Book review: Confessions of an Advertising Man
Updated: Jun 21
David Ogilvy, hailed as the “Father of Advertising”, was a Scotsman who worked as a farmer and a French chef before moving to New York to open an advertising agency. He was an advertising pioneer and his advice still rings true today, 70 years after his book Confessions of an Advertising Man was first published.
The book is part-autobiographical. It is written in a light, conversational style, and sprinkled with lists: dos and don’ts for everything from how to get and keep clients, to how to write potent copy and how to manage an advertising business. Ogilvy emphasizes that good business requires hard work, being well-prepared, and building strong interpersonal relationships with clients by being intellectually honest and reliable.
Ogilvy gives tips about how to attract buyers, as well as how to get the right clients. His rules for choosing clients include:
being proud of and using clients’ products
working with companies that appreciate what you do for them
having a single person responsible for each campaign
not working with associations/boards of decision-makers
making friends with your clients and buying shares in their company.
His opinion on creativity would be considered contentious today: he believes that the word should be expunged from one’s vocabulary, and that teamwork is “bunkum”; there are good and bad writers, that’s all. A good advertising campaign is not one that is clever or artful, but one that sells; the artifice of the advertiser must be concealed.
A good marketing campaign:
says the right things, regardless of how
centres on a great idea
is contemporary (hire young copywriters, says Ogilvy)
has a unique voice
repeats until it stops pulling
builds a brand image
uses photographs to arouse curiosity and compel the audience to read the copy
is not copied from someone else.
Discounts and special deals do not create a solid money-making client base, as the purpose of advertising is to have more repeat buyers, more loyal buyers. And the most important point about a good campaign is to never write an advertisement you wouldn’t want your own family to read.
There is also an almost 2-page list of advice on making long copy more readable, including:
- use bullets or numbering for unrelated points (You see what I did there?)
- use type 10+ serif type
- use bold or italic for key paragraphs
- never set copy in reverse (white type on black background)
- never set your advert entirely in capital letters, and
- never “deface your illustration by printing your headline over it”.
There is even a chapter with specific advice for food products, tourist destinations and proprietary medicines, most of which is still usable (and often ignored to companies’ peril) today.
It is important to note that Ogilvy was not a self-made man, despite him making himself sound like one. On page 51 he tells the reader how his elder brother, a Managing Director of Mather & Crowther Ltd. (a large advertising agency) augmented Ogilvy’s capital and lent him the company’s name and clout. Ogilvy was an excellent businessman and a hard-working man but he came from a rich and educated background and built on that.
And he built well and hard. Ogilvy's advertising agency still exists, albeit under a new name, 73 years later. Ogilvy's advice continues being at the core of all advertising, and it can also be applied to general business practice.
A final thought of Ogilvy’s that bears repeating no matter what industry you are in:
Big ideas are usually simple ideas.
So a question for you, the reader: which books do you swear by in your line of work?