By Jeff Beer
Four lessons that show the enduring value of David Ogilvy’s advertising wisdom. Why the industry should re-embrace the legend’s insights to guide it through an uncertain future.
Strolling around the south of France a few weeks ago—populated with execs from the best, brightest, and richest brands, ad agencies, media companies, and social and tech platforms gathered here for the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity—you could almost hear the constant chant of “AI, AI, AI, AI . . . .” It was the backbeat to the song of the summer being blasted by everyone up and down the Croissette.
Advertising has long been known for its susceptibility to obsessing over the hot new thing. QR codes! NFTs! Celebrity creative directors! User-generated content! And now: artificial intelligence! If there is a craze in culture and communication, you can bet that a brand and its ad agency are exploring a way to exploit it.
Forty years ago, when legendary ad man David Ogilvy published his seminal book Ogilvy on Advertising, none of those (mostly fleeting) trends existed. Actually, an overwhelming percentage of today’s industry was barely out of kindergarten in 1983. According to a recent survey by Marketing Week, about three quarters of ad people today are under the age of 45. Ogilvy is one of the founders of modern advertising, building his agency Ogilvy & Mather into a global behemoth over the late 20th century. But now, like so much of the industry, it’s been swallowed up by a holding company and exists as a nameplate sub-brand within a somewhat undifferentiated sea of them.
Ogilvy on Advertising wasn’t Ogilvy’s first attempt at trying to lay down the precepts by which he believed his industry should operate. In 1963, at perhaps the height of his powers, Ogilvy published Confessions of An Advertising Man, which was part memoir, part advertising instruction. To some, Ogilvy on Advertising was a titan seeking to reassert his foundational values amid changing times. The Agency Review wrote in 2012 that, “By 1983, the creative revolution had steamrolled across America, making celebrities of George Lois, Mary Wells, Bill Bernbach, and dozens of others. Ogilvy’s long-form copy, iconic imagery, and reasoned presentations were, in many ways, relics of another age. Ogilvy on Advertising was, then, the master’s attempt to reposition his agency in this brave new world.”
Now, in 2023, the advertising industry itself is the one constantly forced to navigate an ever-evolving set of communication tools and how people use them. It is nearing the end of its second decade seeking to reposition the entire $73 billion business in this brave new world where on a good day an AI-centric tech giant can see its market cap rise by at least the value of the entire ad world. Adland is not what it was in 1983, and certainly not 1963, shunted out of the centre of the universe by the tech companies which thoroughly disrupted them. In the 1980s, there were a myriad of movies and TV shows featuring larger-than-life ad creatives. It’s a segment of pop culture that has not been resuscitated by nostalgia.
Looking at the annual juxtaposition of the past year’s best work with the current obsession, though, I can’t help but see glimmers of how some of Ogilvy’s core principles remain in play. These ideas can still serve as guideposts for how to best utilize any given trend or new technology.
These bits of wisdom cannot and should not be forgotten. So I’ve picked out four of my favourite Ogilvy-isms from Ogilvy on Advertising, and found some of the best work from the past year that embodies them. It’s far from a comprehensive list, but together they illustrate that even an industry relentlessly pursuing a path to relevance in an uncertain future can find valuable lessons in the past.
“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.”
When we talk about language, we can also be talking about cultural language. Sure, another one of Ogilvy’s famous lines says that the customer is not a moron, she is your wife. That still holds true. But as media has become more fragmented, brands’ ability to tap into the cultural language of their audience is tougher than ever.
This is why I’ve always been a fan of when brands are able to put a smile on your face in unexpected ways, through an expected behaviour. It’s Geico’s unskippable pre-roll ad in 2015, and Tubi’s Super Bowl interruption this year.
It’s also this Cannes-winning work from Argentina’s most popular food delivery app Pedidos. Created by agency Gut Buenos Aires, it sent unexpected delivery notifications to six million initially-confused customers. Until they found out it wasn’t a mistake, but the brand sending them a live tracker of the World Cup trophy coming home. It spoke the cultural language of a significant moment, using the product itself.
Feature Image Credit: Getty Images