What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 4 – Don’t ignore the decodes

More Monday Morning inspiration from an advertising genius

February 11, 2019

What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 4 – Don’t ignore the decodes

David Ogilvy is rightly revered as the owner of one of the most creative minds ever to have addressed itself to an advertising brief. He was one of the originators of the concept of ‘Big Ideas’ in advertising; someone who thought long and hard about unconscious aspects of the creative process and the importance of having fun; a writer with carefully honed, instinctive empathy for the audiences reading his copy. In our series of Ogilvy-inspired thoughts for the week, we’ve celebrated all of these different aspects of the great man’s approach. However, Ogilvy himself would have insisted that they were likely to be worthless without the most crucial element in the creative process. For Ogilvy, great advertising, indeed great thinking, always started with research.

Ogilvy was a researcher by calling. After being snapped up as an account executive at the London advertising agency, Mather & Crowther, he requested to be sent to New Jersey for a year’s placement at George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute. Gallup was breaking new ground in polling and audience modeling. In 1936, he’d been able to predict that Franklin D. Roosevelt would defeat Alf Landon in the presidential election, despite having a sample size of only 50,000 and despite far larger polls predicting the opposite result. His methods were the machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) of their day – they seemed to put new levels of insight at the disposal of those smart enough to see their value. Ogilvy wanted to be right at the heart of what audience research could now deliver.

It was 1938 when he arrived in New Jersey. The outbreak of World War II ensured that he stayed on that side of the Atlantic, training at the top-secret Camp X in Canada and working for British intelligence in Washington D.C, where he applied Gallup’s modeling techniques to the analysis of inevitably patchy data. It was following the war that Ogilvy founded the agency that still bears his name today – but his thinking on the power of research and its role in creative thinking had already been formed. When, in 1963, Ogilvy wrote about the ’18 Miracles of Research’ as part of Ogilvy on Advertising, he introduced them with a telling phrase that made direct reference to his intelligence work:

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

I love this quote because the analogy it uses is so specific. Ogilvy didn’t go for a more general and impactful phrase like “generals who ignore intelligence” or “generals who ignore the facts on the ground.” Instead, he chose to talk about the dangers of ignoring a very specific type of insight. Given that this was an expert copywriter who chose his words extremely carefully, it’s worth asking why.

The generals’ excuses
Decodes of enemy signals feel like a unpredictable source of intelligence. You can’t guarantee when you’ll get them. You have to work hard to extract actionable insight form the raw data that you first get your hands on. You can always question how current and relevant they are – or how accurately they’ve been decoded. You know that they don’t give you the complete picture. In short, it’s easy to find a credible reason to ignore them – and I think that’s the point that Ogilvy was trying to make.

Ogilvy’s experience with Gallup and throughout his career had taught him that any piece of intelligence had value when it was understood in the right terms, fed into the right model and leveraged in the right way. The creative process that he described when coming up with big ideas involved amassing as many different and disparate pieces of data and insight as he could and then allowing his brain to fit them together into original, creative ideas. “Big ideas come from the unconscious,” he wrote. “But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant.” Ogilvy knew that insight didn’t arrive as insight. It didn’t come packaged with notes on how to interpret it, references to other bits of data that might be relevant, or recommendations for the next action you should take. It required work and a commitment to lateral, creative thinking to turn raw information into action intelligence.

“They use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost”
You suspect that, all too often in Ogilvy’s wartime and advertising career, that commitment was missing – and the opportunity for real insight was passed up. After all, both generals and chief marketers tend to have already made plans and drawn up strategies when a new insight (or decoded enemy signal) comes along. It often feels easier to ignore the new information, or simply fit it to the strategy you already have, rather than responding to it. That’s what Ogilvy was describing when, later in this same chapter of Ogilvy on Advertising, he complained that, “Research is often misused by agencies and their clients. They have a way of using it to prove they are right. They use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost – not for illumination but for support.”

Using research in the way that Ogilvy urged marketers to do takes courage and decisiveness – a willingness to reshape your thinking when new information comes along. It’s easier to do that when you can stay naturally curious, and enthusiastic about the creative process in the first place. You don’t get the feeling that Ogilvy ever saw the requirement to rethink something as a chore. It was an opportunity.

That’s why I’m convinced that Ogilvy would have seen modern, digital marketing as a playground: so many different sources of insight, and so many creative ways to apply them. In his ’18 Miracles of Research’, he listed the many different ways in which signals of intelligence should contribute to marketing strategy. They included defining your target audience, determining the most persuasive and relevant promise for that audience, testing the most effective creative approach – and settling internal arguments. A platform like LinkedIn makes that kind of data available in robust, real-time form for any campaign. The rewards of using it creatively have never been higher. The generals have no excuse.