David Ogilvy’s genius: Of great writing, giants and Russian dolls

David Ogilvy was the advertising genius of the 20th Century. He was also generous in sharing his wisdom on the art of writing.

“Knowledge is useless unless you know how to communicate it – in writing.”

These perfect words on writing flowed from the pen of David Ogilvy.

Writing is hugely important to me. I always want to improve my writing. Some of the best advice I’ve ever come across on what makes for good writing can be found in the words of David Ogilvy.

Mr Ogilvy was arguably the advertising genius of the 20th Century. He and his works are no small part of the inspiration for Mad Men (which should be recommendation enough in itself to find out more about him).

You don’t have to have the slightest interest in advertising to learn a lot from Ogilvy’s genius.

TheUnpublishedOgilvy

I want to share some of my favourite words from David Ogilvy, and to urge anyone and everyone who sees this post to consider checking out his written works. Ogilvy On Advertising and The Unpublished David Ogilvy (from which the quotation at the top of the page comes) are particularly highly recommended.

And if you have any favourite Ogilvy gems of your own, please do share… I’d love to read them.

Only dull writers

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There is nothing about which one cannot write interestingly and engagingly. This statement from Ogilvy On Advertising can be adapted to pretty much any type of writing:

“Whenever you can, make the product itself the hero of your advertising. If you think the product too dull, I have news for you: there are no dull products, only dull writers.”

Write the way you talk

Ogilvy shares 10 of the most valuable tips there could ever be on ‘How to write’ on pages 69 and 70 of The Unpublished David Ogilvy. Here’s one of them:

“Write the way you talk. Naturally.”

Here’s one more:

“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”

Of Russian dolls and giants

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Nothing to do with writing tips, but I do love Ogilvy’s Russian dolls story (and it is a beautiful piece of writing in itself). Here it is, as recounted in Ogilvy On Advertising:

“When you are appointed to head an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send you one of these Russian dolls. Inside the smallest you will find this message: ‘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, Ogilvy & Mather will become a company of giants.’”

Believe me, the above quotations hardly begin to scratch the surface of the treasure trove of ingenious, delightful and succinct lessons on business, on writing and on the living of life that are offered by these books.

Please do consider letting David Ogilvy into your life.

Update 1 (Sunday 25 September 2022): If the telephone line from your unconscious is open…

I am indebted to Andrew Eberlin for sharing his own favourite (and quite wonderful) quotation from David Ogilvy in a comment on this post:

“Here’s my favourite Ogilvy quote (especially the line on claret):

“‘Big ideas come from the unconscious… 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 in you.'”

Update 2 (Monday 26 September 2022): Ogilvy serendipity?

Seasoned readers of this blog will know of my love of moments of serendipity. There may just be one here… It seems that Ogilvy’s wisdom is in the air around us right now. Andrew Eberlin has today alerted me via Twitter to another fantastic Ogilvy quotation, this one shared by Dave Trott to his Twitter followers (and he in turn tips the hat to one Vikki Ross for bringing these words to his attention). This is some truly timeless Ogilvy wisdom:

“In general, study the methods of your competitors and do the exact opposite.”

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you Michael. I’ve read and enjoyed ‘On Advertising’ but I haven’t read ‘Unpublished’. I will definitely add it to my list.
    Here’s my favourite Ogilvy quote (especially the line on claret)
    “Big ideas come from the unconscious… 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 in you.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely love this Ogilvy quotation, Andrew – so much so that I have also added it to the text of the post as an update!

      Those words put me in my mind of some words from Luis Buñuel.

      I don’t know if you might ever have read Buñuel autobiography My Last Breath, but there is a passage in there in which he argues that “imagination can be trained”. He had his own daily ritual for inviting his creative subconscious to do its work, which involved the use of a cocktail of his own inventtion, named the Buñueloni! Great minds…

      Like

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