A debt to the master

How ‘the pope of advertising’ helped lay the foundations of my professional life.
by Ken Burnett

When the advertising and communications agency that I founded in 1982 opened its doors for business, its proprietor 
– me – would most likely be found sitting on the front doorstep of the terraced Victorian house that was its first office with his nose buried in a book by David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man. It was my bible, though equally likely at that time, or perhaps a bit later, I’d be found engrossed in his second classic, Ogilvy on Advertising (see here). I never met the great man and I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have liked him if I had (he was famously authoritarian and right wing), but to say Ogilvy influenced me would be a bit like saying that Scotsmen are occasionally affected by whisky. To call this a massive understatement is, in itself, a massive understatement. Back then I was so immersed in the wisdom of what he was saying that I would have highlighted at least three paragraphs on every page. Truth is, I modelled the best years of my business life on the sayings of this man. And I prospered as a direct result.

The famous Matrioshka nesting doll quote. There’s no guarantee that Ogilvy & Mather actively lived by this advice. Though, they did prosper, all the same.

Ogilvy was a real guru, from back when advertising was an interesting and enjoyable part of our lives. One of my favourite, oft-recycled Ogilvy-isms is,

‘You can’t save souls in an empty church’.

There’s nothing religious about this saying, though the metaphor is surprisingly apt. What Ogilvy means is, if people aren’t listening you have no chance to convince them. So if you want your ad (or direct mail pack, or annual report, or whatever) to work, your message to get across, you must first make sure people will be attracted into it and can easily get to it. That’s why readability and use of type matters. It’s why letter structure and layout matters, it’s why understanding your reader matters. It’s why, for fundraisers, effective communication perhaps matters more than anything else.

It’s amazing how few fundraisers know this kind of stuff. It’s next to impossible to communicate fundraising effectively without it.

But rather than subject you, dear reader, to my interpretations of the great man’s words, here’s just a few of his original sayings to think about.

‘It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.’

‘Search your parks in all your cities, you’ll find no statues of committees.’

Over the years, that last one has come in particularly handy, for me.

‘In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.’

This is often paraphrased as, ‘If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.’ Very useful, that.

‘Every advertisement is part of the long-term investment in the personality of the brand.’

David Ogilvy, with the famous trademark red braces (suspenders).

He also gave the world timeless advertising lines, including the one that more than any other made him famous, for Rolls-Royce cars.

‘At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.’

Though controversially, it is claimed that Ogilvy plagiarised the above line, from a 1933 ad for an entirely different car, the short-lived Pierce Arrow.

‘We all have a tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, but not for illumination.’

‘Always hold your sales meetings in rooms too small for the audience, even if it means holding them in the WC. “Standing room only” creates an atmosphere of success, as in theatres and restaurants, while a half-empty auditorium smells of failure.’

My modern equivalent is the ‘room full’ sign at conferences like IFC. No one in your audience will be nearly as impressed as those who can’t get in.

‘When someone is made the head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send him (or her, presumably? Ed.) a Matrioshka doll from Gorky (Russian dolls inside dolls). If he has the curiosity to open it, and keep opening it until he comes to the inside of the smallest doll, he finds this message, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”.’

Two esteemed ads and though only one comes directly from the great man both owe him a distinct debt. As in the roller classic, Doyle Dane Bernbach’s famous ads for the Volkswagen beetle, above left, follow Ogilvy’s advice for reading gravity in a press ad. Image, headline, copy and finally coupon (if there is one). In that order. How many advertisers know about this kind of thing, these days?

Famously and entirely erroneously, the above quote is apparently taken quite literally by many people, who imagine they are being urged to hire people taller and bigger than themselves. Foolish, perhaps, though over the years this must have led to many great company basketball teams.

‘The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife…’

OK, the line above is not a very politically correct thing to say these days. But, the big O almost certainly wasn’t very PC, just perceptive. He went on to say,

‘You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.’

‘The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness. But it can be more satisfying.’

‘I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.’

And finally, one I’m sure few would dispute, though many might fail to realise that they are the people he’s describing.

‘Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.’

We sell, or else.

Most of all, these sayings illustrate that Ogilvy was a great observer. So almost everything he said was perceptive and instructive, even the things he got wrong.

A typical long copy house ad from O&M, from the days when the boss was in charge. To Ogilvy, any other kind of advertising wouldn’t be worth bothering with. OK you can’t read the ad, but the headline alone would make you call them, would it not? It’s worth reading anyway, so click here to see it in full.

Ah David Ogilvy, when will we see your likes again? Sadly, as the great man passed away in July 1999, we will never read Ogilvy on Internet Advertising, or Ogilvy on Mobile Phone Messaging, or Ogilvy on Twitter.

Our loss, I think.

© Ken Burnett 2012

This article has been adapted from a piece that first appeared on SOFII in 2009. Readers will find more great stuff from David Ogilvy there.



This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.

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