this is not a review: confessions of an advertising man, by david ogilvy

In my ongoing search for the meaning of life, the universe and the great white light, I recently stumbled across Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy. Published in 1963 (by Dell), the cover on my copy shows the man himself sitting in a large wingback chair decked out in a three-piece tweed, cradling a lit pipe. You can see the smoke curling away from his lips. He looks every bit the successful, ultra confident, middle aged man who is either on his way to or returning from a double martini lunch where, among others of his ilk, clients or colleagues, he no doubt elegantly chortled his way through a sirloin steak, baked potato and oh-so-many-bon-mots lunch. For what is an advertising man if not a chap full of gin and bon mots?

And it was a chap’s world in them days. Girls (there were no women at the time) were for fetchin’ coffee and lookin’ cute, whether it be while fetchin’ coffee or in ads or—as evidenced by the Laura Petries, Samantha Stevens and possibly Betty Drapers of the world—while preparing perfect hors d’oeuvre to soak up yet more booze consumed by (male) clients and/or colleagues in perfect living rooms with Pledge polished veneers, before serving perfect meals of yet more red meat.

The book outlines Ogilvy & Mather’s beginnings, with, essentially, Ogilvy coming over from the U.K., starting an agency and taking Madison Avenue by storm in his own quietly dignified way. In a style that comes off relaxed and conversational, like he’s smoking that pipe while dictating to some gal in a cashmere twin-set, he offers advice on how to get and keep clients, use illustration, write copy, build campaigns, when to get rid of clients you’ve lost faith in (“I also resign accounts when I lose confidence in the product. It is flagrantly dishonest for an advertising agent to urge consumers to buy a product which he would not allow his own wife to buy.”)—sexism aside, can you imagine how far we’ve regressed if this ethic actually ever existed??

He goes on with anecdotes and suggestions for everything from how to succeed in the business (step by step instructions) to having a restful vacation:

“…Take your wife, but leave the children with a neighbour. Small fry are a pain in the neck on a vacation…. Take a sleeping pill every night for the first three nights.”

I’m fascinated by advertising and happen to believe it can change the world. Already has, but not in the right way. Imagine the difference if, in the past few decades, the amount of money spent on convincing people they should eat at McDonald’s had been spent instead on convincing them that real, honest to god food is sexy and delicious and can make you sexy and delicious.

But then we’d have risked creating a world of happier, healthier people who didn’t need ten thousand products, books and videos to help them become happy and healthy.

And then what?

The world would end as we know it.

Which is the whole point.

But I digress.

A nice element of the book are photos and samples of some of O&M’s more famous ads, such as for Rolls-Royce—the headline of which reads:

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Followed by 719 words of copy.

Different times.

I guess what remains the same is our hookability, that whatever is presented to us in a certain way, we literally ‘buy’.

An interesting footnote tells us that Dorothy Sayers, Charles Lamb, Byron, Bernard Shaw, Hemingway, Marquand, Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner also wrote ‘advertisements’ at one point—“none of them with any degree of success”. 

While this is ultimately a good outcome, I think it would have been fascinating to see how differently the world might have been shaped if only Byron had opened an ad agency.

Note: this post first appeared in August, 2010.


Confessions of an Advertising Man online at Blue Heron Books.

4 thoughts on “this is not a review: confessions of an advertising man, by david ogilvy

  1. Hey, this could be an interesting exercise (for a workshop?)… writing ad copy in various writers’ voices. Not easy (I just tried to do Faulkner)…though your Hemingway is perfect!

  2. Some writers are easier to parody than others, Hemingway probably being the easiest. I actually stole a bit of mine from a thing I read where different personalities write the punch line to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The Hemingway punch line was: “To die. In the rain.”

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