What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 6 – The sole purpose of advertising is to sell

Why Ogilvy’s view of advertising is more controversial today than ever – and why he’s still right about the real purpose of what we do

February 25, 2019

What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 6 – The sole purpose of advertising is to sell

If you had to distil David Ogilvy’s entire thinking on marketing and advertising down to two sentences, it would be hard to come up with something better than this:

“Your role is to sell. Don’t let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising.”

This was a theme that Ogilvy reminded his readers of repeatedly throughout his classic books Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man. It was almost as though the author was deliberately fighting against his own reputation as a creative thinker and an originator of ‘big ideas’ that built famous brands; determined to be remembered, above all, as someone who sold products. Whenever he discussed the craft of advertising, he quickly brought that discussion around to the question of which techniques delivered results on the balance sheet. “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Ogilvy favoured long headlines, not because they gave him more space to strut his elegant, copywriting stuff, but because his own experience demonstrated that the more words you could pack in, the greater your chance of landing a compelling sales message. “On the average, long headlines sell more merchandise that short ones,” he wrote in Ogilvy on Advertising. Why did this matter? “On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money.”

How Ogilvy created advertising that sold

It’s almost impossible to find an example of Ogilvy’s own work where a clear and compelling reason to buy the product wasn’t the first thing that you encountered. His ads displayed an intimate understanding of their audience, they contained ‘big ideas’ that were memorable and compelled attention, they resulted from an inherently creative process, an appreciation of the power of the unconscious and a determination to think in unconventional, inherently playful ways. However, all of this creativity remained ruthlessly focused on one thing and one thing only. “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative’,” he wrote. “I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

For almost the entire history of advertising, Ogilvy’s ideas about the absolute necessity to sell would have been seen as self-evident. They certainly would never have justified a blog post like this discussing them. Ogilvy stood out, not because he was unique in trying to create advertising that sold – but because he was so much better at it than most.

Is selling still the sole purpose of advertising?

In recent years though, things have changed. Ogilvy’s argument that the sole purpose of advertising is sales is no longer a given. From Gillette to Nike, brands create campaigns that barely feature their products – and don’t’ always have an obvious connection to them.

Isn’t it part of the purpose of advertising to create a community of advocates or followers? Isn’t it our role as marketers to invest brands with a sense of wider purpose and relevance? Isn’t awareness a valid marketing objective at the top of the funnel? Won’t today’s time-shifting audiences simply turn off and block our ads if we keep selling to them all the time? There are more credible-sounding “distractions” from Ogilvy’s “sole purpose of advertising” than ever before. All of which raises the question: is Ogilvy still relevant in an era of social media sharing, inbound marketing, content and brand purpose?

Why today’s CMOs would hire Ogilvy like a shot

Absolutely he is. A broad range of platforms, tactics and metrics only increases the value of focusing on the ultimate objective of marketing. Chief Marketing Officers increasingly demand revenue-based metrics that will give marketing a more credible role in discussions of business strategy and future growth. Marketers are more aware than ever of the dangers of focusing their spend on driving views, shares and likes, if they don’t know whether such engagement is contributing to sales or not. B2B businesses are less and less interested in the volume of leads and how much they cost, more and more interested in the quality of leads and how much they’re worth. It’s a marketing moment that would have been made for David Ogilvy.

It’s one thing to have the conviction that advertising exists to sell – it’s quite another to think that it can only sell through product information and price. Ogilvy never did that. He recognised the value of compelling brand promises, and he knew exactly how to create a brand image as part of that promise. His ads are infused with personality, aspiration, style and intrigue. However, these were always firmly rooted in what the brand’s products actually were – and what they actually did. He wasn’t opposed to building brands, he just had high standards for whether those brands were relevant or not.

Brand purpose? Fine by Ogilvy, provided the purpose related to what the brand’s products did and related to something that consumers cared about. Storytelling? Great, provided the story showed the value of the product and inspired people to buy it. Ogilvy explored many different creative techniques. He judged them not by whether they felt like they were selling, but by whether they actually sold or not.

How content drove sales for Ogilvy

The same people who assume Ogilvy had no interest in brands tend to assume he’d have had no time for content marketing, either. I’d argue the opposite. Ogilvy despised spin and unsubstantiated claims. One of his hopeful predictions about the future was that, “advertising will contain more information and less hot air.” He agreed with Dr. Charles Edwards, Dean at the Graduate School of Retailing that, “the more facts you tell, the more you sell.” Original opinions, how-to guides, white papers, case studies: all would have felt like valid marketing tactics for Ogilvy, provided they were approached in creative, compelling ways – and provided they were effective.

For Ogilvy, the answers to the question of effectiveness would have been the most exciting feature of today’s digital marketing landscape. Marketers today have more data available than ever before to measure the contribution that different forms of activity, at different points of the funnel, actually make to sales. Were Ogilvy writing Sponsored Content to appear in the LinkedIn feed, he’d have been devouring the conversion tracking and insight tag data to see which approaches delivered quality leads, conversions and revenue. He’d have been a student of analytics of all types, demanding more and more insight into which creative approaches contributed to the business bottom line – and which simply generated noise.

He may have been a passionate believer in selling – but he was also passionately curious about what made people buy. For David Ogilvy, the wealth of evidence available today would simply have enabled more creative, innovative and intriguing ways to sell. Let’s try to have as much fun exploring them as he would have done.