What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 1 - The Best Ideas Come as Jokes

A new series of Monday morning inspiration from an advertising genius

January 21, 2019

What Would David Ogilvy Do?

Marketers are often guilty of passing up the wisdom of the past. It’s easy to assume that any idea that applied before the arrival of social media, smartphones and online video must be past its best today. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When you research the ideas that were guiding advertising thinking in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s striking how relevant they feel to the challenges and opportunities that marketers face today. This is particularly true of the ideas attributed to David Ogilvy, the man dubbed the “Father of Advertising” in the early 1960s.

Ogilvy’s life and career spanned pretty much the entire history of modern advertising. He first came to prominence writing a guide for door-to-door cooker sales reps in the 1930s, worked as an intelligence agent undermining enemy morale during the Second World War, and ran a research agency before founding one of the most successful advertising agencies of all time, which still bears his name today. He ended his career as chairman of WPP, the largest marketing communications firm that had ever existed. Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man are two of the most popular and influential books ever written about the industry. Despite having died in 1999, David Ogilvy still feels like one of the most original thinkers in advertising. His ideas just keep resonating.

That’s why we’re launching a video series celebrating ideas from Ogilvy’s writing on advertising and marketing – and the many legendary quotes he’s credited with. Here’s the first of that series – Monday morning inspiration for anybody in the business of applying creative thinking to selling:

It’s easy to interpret a statement that “The best ideas come as jokes” as meaning that advertising has to be funny to be effective. But this Ogilvy quote isn’t really about what you should look for in a finished ad – it’s about how a great ad comes about. This is an insight about the creative process and it’s as relevant today as it was in Ogilvy’s heyday.

If the best ideas come as jokes, then it’s worth asking where jokes themselves come from. Different comedians have described very different ways of writing them from Ogilvy’s day to our own. But there are a number of common themes. A good joke confounds expectations, subverts linguistic and logical rules, creates dissonance by forcing unrelated ideas to collide, and is often based on observation of others’ experience. Its origin is complex but its execution is disarmingly simple. It occurs to a state of mind that enjoys pulling sentences and concepts apart and then stitching them back together with patient craft – an inherently playful state of mind. And perhaps that’s the thing about jokes most relevant to this quote. They aren’t just funny. They’re easier to come up with when having fun. The follow-up Ogilvy thought that’s usually associated with this quote is, “keep your thinking funny.”

As marketers today, we’re never short of data and direction. As a passionate advocate of research, Ogilvy himself would have loved the new sources of insight that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is opening up. We have more information than ever on our target audiences: what they want, what they’ve responded to in the past, which elements of a creative execution correlate with success, and which don’t. As a result, we often find ourselves sitting down to create ideas with insight-driven briefs that feel quite prescriptive.

This quote is a reminder not to ignore the insight – but to fight against using it in a prescribed and predictable way. It’s a call to keep playing with what you’re given, keep looking at it differently, until something emerges that makes you smile – that engages you on an instinctively human level that facts themselves don’t. The examples we’ve chosen to illustrate this video are examples of ideas that surely made creatives laugh or smile when they first thought of them: how do we show the joy of eating chocolate? Through a gorilla playing the drums of course! You want a product demonstration of precision truck steering? Well, I’ll need an ageing action star, an airport runway and a mysterious Enya track please! They weren’t the first answers the data and the briefs led to – but then jokes never are.

Let’s make this the year we have more fun thinking about marketing. That we don’t just settle for the first and most obvious answer, but play with it, push it around and try to make space for ideas that feel silly but might just work. Marketers don’t need to be comedians. But thinking with a smile on our face always helps!