Ad Man Legend, David Ogilvy, on Copywriting



In 1948, British-born David Ogilvy, started a Manhattan-based advertising agency, the future Ogilvy & Mather, responsible for some of the world’s most iconic ad campaigns. Ogilvy wrote Confessions of an Advertising Man in 1963, a best-selling book that is still considered essential reading for all who enter the industry.

In the letter below, Ogilvy describes his work habits as a copywriter to Mr. Ray Calt. Apparently, the key to his advertising genius was RUM!!!

April 19, 1955

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 editing, 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.

(Source: Letters of Note: I am a lousy copywriter. The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners; Image: David Ogilvy, courtesy of Ads of the World.)

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Courtney Watkins is a wardrobe + prop stylist based in Atlanta with 14 years of print and film production experience in advertising, editorial, corporate, and scripted entertainment. Courtney comes to styling with a passion for design and a background in fine arts and commercial photography. It is her strong respect for concept, her wit and her creativity that set her work apart. Those qualities have earned her a broad range of advertising, editorial, and broadcast clients, from Nike, Coca Cola, AT&T, Marriott, Coors Light, to Southern Living, People Magazine, Shape, TBS, and Discovery Channel among others.

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