Get All Access for $5/mo

David Ogilvy Master Of The Soft Sell

Apple, the Apple logo and iPhone are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.

David Ogilvy
Founder of Ogilvy & Mather
Founded: 1948

"You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it."-David Ogilvy

The eye-patch wearing "Man in the Hathaway Shirt." Colonel Whitehead and "Schweppervescence." The Pepperidge Farm bakery wagon. All have become advertising icons. And all came from the mind of David Ogilvy. One of the founding fathers of modern advertising, Ogilvy spent his life preaching the benefits of research; long informative copy; and, well, benefits. His firm belief that "the consumer is not a moron" helped start a creative revolution in the 1960s that changed the landscape of American advertising.

Born in West Horsley, England, in June 1911, Ogilvy took a rather circuitous route on the way to becoming an advertising legend. After flunking out of Oxford in 1931, he headed to Paris and took a job as a chef's apprentice at the Hotel Majestic. Monsieur Pitard, the head chef, made an everlasting impression on Ogilvy and helped form his principles on management when he fired a junior chef who could not get his bread to rise properly. "I was shocked by his ruthlessness," Ogilvy recalls in his book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, "but it made all the other chefs feel that they were working in the best kitchen in the world."

Returning to England a year later, Ogilvy supported himself by selling cooking stoves door to door. He was so successful that his employer asked him to write an instructional manual for his fellow salesmen. The manual, along with the intercession of his brother, Francis, helped win Ogilvy a copywriting job at the London advertising agency of Mather & Crowley, where Francis was an executive. Advertising became a passion that consumed most of Ogilvy's time. "I loved advertising," he writes. " I devoured it. I studied and read and took it desperately seriously." Ogilvy's dedication soon paid off. Mather & Crowley promoted him to account executive. But Ogilvy had his eye on greener pastures.

Assigned to study American advertising techniques, Ogilvy convinced Mather & Crowley to send him to the United States in 1938. He became fascinated with America and Americans, and at the end of 1939, he resigned from Mather & Crowley to take a position with research guru George Gallup. Ogilvy later called this "the luckiest break of my life," and cited Gallup as one of the major influences on his thinking. Gallup's meticulous research methods and devotion to reality were the foundation of what would become "the Ogilvy approach to advertising."

During World War II, Ogilvy worked for British Intelligence in the United States, collecting economic intelligence on Latin America, and he later served as second secretary at the British Embassy. After mustering out in 1945, Ogilvy and his wife moved to a farm in Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ogilvy had fallen in love with the area while on a bicycle trip. On a whim, Ogilvy tried his hand at tobacco farming, but found it "physically and economically impossible to succeed." So in 1948, with the backing of his former employer, Mather & Crowley, Ogilvy laid the groundwork for the advertising agency that would eventually become known as Ogilvy & Mather.

From the very beginning, Ogilvy eschewed the quick-sale, hard-sell advertising style that was the standard at the time in favor of a more long-term, soft-sell approach. Ogilvy's strategy focused on building brand-name recognition, and featured lengthy, informative, benefit-oriented copy and eye-catching people or symbols. His first major success came with a campaign he created for the small Maine clothing company Hathaway.

Ogilvy's copy for the initial ad crackled with a literacy that flattered readers' intelligence. But it was the accompanying photograph that propelled the campaign into advertising history. On a whim, Ogilvy decided to photograph his male model wearing a Hathaway shirt-and an eye patch. When "The Man in the Hathaway Shirt" appeared for the first time in The New Yorker magazine in September of 1951, it caused an instant sensation. The company could barely keep up with demand for its shirts.

Ogilvy's reputation as a master of image and brand recognition was further enhanced when he took over the account of Schweppes, a British manufacturer of tonic water struggling to gain a foothold in America. He designed a print ad campaign around Colonel Edward Whitehead, the bearded, ever-so-British head of Schweppes' American operations. Within five years, Schweppes was selling more than 30 million bottles a year.

What made the work of Ogilvy & Mather stand out was Ogilvy's insistence that print ads not only put client names, or brand names, in each headline, but "promise a benefit.deliver news.offer a service.quote a satisfied customer.recognize a problem.or tell a significant story." A perfect example of a classic Ogilvy headline is one he wrote in 1958 for Rolls-Royce: "At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock." This campaign helped double the company's American sales in a year.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Ogilvy & Mather achieved tremendous success with a stream of stunning work that not only generated sales for its clients, but also excited genuine industry admiration and earned numerous awards. Ogilvy became an icon to agency people, who were newly liberated by the postwar creative revolution he helped spark. By the time Ogilvy stepped down as creative director of Ogilvy & Mather in 1975, it ranked as the world's fifth-largest advertising agency.

Today, David Ogilvy is viewed by many in the industry as the most influential advertiser of the 20th century. His advertising ideas have become icons, his writings and books, the bible of what constitutes good and bad advertising. But his greatest legacy, the one that truly shaped the face of modern advertising, was an approach to advertising that regarded the consumer as an intelligent buyer.

Mr. Manners
Unlike many advertisers, David Ogilvy always used his client's products. "This is not toadyism," he writes in his autobiography, Confessions of an Advertising Man, "but elementary good manners." Ogilvy also resigned accounts when he lost confidence in a product. Rolls-Royce was one of Ogilvy's early clients and a cornerstone of his fledgling agency. But he resigned the account when he felt the quality of the cars, which he loved to drive, was not up to speed.

Ogilvy On Advertising
During his career, David Ogilvy was known for his advertising dictums. These terse yet profound sayings, which he called "Obiter Dicta" (Latin for an incidental remark or observation), have become advertising commandments. Some of his more famous "Obiter Dicta" include:
  • "The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence."
  • "Never run an advertisement you would not want your own family to see."
  • "Tell the truth, but make it fascinating."
  • "Unless your campaign contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night."
  • "There is no substitute for homework. The more you know about a product, the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it."

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Editor's Pick


Are Your Business's Local Listings Accurate and Up-to-Date? Here Are the Consequences You Could Face If Not.

Why accurate local listings are crucial for business success — and how to avoid the pitfalls of outdated information.

Money & Finance

Day Traders Often Ignore This One Topic At Their Peril

Boring things — like taxes — can sometimes be highly profitable.


Want to Be More Productive Than Ever? Treat Your Personal Life Like a Work Project.

It pays to emphasize efficiency and efficacy when managing personal time.

Business News

'Passing By Wide Margins': Elon Musk Celebrates His 'Guaranteed Win' of the Highest Pay Package in U.S. Corporate History

Musk's Tesla pay package is almost 140 times higher than the annual pay of other high-performing CEOs.

Growing a Business

He Immigrated to the U.S. and Got a Job at McDonald's — Then His Aversion to Being 'Too Comfortable' Led to a Fast-Growing Company That's Hard to Miss

Voyo Popovic launched his moving and storage company in 2018 — and he's been innovating in the industry ever since.

Starting a Business

I Left the Corporate World to Start a Chicken Coop Business — Here Are 3 Valuable Lessons I Learned Along the Way

Board meetings were traded for barnyards as a thriving new venture hatched.