No Wonder They Call David Ogilvy the Father of Advertising

Superbowl XXXVIIIn 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the Oakland Raiders in Superbowl XXXVII. Aside from being the first time I legitimately watched the biggest game of the NFL season, it was also the first time I paid close attention to the biggest night of the Advertising industry’s year. The commercials broadcast during that game inspired me to pursue a career in advertising.

Mad MenThough I switched gears to focus on Public Relations when I began college, my fascination in advertising resurfaced when I discovered and subsequently became obsessed with Mad Men.

With those factors in mind, it was about time for me to educate myself a bit on the real history of Madison Avenue. A great resource in that pursuit was the most recent book I finished reading, Ogilvy On Advertising.

David OgilvyOften cited as “The Father of Advertising,” where better to begin my research than with David Ogilvy himself? Most of the insight Ogilvy provides, principles he reveals and advice he gives can be traced back to one of two major influences on his early career.


Influences on Ogilvy

1. Door to door sales

In 1932, Ogilvy began selling Aga cookers door to door. In his book, he writes that there would be way more informative fact used in advertising than the fluff and jargon we are repeatedly confronted with if more advertising executives had started their careers in door to door sales. When selling stoves, he let the information do the work.

Because of this early experience, Ogilvy favored advertisements long in body copy – so long that the ads were hardly able to be differentiated from the editorial on the following page

2. Gallup

After selling stoves door to door, Ogilvy joined George Gallup in the field of research. From then on, he was a passionate believer in the power that could be harnessed through data. He discusses research and its significance continuously throughout Ogilvy On Advertising and credits his success largely to his analysis of market and demographic trends.

Highlighted Insight

While reading Ogilvy On Advertising, I could hardly contain myself from Tweeting some of the absolute gems that he scattered throughout the pages. Here are a few examples:

  • On hiring: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” (p. 47)

In other words, we should never be afraid to hire someone who has the potential to teach us a thing or two. Rather, striving to hire, build and retain only the greatest employees is what makes a truly special agency.

  • On research: “A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they are found in oak forests.” (p. 23)

Ogilvy admitted that it was possible to create successful campaigns without using research. In rebuttal, though, he reasoned that one shouldn’t leave it to chance.

  • On typography & readability: “You can’t save souls in an empty church.” (p. 101)

In one book, Ogilvy harped on using black type on a white background a surprisingly high amount. According to him, if it was easier to read reverse type (white font on black background), that’s how the New York Times would be printed.


Ogilvy passed away in July of 1999. Fortunately for us, though, he ended Ogilvy On Advertising with 13 predictions in regard to the future of the industry. Here are some notables:

1.      Research: Ogilvy’s first prediction was that the quality of research would improve. I can’t help but wonder what his response would be to the Internet revolution and the ways that the World Wide Web allows us to collect so much data on virtually everyone with a connection.

Google and Facebook may as well know us better than we know ourselves. As a result, our searches and news feeds constantly include advertisements for things that are surprisingly applicable to our interests and activities.

In his recently published article, “Is This the Ultimate Definition of “Big Data”?,” Bernard Marr defines Big Data as, “our ability to collect and analyze the vast amounts of data we are now generating in the world. Can you imagine the success David Ogilvy would have enjoyed if he was equipped with the level of technology we have available to us today?

2.      Dishonest Advertising: As spot-on as Ogilvy was on research, his prediction on dishonest advertising in the political arena isn’t quite true – at least not yet. 

A portion of Ogilvy On Advertising is spent discussing the perceived evils of advertising. For the most part, Ogilvy explains, perception and manipulation isn’t possible in commercial advertising as a result of the vast system of legal policy that ads must pass through in order to be broadcast. Political advertising, though, because it is constitutionally protected free speech, is not subject to any similar system of approval.

Presidential Campaign season still means one thing to most of us, though – an onslaught of annoying, negative advertisements. Susan Milligan reports in “Obama, Romney Campaign Ads Hit New Level of Dishonesty,” that the dishonesty is only getting worse and worse with each campaign.

Ogilvy On AdvertisingI really enjoyed reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Even if you aren’t interested in advertising, the book provides great insight into how to form and grow a business, as well as how to personally develop as a leader within that business.



About Jim Mignano

Jim Mignano is a young professional practicing and learning Public Relations in Rochester, NY. He is passionate about the possibilities that digital media provide and loves utilizing new platforms for a variety of functions. James' blog is about people and the technology they use. It's about communication and persuasion... the old and the new ways of doing things... the struggle between sticking to the tried, true recipes and experimenting with intuitive, innovative ideas. It's an extension and reflection of James himself: the convergence of ambition & ability.
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