7 Timeless Lessons from David Ogilvy | Express Writers

7 Timeless Copywriting Lessons from the Legend David Ogilvy

by | Sep 29, 2016 | Copywriting

If you’re in the market to improve your copy and make your digital advertising more effective than it’s ever been, there’s one man who can offer some serious inspiration.

David Ogilvy.

One of the most successful advertisers of all time, Ogilvy is considered the father of information-dense advertising.

First, let’s look at his life story–how he started one of the most famous, industry-shaping agencies of all time without prior experience writing a single line of ad copy, and one of his most famous high-ROI ads. Then, we’ll delve into 7 key lessons Ogilvy has left with us.

Sit back and enjoy! 

lessons from david ogilvy

A Nutshell Life Story of the Inspirational Copywriting Hero, David Ogilvy

Born in 1911, the man was a literal genius, despite being a “college dropout” at England’s Christ Church, Oxford.

He could sell anything, to anyone–a skill he learned at 24 years old when he decided to quit working at his “slavish” job in a hotel kitchen. Ogilvy started selling stoves, and got everyone to buy — from nuns and drunkards. In 1935, he wrote a guide that’s been named “the best sales manual ever written,” by Fortune. One of the best quotes from the guide:

“The more prospects you talk to, the more sales you expose yourself to, the more orders you will get. But never mistake quantity of calls for quality of salesmanship.”

In 1938, he emigrated to the US from England, and worked for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey. This is where he learned meticulous research methods and unique copywriting techniques. In WWII, he worked with the Intelligence Service in Washington, where he wrote a ton of high-level content, making recommendations on matters of diplomacy and security.

He applied techniques he learned at Gallup into a report for the fields of secret intelligence, which was picked up by Eisenhower’s Psychological Warfare Board and successfully put to work at Europe during the final year of WWII.

Without a single ad penned in his lifetime, but simply a natural talent in sales, he came on and dominated the ad copywriting scene in the early 50s. After a quiet few years living with the Amish in Pennsylvania, Ogilvy founded the New York-based ad agency Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather in 1948 (which later evolved into Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide). He launched with financial aid from London-based Mather & Crowther. He had never written an advertisement in his life, and in their first twenty years, Shell gave him their entire business; Sears hired him for their first national ad campaign; and other clients included Lever Brothers, General Foods and American Express. It became to a point where Ogilvy said:

“Getting clients was like shooting fish in a barrel.”

One of his most famous ads was also one of his most unorthodox ones. He believed in spur-of-the-moment inspiration, and on a whim decided to take on a small-budget client, a shirtmaker from Maine, in 1951. Within a week after the following ad went live, featuring Ogilvy’s “whim” of using an eyepatch on the model, every Hathaway shirt was sold out.


He passed away in 1999, at 88 years old. Sadly, his two greatest dreams never came true: he wanted ten children (he only had one), and he wanted knighthood (he was made commander of the British empire, close enough, in 1967). He was also inducted in the US Advertising Hall of Fame in 1977.

The copywriting lessons he’s left with us have stood the tests of time and apply just as much today as they did in Ogilvy’s lifetime.

Let’s dissect a few.

7 Mantras for Better Copywriting, Courtesy of David Ogilvy

Prepare to be inspired by some of Ogilvy’s finest statements.

1. Invest the time in continually learning how to write well

 good writing is not a natural gift

If there’s one quote he’s said that rings 100% true with the process of my writing career, it’s this one.

Most people who are attracted to copywriting have at least some experience with writing.

Whether that’s an English degree or a past as a high school journalist, writing experience comes in all shapes and sizes.

However, even the best writers need continual practice in order to hone their craft and excel at writing.

With this in mind, never stop working to improve your craft. Read books, take seminars, and study the masters. Not only will your writing improve, but your scope of knowledge will, as well.

2. Learn who you are writing for


According to Ogilvy, researching the competition, product, and customer is critical for long-term copywriting success.

While virtually anyone can create copy, only truly skilled copywriters who have invested the effort into learning their market can create targeted, highly effective content that influences audiences and sells things.

3. Do your homework and know what you’re writing about, but don’t be afraid to break the rules


Good writing is harder without a great plan and the right research, which Ogilvy says so well.

Yet, as Ogilvy puts it (and as he put to real life use in his work), don’t be afraid to break the rules–never abide by one set of rules:


For best results, ensure your outline has the following components:

1. A headline. Your headline should capture your reader’s attention and make them want to click into your content. Boring, dry headlines need not apply here.


2. A sub-headline. This sub-headline is designed to offer a simple explanation of what you (or your content) does and for whom it does it. Perfect for converting the on-the-fence reader, this can help boost your conversions hugely.

3. Plenty of quality visuals. Use your outline to determine where you’ll place visuals and what the visuals will support. In addition to boosting your audience’s understanding of a topic, visuals also make content more compelling and can serve to improve its shares on social media.

4. A bulleted list of key points. To make your content outline as effective as possible, include a bulleted list of key points. (You can focus on creating a listicle or how-to, two hot forms of content, this way.) This helps you ensure you’re not leaving anything out while also serving to organize your content.

5. An outline of your call to action. To cap your outline off, include a sketch of your call to action. Remember that each call to action you write should be unique to your content and relevant to the specific piece you’re publishing.

4. Avoid being a bore in your writing

In the words of Ogilvy himself, “the worst fault a salesman can commit is to be a bore.”

david ogilvy worst fault a salesman

With this in mind, take pains to ensure that your content is interesting and engaging rather than uninspired and boring.

While this makes your content more fun for your readers to interact with, it can also serve to strengthen your brand voice and help you define your tone, approach, and audience.

Keep in mind that peoples’ attention spans are limited, as is their time, so they don’t have the resources or energy to wade through dense, dry content. As such, it’s your job as a copywriter to create unique, meaningful content they want to interact with.

5. Make your content as specific as possible


Specific content performs better, and Ogilvy learned throughout his career that being more specific provides more value for the reader and more relevance for the audience.

With this in mind, bring specificity into every facet of your content creation – from your headline to your body copy.

This will boost your authority and help you stand out as a leader in your industry. In the words of the master himself, “The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”

6. Write to one person and one person only


Possibly the most valuable lesson Ogilvy has to teach is to write your content as if you were writing to one person.

Here are his words on the matter: “When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.”

By breaking your target audience down into individuals rather than one massive group, you can create more personalized content that serves your readers more effectively.

7. Write to your readers’ level


I don’t think this could have been said any better.

Seriously: the best advice any content creator starting out could get is the tip where they should create to their audience’s level. Speak in their words.

Not speak down, or up, or some other descriptive nonsense—but in their language.

Improved Copywriting: Be Inspired, Have Fun, & Break Traditional Rules Starting Now

There you have it!

Seven amazing tips from the living, breathing legend that is David Ogilvy.


Being a copywriter means being a lifelong student.

Improve your online content and your skills as a writer all at once by taking inspiration from the greats.

In need of expert copywriters to improve your online content? Contact Express Writers today!