I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor
Invaluable advice from the 'Father of Advertising'
British-born David Ogilvy was one of the original, and greatest, “ad men.” In 1948, he started what would eventually be known as Ogilvy & Mather, the Manhattan-based advertising agency that has since been responsible for some of the world’s most iconic ad campaigns, and in 1963 he even wrote Confessions of an Advertising Man, a best-selling book that remains essential reading for all who enter the industry. Time magazine called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry” in the early-’60s; his name, and that of his agency, were mentioned more than once in Mad Men for good reason.
With all that in mind, being able to learn of his routine when producing the very ads that made his name is an invaluable opportunity. The fascinating letter below, written by Ogilvy in 1955 to a Mr. Ray Calt, offers exactly that.
April 19, 1955
Dear Mr. Calt:
On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:
1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.
4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every conceivable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.
Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.
Excerpted from the fascinating book, The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners.
Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know!
Before I go… on Sunday the second issue of the Lists of Note newsletter went out: an eye-opening list of “Don’ts” for women cyclists, first published back in 1895. Read it here and subscribe.
Very interesting to see how such a revered figure did not work magic. He agonized and pained over his work. But I guess that’s the magic in making it look easy.
What a fantastic letter. Such humility from such an accomplished ad man. Thank you. Shaun, thank you for all your Letters of Note.