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Let’s look at some secrets of creative salesmanship from advertising legend David Ogilvy. He advised promoters to follow these four basic principles in creating their messages:
1. Creative brilliance. Marketers need to come up with brilliant concepts that not only catch their best targets’ attention but also sell them on the product. Ogilvy was a proponent of the “big idea” — an unforgettable concept that captures the imagination of your audience and puts your product (or yourself) on the map.
2. Research. Ogilvy didn’t believe in “blowing smoke.” His copy was meticulously based in fact, and he did careful research to uncover the one amazing fact about a product around which he could build an entire ad campaign.
3. Actual results. Ogilvy was a strong believer in judging the quality of an ad by its success at selling the product. Always test the outcome of an ad, and if it isn’t selling, make whatever changes are necessary to make it work. This holds true for print ads, banner ads, job applications, blog posts or whatever else it is you’re putting out into the world.
4. Professional discipline. Advertising executives were not to be dabblers in the creative realm. They needed to hone their craft and develop programs to train the next generation of advertisers. Similarly, if you want to be successful at promoting something, through any medium, apply yourself to creating the best campaigns possible or you’ll never achieve everything that’s possible for you.
This last point is as true today as it was when it was written. Nobody becomes a phenomenon in any field without putting in the time and discipline. This is especially true when it comes to writing promotions — particularly today, when the field is so much more competitive.
To be a successful copywriter, not only do you have to put in the hours to learn how to write, but you also have to research more than ever to make sure that what you write stands out. If you don’t take deep dives into a product and learn what makes it unique, you’ll never rise above the noise.
Today people talk about commodity versus specialty. A commodity is an ordinary product. A specialty product has something about it that makes it unique and exclusive. A great ad writer can take a commodity product and make it stand out as a specialty product by showing what makes it different and better.
The trick is to find the story in the product, and that takes skill. Maybe you’re selling a fish oil supplement. You can turn it into a specialty item by explaining, for example, that your fish oil comes from a unique kind of fish living deep in Icelandic waters, providing better Omega-3. Researching your product has always been important, but it’s even more important today. With more competition and a more skeptical audience, you need great arguments to back every claim you make.
The most famous headline in advertising history
Ogilvy wrote many famous ads during his career, but the one that’s said to have been the most famous headline in advertising history was the one he created for Rolls-Royce. The headline read:
At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.
This groundbreaking ad illustrates all the principles that made Ogilvy’s work stand out. The headline itself was a wonderful example of the “big idea.” No one had ever seen a headline like that before. It intrigued people and pulled them in to read the rest of the ad.
The body of the ad was made up of 13 interesting facts that clearly explained why the Rolls-Royce was unique and why it was worth its sky-high price. And of course Ogilvy tested the ad in a number of venues before launching the nationwide campaign that ended up earning a place in advertising history.
You might think marketers just sit around waiting for inspiration, but that’s not the way it actually works. In describing the process he used to write the Rolls-Royce ad, Ogilvy said he started out, as he always did, by doing his homework. He claimed this was a tedious but necessary process. Ogilvy said that as a marketer, you had to study the product and find out as much about it as you can. The more you know about a product, the more likely you are to come up with the big idea.
When he got the Rolls-Royce account, he spent three weeks reading about the car. In the process, he came upon this statement from a Rolls-Royce engineer: “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock.” That became the headline, which was followed by 607 words of factual copy. In a sense, Ogilvy didn’t even write the world’s most famous headline; he took it from a company report. But his genius was in recognizing the power of the statement to work as the lead-in to the ad. Of course, the rest of the ad pulled its weight too: 13 carefully crafted points that each raised and answered a question the reader might have. It even addressed the issue of price in a clever way, stating that the Bentley, manufactured by the same company, was exactly the same machine except for the grille and a much-reduced price. People could buy a Bentley if they “feel diffident about driving a Rolls-Royce.” This would subtly appeal to Rolls-Royce buyers, who would never see themselves as being diffident about anything.
Lessons for today’s promoters
I think Ogilvy brought a modern touch to advertising that really made his work stand out — and also made it tremendously effective. Many of the copywriters I work with do just as he said: they spend as much time as necessary researching before they ever start writing.
Very often the facts themselves lead to the big idea that will really sell the product. It’s the perspiration of research that gives rise to the creative inspiration. Smart advertisers put this into practice. One company I know hires entry-level copywriters to spend the first year or two only doing research. They don’t write one word of copy until after they master researching the subject area they’re going to be working on. Ogilvy understood the value of this, and once again, he was ahead of his time.
We should also remember to always deal in facts. Especially today, consumers are wary of empty claims that seem to have nothing to back them up. In promoting your product or service or yourself, be sure to provide fact after fact that explains why you’re the best.
And of course, Ogilvy was a pioneer in claiming that testing is everything. That’s the only way to arrive at the best ad, sales piece, website copy or Facebook post that will get you the best results.