August 03, 2015

Applying Mad Man David Ogilvy's Philosophy to Content Creation

Modern content creators owe a debt of gratitude to David Ogilvy. Long before Mad Men’s Don Draper became a fictional ‘60s advertising mastermind, there was ad exec Ogilvy, also known as “The Father of Advertising.” His advertising philosophy, in many ways, is the roadmap to successful content marketing.

Born in 1911 in Surrey, England, Ogilvy began his professional marketing in 1932 selling AGA cooking stoves, door-to-door. Given his success, his boss asked him to write an instruction manual, “The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker,” which thirty years later, Fortune called “the finest sales instruction manual ever written.”

Ogilvy went on to work at Mather & Crowther, a London ad agency, before relocating to the U.S. where he founded Ogilvy & Mather. The company created some of the most famous taglines in history, such as “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock,” and "Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream.” Ogilvy is also famous for stating, “The customer is not a moron, she's your wife,” which embodied his distaste for patronizing advertising content.

His advertising philosophy, which was guided by four basic principles, is an important lesson both for advertisers and marketers.

Creative Brilliance

Ogilvy believed in “the big ideaL,” which describes as having two parts:

“The first concerns Cultural Tension: to be relevant and important, brands need a point of view on the big and small topics of the day. The second part is the brand’s Best Self: to be valid, a brand must have some authority to be able to hold its point of view. We find this by exploring the brand’s history and asking when the brand was at its best. It is in the intersection where these two parts meet that the magic lies.”

This concept can also be applied to content creation. It’s important that your content speaks to your  time and place. Having a cultural connection is fundamental in marketing; otherwise, you lose your audience. Yes, language can be a beautiful thing, but like class, it shouldn’t be used as a club to beat other people over the head. Speaking directly and honestly to your readers will keep them actively engaged. Also, your audience is reading your content because they believe you know what you’re talking about. Authoritative content will define your brand as confident and a leader.  


Ogilvy’s official title at his agency was Research Director. He believed that “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

Without research, content writers are basically flying through the air without a net. It’s important to never mistake belief for fact. Taking ideas at face value may seem efficient in the moment but in the long run, your lack of study will come back to haunt you. Nowadays, when all information lives perpetually online, putting forth faulty information into the universe can discredit a brand and also the content creator themselves. It’s important to substantiate your statements in order to earn your writing the respect it deserves.

Actual Results for Clients

Ogilvy believed that “In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.” For content, creativity is all good and well but if your clients’ bottom line isn’t positively impacted, artistic flourish bears as little importance and consequence as an abacus  in an accounting firm.

Not that the hard sell is the way to go, but keeping your sales objective weaved into your content is crucial. Being hired as a content creator is not a charitable contribution. Clients expect results and those results, at the end of the day, need to translate into revenue.

Professional Discipline

Another guiding mantra in Ogilvy’s career was “The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying.” He preferred “the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance.”

As content producers, discipline is vital to successful content creation. Seeing a story through from beginning to end allows writers to keep their eyes on the prize. Discipline endows content with weight and strength. A great opening paragraph is negligible if a story ends without conviction. Therefore, in order to keep the momentum alive and the content brilliant from start to finish, writers must be cognizant and disciplined in their approach.

Ogilvy was an advertising genius yet as a teacher he was arguably even better. His philosophy endures decades after he articulated its basic principles, and content creators can enhance their writing power by applying it to their work. It can also help them realize what Ogilvy implored his team to strive for : “Don't bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.”

David Ogilvy’s quotes are collected in his books, Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), Blood, Brains and Beer (1978), and Ogilvy on Advertising (1983).

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