Looking to make some money online? You’d do well to heed this timeless advice from David Ogilvy on avoiding the “cult of creativity”.
Although Ogilvy is often associated with flashy Madison Avenue style advertising, he began his career as a door-to-door salesman, followed by a stint in direct-response marketing.
His best-seller campaigns for brands can be largely attributed to this background. Unbeknownst to many, he was also a big proponent of rigorous research—no he didn’t just smoke his pipe and come up with cute and clever lines 😊 In Ogilvy on Advertising, he advises, quoting Rosser Reeves (another top merchandise seller).
“I am not saying that charming, witty and warm copy won’t sell. I’m just saying that I’ve seen thousands of witty campaigns that didn’t. Let’s say you are a manufacturer. Your advertising isn’t working and your sales are going down. Now, what do you want out of me? Fine writing? Do you master pieces? Glowing things that can be framed by copywriters? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?”
It is possible to work within a brand’s guidelines yet still produce landing pages that generate significantly more sales than pure ‘branding’ pages. And the most sustainable and enduring way to build a brand, is as a residual effect of profitable sales vs. expensive ‘brand awareness’ campaigns.
Rosser Reeves, in turn, often quoted presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson when comparing brand awareness campaigns to direct-response ones that produced sales
“Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘how well he spoke’—but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, ‘Let us march’?
Which of the two would your marketing rather be?
That said, Ogilvy observed that an ad agency that never produced “creative work” would wither on the vine as it is much easier to sell “creative work”.
Ironically, Ogilvy is credited as one of the founders of the “Creative Revolution” of the 1960s, a departure from the long form style ads commonly associated with cure-all patent medicines from the 1920s!
There’s a story about an ad agency owner showing a friend two campaigns he was going to present to a client.
“Which do you think will be generate more sales?”. The friend chose Campaign A.
“I agree” the owner said but I’ll present Campaign B. “B looks nicer and has messaging that will boost the client’s ego!”.
While there is much to be learned from Reeves’ direct response techniques, it is not the whole story. His influence diminished later in his career, as consumer tastes grew more sophisticated and they tuned out uninteresting ads. Creative types derided his “Reality in Advertising” as akin to describing sushi as “cold dead fish”!
Whether factual reality-based ads or purely creative ones, extremes are easy. It takes real skill to use each in just the right dosage. Below are other key lessons from the sales master that are still relevant today.
Do Your Homework on the Product
Ogilvy talks about how he spent 3-weeks reading up on Rolls Royces when he got that account. In the literature he found a line that said “At 60 miles an hour the only sound you hear is that of the Electric Clock”. That became the headline of his most famous campaign.
Image source: Courtesy of Pinterest
Great headlines and slogans are not dreamed up out of thin air; They emerge from painstaking research.
Similarly, when he got the Mercedes account, he sent a team to Stuttgart to interview the engineers of the Mercedes 230z. The result: the ad below that grew Mercedes’ sales in the US by 4x—from 10,000 cars per year to 40,000.
Examples of ‘Doing Your Homework’ from Our CRO Consulting Practice
For Protalus, reading 11,000+ reviews revealed that although the biggest complaint about their insoles was price (when compared to Dr Scholls), they compared favorably with much more expensive custom orthotics. We therefore came up with the line:
“Almost as Good As Custom Orthotics But Cost 87% Less”
For a major formula maker, we found this gem buried on a little-trafficked content page and featured it more prominently:
“8 out of 10 birthing hospitals use X”.
And for a Pet Health Insurer where the biggest objection to buying the product was fear of having claims denied, we discovered this effective counter-objection: they company had highest claims payout ratio in the industry. In the insurance sector, the “claims payout ratio” is the percentage of revenue collected that is paid out in claims.
While their peers had a 55% claims payout ratio, theirs was 70%--which is 27% higher than their peers. We showed this graphically and explained that, by law, every insurance company is required to report this information publicly. We only found out about this by combing through analyst briefings and SEC (Security and Exchange Commisison) filings (they are a publicly traded company).
Positioning: Once You’ve Done Your Homework on the Product, Do It for Competing Products
This is about ‘positioning,’ at term later popularized by Al Ries and Jack Strout in their marketing classic Positioning. Ogilvy’s definition of positioning is “what the product does and who it is for”. Below are two examples.
Dove soap: Ogilvy successfully positioned it as a toilet bar soap for women with dry skin. As always, he first tested various claims before launching a major campaign.
SAAB: Described it as a car for winter, in the Norwegian market. Three years later, it was voted best car for Winter!
If your product is software the best book for you on positioning is Obviously Awesome
Find Your Big Idea
Research and positioning are good, but the truly great campaigns always contain a big idea that captures the consumer’s imagination and can be used effectively for decades.
Example: The Marlboro man turned the brand into the top seller in the world and has been used for decades with little alteration.
So how do you find your big idea? Here’s some advice from the immortal Ogilvy:
“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.”
And once you think you have a stumbled on a big idea; does it pass the Ogilvy test?
1 Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
2 Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
3 Is it unique?
4 Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
5 Could it be used for 30 years?
What are some big ideas from recent times? I think T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” is one. How about you? Post your thoughts below.
Want us to help you get more sales by optimizing your landing pages? Learn more about our work on CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) here. We’ve worked with companies like Microsoft, Trupanion, Enfamil. We also briefly advised EasyKicks by Nike.