David Ogilvy: copywriter

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David Ogilvy was a copywriter, and here we present his 12-point guide to how he works, in addition to an hour-long interview with the great man where he admits to starting his agency becasue he didn't think he was good enough for Young & Rubicam

On 19 April 1955, Ogilvy wrote a letter to Ray Calt, an executive at another agency, in response to a query about how he worked. Ogilvy says how he works is 'appalling', adamant he is 'lousy copywriter'. His track record contradicts this.

Interesting how his predeliction for alcohol and procrastination matches the approaches described by the copywriters who completed our copywriting census:

"Dear Mr. Calt:

On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:

  1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
  2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
  3. I am helpless without research material—and the more "motivational" the better.
  4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
  5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
  6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
  7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
  8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
  9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
  10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
  11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
  12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.


Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.

Yours sincerely,

D.O.

Now you have seen Ogilvy's thoughts on copywriting, hear him talk about agency life and what he thinks about the world of advertising.

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