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Why David Ogilvy’s Advertising Bible Is Getting A Modern Update

The agency’s former CEO Miles Young talks about his new book, “Ogilvy on Advertising In The Digital Age.”

Why David Ogilvy’s Advertising Bible Is Getting A Modern Update
Miles Young [Photo: John Cairns]

“What was going through your mind to think that a man missing an eye would be a good way to sell dress shirts?”

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That’s what David Letterman once asked David Ogilvy when the legendary ad exec was on Late Night in the early 1980s to promote his book Ogilvy on Advertising. He was referring to a 1951 ad campaign for Hathaway shirts that was the ’50s equivalent of a viral success. The thing about Ogilvy’s answer, even though it was about a print ad more than 35 years ago, is that it holds true today.

“I’d seen some research which showed that if you can inject into the ad an element of story appeal, you do well, people read the ad. They look at that and say, ‘Who is this man with an eye patch? That takes about a tenth of a second, and their curiosity’s piqued, so then they go under the picture and read the copy, and that’s how you sell the shirts.”

Ogilvy on Advertising is widely considered an industry classic. A must-read for anyone interested or pursuing a career in marketing and advertising. But for obvious reasons, not the least of which being the digital revolution, the emergence of social media, and the total fragmentation of media, plenty of the work discussed in the book feels outdated. Back then, you could make a TV commercial and reach 80% of people an average of five times in three weeks, and that was it. No Amazon. No Facebook. No Google. Now 34 years later, former Ogilvy chairman and CEO Miles Young has written an updated version, aiming to apply the principles outlined in Ogilvy’s original to the modern era. He cautions those who think digital work and 2017 audiences require dismissing traditional advertising insights.

“The world has changed dramatically, particularly in the last 15 years, and in a sense, some of the things David Ogilvy stood for came under slight attack,” says Young. “Not in a malicious way, but in a way that put his view of advertising on the defensive. That attack came from people who were strong partisans of digital, and some of it was justified and some wasn’t. The part that wasn’t was really to do with the view that digital replaces everything.”

[Photo: courtesy of Ogilvy]
For Young, part of the goal of the book is to put the principles of Ogilvy’s approach into the context of today’s industry. “Just as David’s original book had a rather holistic view of communications, the idea behind this is to take that latter-day holistic view and put digital in a context,” says Young.

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Ogilvy’s original book was written as a reaction to what he felt was a disturbing trend in the business at that time of putting technique above the idea. And Young sees that as still one of advertisers’ biggest challenges. “If you’re not careful, digital can be seen as a discipline, a storehouse of techniques and interesting things to do, but you can become so interested in the content that you can forget why you’re really doing it,” he says. “And unless there’s an idea that can somehow make sense of all those component parts, you’ll end up creating something that isn’t very interesting for the audience.”

The new book, in design and content, is very much a textbook. And while many point to something like Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” Super Bowl tweet as a classic piece of social advertising, Young prefers to focus on lesser-known examples. He cites Nescafe and how it’s overall digital and social strategy has helped it grow audience engagement consistently over the last couple of years. “To me, that’s more interesting than the Oreo tweet because it’s huge and scalable,” says Young. “It’s about distinguishing between what’s interesting and innovative, and what’s really scalable and useful in the longer term. That’s the non-sexy bit, the ant’s work, the hard work.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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