What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 5 – What you say vs How you say it

More Monday Morning inspiration from an advertising genius

February 18, 2019

What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 5 – What you say vs How you say it

Our thought for the week from David Ogilvy this week feels like a classic piece of bumper sticker or marketing meme wisdom – the kind of idea that feels so intuitively true that it’s impossible to disagree with it.

Just over 55 years ago, Ogilvy wrote in his Confessions of an Advertising Man, that:

“In advertising, what you say is more important than how you say it.”

Lots of people read this book as part of their introduction to marketing and advertising – and whey you’re starting out in our profession, this feels like a statement of the obvious. However, the more you grapple with how content and advertising works, the more grounds you have for questioning it. Plenty of advertising planners have argued that how you say something is at least as important as what you say when it comes to the impact on your audience. In fact, in today’s marketing landscape, with all of the different channels, formats and delivery options available, this might qualify as the most controversial claim that David Ogilvy ever made.

Was David Ogilvy wrong? How you say things definitely matters…

Audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated when it comes to discerning the content and marketing messages that are worth consuming from those that aren’t. They have no choice, given the amount of content from brands that they now encounter. The signal sent by the media environment that advertising appears in, and the format that it uses, are a vital part of this process.

As The Ad Contrarian argues in this brilliantly worded post, Tiffany doesn’t make infomercials. Why? Because the negative signal that format sends about the quality of the brand is enough to undermine any claims that the infomercial itself might be able to make about how aspirational and luxurious its jewellery is. In the same way, advertising that uses simplistic behavioural targeting to follow somebody incessantly around the web, constantly nagging them to click, sends a very different signal to content that appears on a trusted site or in a trusted social media feed. The information you’re communicating isn’t everything – context is at least as important as content.

It’s not just signals of quality that matter. Format plays an increasingly important role in how audiences judge and respond to what a brand has to say. On LinkedIn, for example, B2B video is shared up to 20x more often than other content formats. However, not all video is created equal. A teaser video of a few seconds, or short-form video of under a minute, works very differently to a video of three minutes or more. There are different rules of engagement, different expectations of the content, different roles that the video is suited to for different audiences, at different stages of the consideration journey. You’d be crazy to ignore this and just focus on the content of the video itself.

The dangers of content style over content substance

In short, there are a growing number of considerations that mean marketers can’t afford to ignore how they say something. So much so that Ogilvy’s claim might actually feel quite naïve or outdated given the landscape we’re now dealing with. The more I think about it though, the less I feel that’s the case. This isn’t that vanishingly rare example of an Ogilvy idea that’s failed to stand the test of time. It’s actually more important than ever.

Ogilvy was reiterating something that it’s still surprisingly easy to forget: when your audience gives you their attention, they expect definite value in return for it. They may be influenced by format and context. They may be more entertained and willing to engage with something that delivers a message with panache and style. They may be more likely to remember it, build positive associations around it and talk about and share it with others. But at the end of the day, they’ll judge your credibility primarily on the core content of what you have to say. Creative flair, groovy styling and the channel and format of the moment are only effective when they’re delivering relevant value that repays the attention your audience pays to them. Otherwise, they feel like style over substance – and the people you want to engage walk away feeling frustrated.

How The Man in the Hathaway Shirt perfectly fused what you say with how you say it

There’s no better example of this principle in action than Ogilvy’s own work. The Man in the Hathaway Shirt is one of my favourite Ogilvy campaigns – and the thing I particularly love about it is the way that it balances real style, originality and creativity with an absolute dedication to delivering a proposition that’s clear, relevant and respectful to the reader.

The Man in the Hathaway Shirt was storytelling without the need for a story. It created a dashing, fascinating, aspirational character whose eyepatch (and the various other accessories he was occasionally modelled with) hinted at a rich life of adventure. Glance at these print ads today and you immediately expect that the copy accompanying them will fill out this glamorous backstory. We’ll get tantalising details of what made him the man he is, why he chooses Hathaway shirts, and what on earth he gets up to in them.

Only, that’s not what happens at all.

Glance down at the headline and below, and there’s far less flowery invention that we’re primed to expect. In fact, there’s no reference to the back-story of our eyepatch-sporting hero at all. We get a clear, concise and simply expressed description of why a good shirt matters – and why this small company in Maine makes the best shirts of all.

Ogilvy knew that the brilliant imagery that his campaign used would be wasted if the content of his message didn’t deliver on the attention that it captured. This was his calling card and case-proving point as to why what you say matters more.

Content marketing isn’t just the only marketing left – it’s the only marketing that’s ever counted

It’s true that the advertising landscape in which this campaign ran was very different to that of today. Ogilvy wrote at a time when the act of advertising itself was often the only signal of the credibility of your brand that you needed to send. Format mattered a lot less because there were fewer formats to play with. Appearing in print established you as worth of attention – and enabled Ogilvy’s concise, credible content to do its work.

I’d argue though, that today’s digital media environment provides plenty of opportunities to do exactly the same. You signal that you’re worthy of attention by appearing in a trusted, relevant environment, you stand out and send a further signal of value through the type of format you use. However, once all of those signals have been received and understood, it’s still down to the core content itself to demonstrate that somebody was right to trust you with their attention.

The content of what’s being said is the real value that audiences are interested in – not how it’s presented. That’s what Seth Godin meant by his famous statement that “content marketing is the only marketing left”. If you’re not adding value that will enhance the lives of those you’re talking to, then no amount of style in communication can help.

It’s not just the response of audiences that makes “what you say is more important than how you say it” enduringly relevant as an idea. It’s also the direction of travel for search engines and SEO. Every spider ranking content for the likes of Google or Bing is designed to pay ever-closer attention to the depth of content, how informative it really is, and the extent to which it delivers Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness (E-A-T in trendy SEO acronym terms). I strongly suspect that, were David Ogilvy writing content and advertising today, his work would be some of the most high-ranking, visible and influential out there.

This is why we consistently find that the content that achieves the greatest influence in todays’ marketing landscape tends to be long-form, detailed, and respectful of the audience in terms of delivering value for their attention. It’s why the most effective video isn’t just the right length and on the right platform – it’s focused on delivering the right kind of value that an audience is looking for. That could be practical, helpful advice – it could be a marketing message with a big idea that’s relevant and resonates with somebody’s situation. Either way, it’s content. It’s what you say. And it matters as much today as it ever has.