Lessons From the Father of Advertising That Still Resonate Today

Well, it’s official: everything old is new again. Heinz is planning on running a campaign designed for the 1960s (and a fictional one at that). The kings of ketchup are appropriating a tagline pitched by none other than Don Draper of AMC’s “Mad Men.”

Pass the Heinz” was supposed to be a groundbreaking ad blitz in the hippie era, but now it will extol the virtues of that ubiquitous condiment in the internet age.

The dapper and talented Draper might not have been a real Madison Avenue legend, but David Ogilvy, the ad man believed to be the inspiration for the character, was nothing short of that.

His story, his advice, and his example still inform advertisers to this day.

A Man of Many Hats

Ogilvy followed a circuitous path to the advertising hall of fame. He studied history at Oxford, was an apprentice chef at one of the finest hotels in Paris, sold stoves door-to-door in Scotland, and spent a year working as a researcher for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey.

He spent World War II in Canada working for the Allies on a secret project aimed at undermining businessmen that were collaborating with the Nazis.

After the war, he and his wife tried their hand at farming among the Lancaster Amish of Pennsylvania for a few years, before deciding Manhattan suited them better.

He found success in most of those endeavors, and each would give him insights that informed his later accomplishments in the world of advertising.

Pounding the pavement as a salesman give him his first ideas about what makes for persuasive pitch. He literally wrote the book for AGA, the company he was working for, on how to sell their products.

Decades later “The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker” is still considered one of the best sales instruction manuals ever written.

At Gallup he developed a personal work philosophy founded on meticulous research methods and what he called ‘a strict adherence to reality.’

His ideas at AGA and Gallup merged to create his advertising outlook, which, stated simply, was that the purpose of advertising was to sell things and that the best way to do that was to know your customer.

Respecting the Customer

Ogilvy was opposed to advertising that underestimated the customer’s intelligence. He believed fervently that people picked up on patronizing voices and responded negatively to them.

One of his most famous sayings was that “The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife.’ And like a significant other they didn’t take kindly to being treated with kid gloves.

Instead he advocated telling them the pertinent details and letting them make an informed decision. Of course, there’s no harm in presenting that information in an attractive, energetic, and convincing manner. Puffery was acceptable, even expected, blatant exaggerations and false claims weren’t.

Or as Ogilvy put in his sales manual:

“The perfect aga salesman combines the tenacity of the bulldog with the manners of the spaniel.”

By 1962, “Time” magazine was calling him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”

Lessons of an Ad Man

His campaigns for Dove, Rolls Royce, American Express, and IBM are considered some of the most pioneering and effective in the history of the industry.

Ogilvy’s campaign centered around the claim that “Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream,” is credited with almost single-handedly making Dove the top selling soap in the U.S.

His soft-selling technique was trendsetting in the 20th century, but it’s becoming all but mandatory today.

Customers may have always been smart, but now they are smart– and all hyper connected to each other and a world of digital information. Missteps and overreaches are amplified.

Knowing the customer, understanding their needs, tastes, and boundaries was always part of good marketing, but now it’s downright dangerous to do without that information.

Ogilvy understood that fact long before it was common knowledge, but perhaps that’s what makes someone legendary… when they can see truths that extend far beyond their own times and into ours.