HomeBlog10 Ogilvy Advertising Secrets that Still Work

10 Ogilvy Advertising Secrets that Still Work

Author: Brad Smith
Last Updated: December 4, 2022 | Copywriting, Marketing Ideas

There’s none better than David Ogilvy. He literally wrote the book that defined an entire profession, and it’s as relevant today as it was thirty years ago when first published.

ogilvy on advertising

Not bad for a guy who first entered the business at the tender age of 38!

Ogilvy practiced his craft in the Golden Age decades ago. Yet his principles still apply. His sales tips still work. His quotes are still poignant.

Here are 10 of David Ogilvy’s best advertising secrets that can still increase your results today, whether you apply them to your ads or your landing pages.

Advertising Secret #1. Research

Ogilvy once said, “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

And yet, that’s what we do. Isn’t it?

In efforts to hit another deadline, we Command + C / Command + V some advertising formulas and call it a day. Without always thinking through the proper context and tweaking as needed.

Here’s why that’s a problem. Most companies will give you their “buyer personas.” That’s in air quotes because what they’ve barely scratched the surface on is their customer demographics.

Ogilvy advertising buyer personas chart

Y’all know this stuff. No prob.

But this information is mostly completely useless when it’s time to compel them to buy if we don’t know what motivates them.

That’s where good old-fashioned psychographics from the 1960s comes into play.

Ogilvy advertising psychographics

This is the good stuff. The stuff that uncovers what people are struggling with, why they’re struggling with it, and how to move forward (despite it).

Only when we establish answers to these questions (What are your prospects’ goals? What are their pain points and common objections? How can you help them?) can we understand where to begin with an ad.

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.”

Years ago, the brilliant Joanna of Copyhackers worked with a rehab center. Not for a broken arm or leg. Like rehab rehab. (So good luck getting interviews with their customers.)

Instead, she went to Amazon. Pulled up six best-selling books and started to read “500 reviews in 2 or 3 hours” across, copying the phrasing and terminology directly from people who’ve struggled with addiction.

Joanna placed those phrases into a chart liked so:

Ogilvy advertising addiction pain points chart

(image source)

This was painstaking. Incredibly boring I’m sure. Yet she studied them all, analyzing this background information before finally settling on what would become this landing page headline and value proposition:

Ogilvy advertising rehab ad

The results?

  • 400% more CTA clicks
  • 20% more lead gen submissions

Not through magic. Or innate brilliance. But by simply going straight to her customers’ vernacular.

Do your research!

Advertising Secret #2. Headlines with Immediate Impact

“On the 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.”

You’ve heard it everywhere. Haven’t you?

Now you know the source.

And it’s just as true today (if not more so) because of the way our world shapes up.

The “media business” might be dying. But media has never been bigger. We’ve never been faced with the same onslaught of information (both good and bad).

Technology companies, in their infinite wisdom (sarcasm) have pared down to just the essential to help us cope. See: Twitter’s character limit. An even shorter email subject line.

Eminem one shot

So you’ve only got one shot. Five to ten measly words to get your point across. Quickly. In the blink of an eye, before they scan down to the next one.

The only way to cut through the clutter? Clarity. (And a few power words don’t hurt, either.)

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

Or, my favorite quote of Ogilvy’s that says the same thing from a different perspective:

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”

Let’s not belabor the point. You’ve heard this time and time again. All that Neuromarketing stuff.

Ogilvy advertising thinking process concept illustration

(image source)

When in doubt, keep it simple stupid. Not, “100GB of Bandwidth.” Don’t know, don’t care. Not clicking.

Customers wanna know, “How many songs can they fit in their pocket?”

I.e., what are they gonna get, or what will they miss out on if they don’t read/click/buy?

Decisions happen subconsciously. Not always rationally or emotionally. Don’t underestimate processing time. Because by the time it clicks, it might already be too late to click.

Advertising Secret #3. Images First

You’d have a better shot getting an image rejected on one of your Facebook ads than approved sometimes.

No, seriously.

Beyond the basic prohibited stuff, there is a laundry list of sensitive subjects and restricted content that extends beyond the usual vices and into the exciting world of intellectual property infringements, violence of any kind, dating, supplements, and anything else remotely “suggestive” (so basically, nothing fun).

Oh. Then there’s that whole 20% text thing that severely cuts down on the word count you can use.

This puts you in a bind. How do you get your point across and use a captivating image that captures attention in milliseconds when there’s SO MANY rules?

Let’s rewind the clock a few decades and see what Ogilvy had to say:

Most readers look at the photograph first. If you put it in the middle of the page, the reader will start by looking in the middle. Then her eye must go up to read the headline; this doesn’t work, because people have a habit of scanning downwards. However, suppose a few readers do read the headline after seeing the photograph below it. After that, you require them to jump down past the photograph which they have already seen. Not bloody likely.”

Huh. Positioning.

Illustrative image first, because that’s what people see first. Then the headline, to add context about what you’re leaving out in the image.

Let’s see how this works in some Facebook ads. Here’s an easy one:

Ogilvy advertising underwear ad

Attractive people in their underwear. Attention, captivated.

Headline adds context though. There’s a reason they’re in undies. And now it all clicks.

Showing a product is easy though, right? ‘Specially when you hire the aforementioned attractive people to pose in their skivvies. (How many other corny old sayings can you think of for underwear?)

So take two:

Ogilvy advertising Marketo ad

Slightly cheesy, sure. The color contrasts are good though. And “Conquering” now lends a little explanation.

This literal hero image just needs some help from supporting copy to fall into place.

Advertising Secret #4. Testing

Facebook ads don’t work. Right?

(Maybe if you don’t understand how they work. *Cough*. GM.)

No. It’s just takes a bit more effort.

There’s no intent to help you convert single visits (like in Google Ads). That’s rare. It happens nowhere else. And it’s why their ad business IS their business.

Instead, you gotta understand how people buy your stuff. That whole customer journey thing. Figure out how they shop, using different channels, bouncing around to piece together clues, before eventually taking the plunge.

Ogilvy advertising conversion journey

Then re-create it inside Facebook.

So. Why is this so complicated? Why do so many fail (and then blame Facebook for their troubles)?

Because there’s no script. There’s no “Step 1, Step 2, Step 3” instructions that you can paste into your business.

The only way to figure it out is through iteration. Testing. Not just A/B testing CTAs. But entire campaigns, audiences, and creative ideas. Think macro, not micro.

This process isn’t new. At least, it shouldn’t be. Here’s Ogilvy:

The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST. Test your promise. Test your media. Test your headlines and your illustrations. Test the size of your advertisements. Test your frequency. Test your level of expenditure. Test your commercials. Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

Oh. Ok. But where to start?

“If you pretest your product with consumers, and pretest your advertising, you will do well in the marketplace.”

Ah. That’s right. The audience!

Ogilvy advertising marketing objectives

Audience already big enough? (And well targeted enough)? Then go straight for the sale. Too complex? Try a tripwire.

People aren’t buying? Perhaps they need more nurturing. More trust. So re-engage them and retarget them. Loop in dynamic product ads or marketing automation to follow up about what they just saw, researched, or investigated.

Still nothing? Go bigger. That is, in audience size.

Frequency (or the number of times you’ve shown ads to those same people) isn’t the problem (generally speaking). Not today when your customers are already seeing thousands of other competing messages.

Most conversion problems can be fixed through increasing reach (you just need more unique people at the top of your funnel).

Testing and iterating at each of these steps is the only way to figure out what’s not working, why, and how to fix it.

Advertising Secret #5. Preview Your Layout

Concision creates compelling copy.

(Alliteration is the worst.)

Take a page from Isla and Ronnell from Moz next time you’re about to write an ad (or its landing page):

  • Write a one-sentence description of the post you wish to write (this is basically the headline)
  • Think of the number one thing you’d like readers to take away from the post
  • Highlight at least three facts (authoritative, supportive evidence) that support this main point
  • Jot down notes that help you tell the story using these facts
  • Spend a few days letting the elements “breathe”

Unless you’re writing a long spammy sales page, fewer words win. (There it goes again.)

Why is this important? From Ogilvy’s day:

“Most headlines are set too big to be legible in the magazines or newspaper. Never approve a layout until you have seen it pasted into the magazine or newspaper for which it was destined. If you pin up the layouts on a bulletin board and appraise them from fifteen feet, you will produce posters.”

You know what happens online, today, if you don’t test layout?


Ogilvy advertising very bad ad example

Train wreck of an ad.

Also, this:

Ogilvy advertising Facebook car ad example

A little better, but still pretty bad.

Let’s look at a pretty good one to see how concision can help:

Ogilvy advertising Facebook bowtie ad

Ok. Good image. Lots of muddled value props though, and just too much text overall. And when it goes live, it doesn’t translate well (as you can see).

So let’s cut:

  • “Our Super… is back!”
  • “for one low price.”
  • “Available in 2 sizes… in hair”
  • “Very high quality!”
  • “Don’t miss your chance… every outfit”

And the final result?

“Create your little lady’s boutique bow collection instantly, starting at just 90 cents per bow! Only comes around twice a year.”

That’s infinitely more understandable, and more scannable.

Advertising Secret #6. Knowing What You’re Selling

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

Which is important, because:

“Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn’t sell much of anything.”

You know ads sell. This isn’t your first rodeo.

But the key point is to think about what you’re selling. And if it’s the right thing (or not).

Consider it this way:

People don’t buy drills. They buy holes.

Ogilvy advertising people buy holes not drills

That means when appropriate, you gotta explain the reason why someone should care about your software. Or insurance. Or drill.

Because let’s be honest: Nobody cares about “onboarding” or “onboarding software.” They don’t. They care about keeping the company running smoothly during a period of growth and avoiding the costly bad hire.

Expanded headlines let you fit that long value prop into an ad now and watch CTR jump 400%.

Ogilvy advertising employee software ad

Nobody cares about downloading a whitepaper. That act, in and of itself, isn’t compelling. They’re a dime a dozen. So it’s not enough.

Ogilvy advertising price charting page

But a “Price Guide”?

Ogilvy advertising price charting page example

That little change is good enough for a 620.9% lift.

Advertising Secret #7. Positioning

“The most important decision is how to position your product.”

There have never been truer words spoken.

Marketing is positioning. Sales is positioning.

Let me ask you something. Have you ever worked with a commoditized product or service? Like, really commoditized? (Because you can make the case that almost every popular product or service is commoditized at some point.)

What was the hook you used in the ad? There was none. It was a discount. A coupon. ‘Cause you had no other choice!

Commoditization means a lack of positioning. It places you in square competition with dozens (if not hundreds) of people who do the same thing the exact same way (and therefore all charge more-or-less the same).

In other words, a “Red Ocean.? A fierce competitive landscape where everyone goes for each other’s neck.

Instead of, say, a nice, wide open Blue Ocean. One that creates a new market. Paves a new road. Thereby capturing new demand and making the competition irrelevant.

Ogilvy advertising blue ocean concept

Call it specialization or whatever you want. But it’s how Yellowtail intoxicated non-wine drinkers to become wine drinkers.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is on its last lap. And yet you can’t visit a major city or Vegas hotel without seeing a Cirque du Soleil poster.

Ogilvy advertising Ringling Cirque de Soleil comparison graph

(image source)

Point is, advertising is like the tip of a spear. It helps, to a point. (Ha!)

But your ads and landing pages are largely at the mercy of how your widget is being positioned.

Let’s say you’re looking at targeting options for an ad on Facebook. Would a Chevy Volt ad appeal to Tesla owners? Why not, they’re both electric cars, right?

Wrong. The positioning is totally different (because the Tesla costs more than twice as much … that matters). And it’s your job to know that.

Advertising Secret #8. Personality

The label says, “You’re Not Worthy.”

They warn you. Straight away. “You probably won’t like it.”

And yet, people do. Certain people, that is.

Stone Beer is considered “world class” by the most critical beer geek hipsters on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.

Ogilvy advertising Arrogant Bastard Ale ad

They openly mock the “tasteless fizzy yellow” stuff pumped out by Bud, Coors, and Miller. And they openly mock the people who drink them.

It works, because those people would never like Stone in the first place. They’re the antithesis of each other. It’s Apple vs. Microsoft. Jobs vs. Gates.

Look at Noah:

Ogilvy advertising SumoMe Facebook ad example

WTF is he doing? Seriously. And yet, you either just laughed or cringed when you looked at that.

Which mean it either caught your eye and you clicked when it came across your news feed. Or you didn’t.

What is that elusive X factor?

The one thing that can possibly make up for a completely commoditized product?


“There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or cigarettes or beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents, and the margarines… The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”

Advertising Secret #9. Consistency

Us tech geeks are enamored with shiny new things.

New platforms. New channels. New hacks. New ad options.

Years ago, when social was first becoming “a thing,” the average large company had 178 social media accounts!

And yet, the unifying factor of most great campaigns is execution. Which requires discipline.

“It takes uncommon guts to stick to one style in the face of all the pressures to ‘come up with something new’ every six months. It is tragically easy to be stampeded into change. But golden rewards await the advertiser who has the brains to create a coherent image, and the stability to stick with it over a long period.”

Nike’s still Just Doin’ It. The Most Interesting Man in the Universe ran for about a decade.

Why? Because creativity is a myth. And formulas can be liberating. For instance:

“Shakespeare wrote his sonnets within a strict discipline, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming in three quatrains and a couplet. Were his sonnets dull? Mozart wrote sonatas within an equally rigid discipline – exposition, development, and recapitulation. Were they dull?”

Not a bad metaphor from an ad man.

Here’s a perfect example:

Ogilvy advertising online work from home scam ad

(image source)

Look around and you’ll see more of the same.

Or how about the “No [Objection]” formula?

From email marketing:

Ogilvy advertising email marketing ad

All the way over to tax relief:

Ogilvy advertising tax relief ad

Local biz? Even easier. You should almost never deviate from “[Location] + [Keyword]”. Ever.

Ogilvy advertising plastic surgery ad

There’s no reason, because it works. It gets more clicks. And more clicks means you win more and get paid more.

Ogilvy advertising CTR CVR graph

Advertising Secret #10. People

Ah 2007. The good old days.

When SEO was easy. And blog posts meant 300 odd words.

Easy, right? Maybe 20-30 minutes of work and you could get on with your day.

Things change.

The average blog post today takes 26% longer to write than just a year ago (or 3 hours 16 minutes instead compared with 2 hours 35 minutes.)

Ogilvy advertising average time to write a blog post

(image source)

So… why? Are we getting dumber? (The answer’s no, of course not. That wasn’t supposed to be a trick question.)

The short answer is competition. The longer explanation is Skyscrapers.

Even a couple years ago, 500 words would cut it (and only set you back 1-2 hours).

Not today.

Not when blog posts average ~2000 words (and getting longer), incorporate images every ~150 words or so, and require a little bit of, well, you know, writing.

In other words, when the bar raises, there ain’t no shortcuts.

We’ve been focusing on the tactics for the most part here. The little tricks and hints and strategies employed to eke out better results.

And those are important. They are. Except when you consider one thing: the people implementing them.

“In most agencies, account executives outnumber the copywriters two to one. If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as you had cows?”

Too poetic? This one’s a little more blunt:

“Advertising is a business of words, but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They are as helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.”

Oxford Comma

Technology moves quick. People get hired and thrown into the deep end. Many times, before they’re ready. Capable or able even.

Ogilvy again:

“Training should not be confined to trainees. It should be a continuous process, and should include the entire professional staff of the agency. The more our people learn, the more useful they can be to our clients.”

Someone who did Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords) ten years ago? Obsolete. Same goes for SEO. And now, simply creating a blog post.

What works today (and another decade down the line)? Knowledge. Insight. Experience.

“I had a friend who was the King’s surgeon in England. One day I asked him what makes a great surgeon. He replied, ‘What distinguishes a great surgeon is his knowledge. He knows more than other surgeons. During an operation he finds something which he wasn’t expecting, recognizes it and knows what to do about it.’ It’s the same thing with advertising people. The good ones know more. How do you get to know more? By reading books about advertising. By picking the brains of people who know more than you do. From the Magic Lanterns. And from experience.”

In Closing

It’s (unbelievably) 2017.

Soon it’ll be 2020. And then… what?

New advertising channels. New ways of doing things. New “best practices” that expire 12 months later.

You can’t prepare for that. There’s nothing you can do when machine learning upheaves our industry (because not even the machines know what will happen yet).

You know what you can do, though?

Study the fundamentals. Refine the principles that have worked for the last thirty years (and the thirty before that too).

Karate Kid

Consumer behavior has evolved. But consumers haven’t that much. We just want more. Faster and better.

And if you’re still having trouble, just follow this last bit of Ogilvy advertising wisdom and you’ll soon feel better:

“Many people – and I think I am one of them – are more productive when they’ve had a little to drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I’m far better able to write.”

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Meet The Author

Brad Smith

Brad Smith is the founder of Codeless, long-form content creators for SaaS companies. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, TheNextWeb, Shopify, Moz, Unbounce, HubSpot, Search Engine Journal, and more.


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