What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 3 – An audience of one

More Monday Morning inspiration from an advertising genius

February 4, 2019

What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 3 – An audience of one

It’s ironic that one of the most important ideas in digital marketing was set down in a book more than 50 years ago, and in a chapter devoted to the virtues of ads in newspapers and magazines. When David Ogilvy wrote Wanted – a Renaissance in Print Advertising, the seventh chapter of his classic Ogilvy on Advertising, there were no personalised media opportunities, no search ads or social media feeds, no detailed demographic data. He lacked the ability of marketers today to identify the people he was reaching. But what he had in spades was the ability to identify with them. That ability is even more valuable in 2019 than it was in 1963. Ogilvy’s advice on how to achieve it is as relevant as ever.

Ogilvy is justly famous as one of the greatest advertising copywriters of all time – a master of the detail of how human attention works, and how to capture and direct that attention through a combination of striking imagery and relevant, resonant ideas. His long-form print ads for Hathaway Shirts, Rolls-Royce, Zippo and Sears still feel clever and captivating today. And every one of those ads fits Ogilvy’s central idea that advertising should always be an intimate experience – both for the person writing an ad, and the person reading it.

His full quote on the personal nature of marketing spells this out in terms that are both poetic and grammatically precise. “Do not address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium,” it begins. “When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client. One human being to another, second person singular.”

Bloggers often interpret this idea as advice for overcoming writers’ block – and it can certainly help on the occasions when you feel overwhelmed by a brief. There’s definite value in forcing yourself to think about how you’d express your brand or proposition to somebody you were writing a personal note to. It removes the pressure, removes the instinct to over-think things, keeps your copy natural and authentic.

However, Ogilvy didn’t write this passage to help make life easier for advertising copywriters. He set out to challenge them – and it’s the challenging part of his statement that we need to pay closest attention to today. It’s worth asking ourselves how many of the ads that we create, the emails that we send, the blog posts that we write, really meet the standards that Ogilvy sets down. Are we writing a letter that each audience member will feel has been addressed specifically to them? Or are we playing to the biggest stadium crowd we can imagine?

Why Ogilvy would have loved ABM – and hated going viral

In the age of social media, it’s easy for digital marketers to become overly focused on the shared side of their audiences’ experience. We know that they engage with our marketing messages as part of a community, where they can see others’ responses through likes, comments and shares. There’s a definite sense of talking to people in a huge, virtual stadium. However, the most effective marketing on social platforms doesn’t get distracted by the opportunity to “go viral”, make headlines or create a big noise. It starts with the opportunity to be intimately and personally relevant, and then builds social proof and organic sharing from there. Your prospect’s sense of shared identity is never as powerful as their sense of what’s relevant to them personally.

That’s why account-based marketing (ABM) is such a rapidly growing and effective strategy for B2B marketers on LinkedIn – and why formats like Sponsored InMail and Sponsored Content are at their most impactful when they call out the specific concerns of a target audience in headlines and copy. They would have been the ideal formats for Ogilvy’s style of personally relevant writing.

When I was researching this post, I looked back over all of David Ogilvy’s best-known long-copy ads – and what struck me most is how distinctly un-showy they are. They don’t shout for attention with clever word-play or hugely emotive phrases. They’re strikingly matter-of-fact but also strikingly relevant.

Lessons from a master of personalised advertising

Ogilvy was a brilliant writer, who never once succumbed to the temptation to show how brilliant he was through the words he used. He wrote in a way that feels entirely natural, communicating the facts or the story as clearly and concisely as possible. The power of the headlines comes through his choice of the most relevant and resonant detail for the individual reader he has in mind. That’s actually far harder to come up with than something that’s designed to appeal to a crowd. But it’s the challenge that, as digital marketers, we should set ourselves.

Arguably Ogilvy’s most famous ad has the headline, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”. It’s a promise focused on a single product detail that Ogilvy knew would signal everything his audience needed to know. The copy for his ad never once mentioned Rolls-Royce’s ‘luxury’ credentials or ‘heritage’. There was no deliberately aspirational language, nothing that felt like it was selling. It simply listed the details of the car’s features, and let the attention to that detail speak for itself. The whole thing felt like a recommendation from an auto expert – who knew what the type of people who drive Rolls-Royce’s really care about.

In Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy tells the story of how he selected the headline for a Sears ad based on thinking about the single piece of information that would be most surprising and impactful for an individual reader. His research had told him that the average shopper thought Sears made a profit of around 37% on everything it sold – in other words, that they were being overcharged to inflate the company’s profit margins. He therefore wrote the headline that he knew would make each of those shoppers sit up and take notice. It simply read, “Sears Makes a Profit of 5%”. It was an update – a useful piece of information – that could have been handed to the audience on a scrap of paper. “By the way,” it seems to say, “I just thought you should know this.”

The same approach characterises Ogilvy’s approach to storytelling. My favourite of all the Ogilvy print ads that I found is a story about a Zippo lighter with a headline that feels like it was lifted from a local newspaper. Ogilvy explains how a fisherman retrieved the lighter from the belly of a Great Northern Pike and was staggered to find that, when he struck it, it worked first time. The ad works, not just because it’s a great story – but because of the way it’s told. The whole thing takes fewer than 200 words, that you could imagine being told over a camp fire or a beer to an audience of one: “you’d never believe this, but…”

Ogilvy knew that the best stories, content and ads have telling details that signal a business knows you like an old friend, fishing companion or pen pal. They have information they know you need – and they care about giving it to you. That’s what any piece of marketing should aspire to – whether it appears in a newspaper or in your LinkedIn feed.