvy wasn’t above a little poetic license to prove a point…

Pages 39 – 40: Stephen Covey espouses, in “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes), the uncannily effective principle of “beginning with the end in mind.”

Here, Ogilvy writes a eulogy / obituary for one of his friends (who is still alive and healthy) – it’s something to live up to and reminded me a lot of Covey.

Page 41: Ogilvy notes (elsewhere) that factors tend to stay the same over time… well, here’s one that’s changed: in the ‘50s, apparently

“ordinary Americans are too nice, or too dumb, or too passive, or too uncritical, to dislike anything.”

Clearly that’s changed.

Pages 45 – 47: How do you bridge the gap between “have flair” and “don’t focus on creativity?”

It’s dose-dependency: Ogilvy here notes (more explanation elsewhere) that there’s a local vs. global optimization problem – advertising has to simultaneously achieve the short-term goal of ringing the cash register, and the longer-term goal of building a brand image.

Page 54: Ogilvy quips here about what it is, exactly, that account executives do.  The punchline is similar to the famous line from Office Space: what would you say you do here?

Pages 54 – 55: Ogilvy was pretty good at putting himself in the customer’s schema.

Pages 55 – 57: Ogilvy showing the he puts into practice the “hire people bigger than you” (and the associated management practice of not micromanaging.)

Pages 57 – 59: On how Ogilvy actually writes copy: he can’t write in an office (too many distractions).  He uses research material as inspiration; he starts by understanding all the relevant information and selecting the goal, then he writes lots of headlines… and after that he finally writes the copy, and then edits it.

Page 63: One habit I picked up from reading Ogilvy is numbering bullet points to make them more readable.  Anyway, here’s what Ogilvy looks for in leaders: pretty standard, although I’d highlight “a streak of unorthodoxy” and “a sense of humor.”

Pages 64 – 65: Ogilvy on his own weaknesses, one of which I particularly share – having a low threshold of boredom.

Pages 66 – 69: Useful list here of various items Ogilvy finds important in advertising.

Pages 69 – 70: Ogilvy:

“People who think well, write well.  Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.  Good writing is not a natural gift: you have to learn to write well.”

His advice on how to do so – other than reading Writing That Works – generally boils down to “write clearly.”  i.e., put yourself in the reader’s shoes and make your point as clear as possible to them.  Don’t be David Foster Wallace (my personal favorite poster child for hideously awful, vastly overwritten prose that obfuscates rather than clarifies the point.)

Pages 73 – 74: Ogilvy recommends a number of books here, one of which (Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples) I’ve read.  While Caples’ book was fine, I think there’s a lot of overlap with Ogilvy (and, of course, Dale Carnegie) – so if you’re already reading this, not sure it’ll do you much good unless you want to make a career out of copywriting.

Pages 84 – 85: Here’s more on the local vs. global optimization problem: Ogilvy notes that creating advertisements that your family – or others – would find distasteful is bad for you in the long term.

Ogilvy notes, though, with a little more nuance here than in “Ogilvy on Advertising” (OnA review + notes):

Don’t let’s be dull bores. We can’t save souls in an empty church. - David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

Ogilvy, of course, means this somewhat facetiously (i.e., in OnA, he quips that you can’t bore the consumer into buying your product.)

But it’s also literally true: Charles Duhigg discusses in “ The Power of Habit ( PoH review + notes) how the Saddleback Church grew so large, in part, due to eliminating the “veto vote” – making sermons interesting and practical rather than boring and theoretical, doing away with the dress code, etc.

And the church pews, quite literally, filled up – so, to the extent that the church’s leadership believed they were saving souls, they were saving way more souls than they would’ve if they insisted on making sermons boring, and making people dress up for the occasion.

I’m not a Christian (nor a follower of any other religion) – but you still have to respect the approach.

Pages 86 – 88: Ogilvy here dives deeper into long-term reputation, but the interesting/new angle is that you can’t be all things to all people.  I.e.:

“I find that most manufacturers are reluctant to accept any… limitation on the image and personality of their brands.  They want to be all things to all people…

And in their greed they almost always end up with a brand which has no personality of any kind – a wishy-washy neuter brand.”

It’s good advice to reflect on for both business and life.   Tradeoffs.

Pages 89 – 90: Ogilvy here discusses the contribution of emotion in brand purchase decisions; in Ogilvy on Advertising (OnA review + notes), he further explains that you need to use both, because consumers want a rational(ized) reason to justify their emotional decisions!

Pages 92 – 93: Another useful list of good human traits – not quite as good as the eulogy earlier, though.

Pages 94 – 95: Good management advice.

Also, Ogilvy knows that he doesn’t have all the answers, stating:

“I make no apology for having established a set of creative principles, but I cannot believe that they represent the last word.

I am hungry for younger creative people to come along and enlarge our philosophies.

Start where I leave off.”

This.  The problem I too often see is that many people find it more comfortable to just mimic or clone what others say or do – perhaps because it allows you to not have to stick your neck out and risk being wrong (away from the crowd).

Yes, you’re several steps ahead if you learn from the eminent dead – but not as far ahead as you’ll be if you stand on their shoulders instead of hide in their shadows.

Page 96: Ogilvy – who notes elsewhere that long ads sell better than short ads – still recommends conciseness whenever possible.

Page 97: Ogilvy on confirmation bias: he notes it’s easy to do research; the problem is using it.  Because:

“We all have a tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost – for support, not for illumination.”

Page 102: On direct mail… and on trying to get existing clients to buy more from you.

Page 106: Ogilvy was very early on the mental health bandwagon; he notes about students at one specific college (seems to apply just as well to all colleges):

“No Colby student should be flunked out until he has had a few sessions with a psychiatrist.  This would save a lot of students – and it is our duty to save them, if we possibly can.”

Meanwhile, he again emphasizes the importance of teaching clear writing (notice a theme?)  and – in a different context – the same tradeoffs and opportunity costs issue he discusses earlier vis-a-vis brands trying to be everything to everybody, and (in “Ogilvy on Advertising” – OnA review + notes) agencies trying to do the same thing.

He quotes an Oxford don as stating:

“The strength of a college can be measured by the number of subjects it refuses to teach.”

Better to excel at some than to be mediocre at all.

Page 108: Ogilvy: not a fan of memorization-based education.  He’s in good company; Don Norman (author of “ The Design of Everyday Things – DOET review + notes) feels the same way.

Page 110: Ogilvy compares Ogilvy & Mather to McKinsey – apparently he knew Marvin Bower.

Pages 111 – 112: Ogilvy’s approach is to work hard when he works, but also take frequent vacations.  He notes that partners:

“Should be given sabbaticals to recharge their batteries.”

In Ogilvy on Advertising (OnA review + notes), he references, on this topic, cognition vs. intuition, noting that the “big ideas” he so prizes only come to you when you step away from the hubbub and let your subconscious mull over it.  (Modern neuroscience confirms this, by the way).

Ogilvy, here, also mentions how important fun is: he discusses Niels Bohr and the scientists who first split the atom (see “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes – TMAB review + notes).  Ogilvy states:

“When people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.  Kill grimness with laughter. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.”

Pages 115 – 118: More on Ogilvy’s approach to management.

Page 119: Ogilvy loves his “factors” – what we call base rates around here.  He explains:

“As a copywriter, what I want from the researchers is to be told what kind of advertising will make the cash register ring… plus and minus factors… a blind pig may sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow under oak trees.”

Pages 120 – 121: Ogilvy notes there’s lots of unread research – it’s worth going over what you already know before conducting new stuff.

Ogilvy also touches on n-order impacts: on the dangers of discounting, he notes:

“Manufacturers are buying volume by price discounting… they are training consumers to buy on price instead of brand.

… there used to be a prosperous brand of coffee called Chase & Sanborn… They became addicted to price-offs.  Where is Chase & Sanborn today? … dead as a doornail.”

Of course, something similar happened with retailers a few years ago.  The general idea here (in case it’s not immediately clear) is that if you train your consumers to only buy when there’s discounts, they’ll start doing that… but then if all your competitors do the same thing, you haven’t really gained an advantage, and everybody’s lost margin.

Ogilvy recommends focusing on investing in the brand rather than in discounting.

Page 122: More on the n-order impacts of discounting here.

Page 129: Here, he discusses tradeoffs, opportunity costs, and the importance of focusing on profitability rather than revenue.

Page 130: Ogilvy on management style:

“Treat your subordinates as grown-ups – and they will grow up.  Help them when they are in difficulty. Be affectionate and human, not cold and impersonal.

It is vitally important to encourage free communication upward.  Encourage your people to be candid with you. Ask their advice – and listen to it.”

Page 131: Ogilvy on empathy and schema:

“Don’t summon people to your office – it frightens them.  Instead, go to see them in their offices.”

Page 132: Ogilvy views training as an important ongoing part of the job:

“The more our people learn, the more useful they can be to our clients.”

Page 133: Ogilvy on respect: among other things,

“In meeting with clients, do not assume the posture of servants.  They need you as much as you need them.”

Reminds me a bit of Bill Ackman – I am no big fan, but he once said something to the effect of “there is much more capital than talented managers available to allocate it” or something.

Page 135: Ogilvy:

“Only second-raters accept permanent subordination.”

Ogilvy clearly buys into the idea of flat management and not being too hierarchical/seniority-driven.

Page 145: More on Ogilvy’s management style:

“Some of our people spend their entire working lives in our agency.  We do our damnedest to make it a happy experience. I put this first, believing that superior service to our clients and profit for our stockholders depend on it.

We treat our people like human beings.  We help them when they are in trouble – with their jobs, with illness, with alcoholism, and so on.

We help our people make the best of their talents.  We invest an awful lot of time and money in training – perhaps more than any of our competitors.”

Nobody’s going to accuse Ogilvy of being sentimental or a hugger, but it’s a remarkably similar approach to that of The Container Store, as described in “ Uncontainable ( UCT review + notes) by Container Store cofounder Kip Tindell.  The rationale is the same, too: it’s not a tradeoff but rather a local vs. global optimization decision.  With lower turnover and happier, better-trained employees, customers get a better product than they could elsewhere.

Pages 150 – 151: Among the tenets of Ogilvy & Mather’s culture, as described by Ogilvy himself, my favorite is:

“We pursue knowledge the way a pig purses truffles.” – David Ogilvy

Page 158: Again going back to the opportunity costs of trying to please everyone, Ogilvy notes that good leaders:

“Do not suffer from the crippling need to be universally loved; they have the guts to make unpopular decisions.”

Page 161: On the importance of understanding the culture of the people you’re leading: Ogilvy notes differences between managing Europeans vs. Americans, for example.

Page 162: Again, very Carnegie-like discussion of empathy and schema: Ogilvy tells an anecdote in which the moral of the story is that anticipating what your bosses need and providing it is what makes you an effective follower.  (Ogilvy notes some men cannot be led by anybody.)

Pages 162 – 163: Ogilvy, again, is big on psychiatry and empathy – he cites a doctor who believes listening is one of the most important skills.

Page 172: Ogilvy talks about rationalizations here…

Page 173: … and the dangers of giving up equity in your firm.

Page 175: Ogilvy:

“[Megamergers] do nothing for the people in the agency… for their clients… and it remains to be seen whether they do anything for stockholders.  What they do good for is the megalomaniacs who engineer them. So I’m against that.”

Page 176: Ogilvy was the last of a brand of heroes in American advertising.

Pages 177 – 178: Despite his success, Ogilvy was always terrified of failure –

 “If this is success, God deliver me from failure.”

Ogilvy goes on to note:

“So I was always terrified.  And it wasn’t till fairly recent years that it dawned on me we were unlikely to go up in smoke… so then I relaxed.  But by that time it was rather too late for me to get much pleasure out of it.”

Pity Ogilvy never got to read “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes) by Shawn Achor.

Page 180: Ogilvy thinks people should (lightly rearranged):

“Decide what you would like to be doing most and then do it for the rest of your life […] it’s tragic to see men and women wasting their lives in work that they hate or do badly.  it’s never too late to find out that you’re doing something you don’t like, and are not very good at.”

Pages 185 – 186: Ogilvy on being curious, and on unscripted interviews.

Page 187: Ogilvy notes one of the keys to his success is that he was a good salesman.

Page 188: On the benefits of a nontraditional background that lends unique perspective and objectivity.


First Read: summer 2018

Last Read: summer 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: no