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Is it time to question the wisdom of David Ogilvy?

March 18, 2014 | By | 7 Replies More

“Sell, or else,” pronounced legendary ad man, David Ogilvy many a decade ago.

And, ever since, this unflinching commandment has been passed down from copywriter to copywriter.

It’s the great leveller; the simple reminder that whatever the media, your aim remains the same: you sell, my boy, you sell if it’s the last thing you do.

david ogilvy RIP

“Is it time to question the wisdom of David Ogilvy?”

But is it the right aim?

Or rather, is it the right message?

Is the perceived wisdom of ‘a sale above all else’ the idea we still want to convey to our budding copy cubs? Is it a legacy we want to help sustain?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. It’s an issue that’s been skirting around me for a while: a tangential discussion here, an email thread there; small, unrelated references have been circling as they do, until they find themselves here – hit out on the page by my still-wondering fingers.

I guess I’ll go through the thoughts and you can consider them with me. Perhaps even share yours on the subject too. I hope you do.

But before I begin, I should own up:

For many, many years I’ve been a great believer in the wisdom of Ogilvy. I’ve preached his gospel with great gusto. I still do: one of the first books my trainee writers are told to read is Ogilvy on Advertising. So, of course I’m not suggesting he’s run his course completely – that would be madness.

Still, to paraphrase the great American novelist Saul Bellow: there’s no point in reading something unless it bites you.

And in that spirit, I’ll come out and damn well say it:

David Ogilvy is wrong.

I want to challenge the great Ogilvy and his many estates (why are there so many disparate Ogilvy agencies these days?) and suggest instead…

That today, as a copywriter, you must actually “share, or else.”

Ugh. Really? Is that the best alternative? A statement so laced in social media sentiment it’s enough to make you puke. Surely not!

Well. Honestly I’m not so sure myself and I’m open to suggestions. It’s probably been said already anyway. But regardless, I do think it begins to illustrate the train of thought I’ve been on recently.

Indeed, it all starts with a mild breakdown…

What happens when a sports car just won’t cut it?

Mid-life crises come in many different shapes and sizes. But for a friend who runs a weekly financial magazine, it came in the form of a question:

Am I selling my product in the right way?

The answer he arrived at was ‘no’.

Effective though his methods may have been thus far, he decided it just wasn’t the right way. Confronted with the notion to “sell, or else,” he chose “or else”.

My friend set about reorganising things: searching for a new way to sell, an approach that would allow him to pass on a different message.

Naturally, the answers don’t come easily: he’s still looking.

But this isn’t the only crisis in confidence that I’ve witnessed in recent weeks: just days ago I was reading a message distributed among information publishers in the US.

The leader wondered if the sales material being produced wasn’t a little too strongly geared towards Ogilvy’s dictum: sell, or else, and by extension, screw the consequences.

Again we have here a very effective network of sales experts. I’m talking about a collective that has sold millions as a direct result of copywriting – and in many cases, copywriting borne of the Ogilvy dictum.

But they want to change it up. They’re not quite sure how to do so at the moment and I think they’re going about it in the wrong way presently (a quick tip for writing good copy: keep it from the lawyers until you can’t any longer). Still, the desire to change is certainly there.

So, what’s going on?

Is it just old men worrying about their legacy?

Or is there something deeper?

I’m swaying toward the later. And to explain why, let’s turn away from the sellers and look at the buyers. You see, fact is: the market has changed.

Not only do they know your game, they damn well invented it

Just so we’re both clear, I’ll state an obvious fact:

Adverting was NOT invented at the same time as the Internet. This shit has been going on for years.

I was reminded of this recently when I took a group of my copywriters to the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill, London.

Aside from the annoying presence of the permanently grimaced chef, Heston Blumenthal, who was recording some undoubtedly witless BBC documentary whilst we were visiting, the trip was very interesting.

There were no new revelations, but it was a useful reminder that long before the likes of Saatchi and Saatchi, David Ogilvy and even Claude Hopkins et al. there were copywriters stalking the earth, quill-in-hand no doubt, searching for a way to sex-up an advert for home insulation.

Anyway, I’ve gone off point.

I meant to say that with each passing year, the market becomes increasingly aware of the cunning copy techniques we’ve so cleverly cultivated. In fact, many of your audience likely had a hand in inventing them.

This very thought was proven in East London just the other day: a restaurant owner was introduced to me as an ex-ad man who worked on Madison Avenue ‘back in the day’. I smiled, shook his hand and ashamedly admitted to being a copywriter myself, knowing full well he probably knew far more than me about the art of persuasion.

Alas.

The fact is, markets DO change. Their awareness evolves. You only have to read your Eugene Schwartz to realise – yet again – it’s not a new problem.

Indeed, I’m lucky to work with an international company that can afford to pay for reporting of such detail it would make your eyes bleed. The upside is I get to see how the market is developing right now, through the slow sea change of open rates, click-through percentages and ‘cart’ abandons.

The results are far from black and white, but without doubt the dipstick must now be dipped deeper to find oil. (I can’t decide if this metaphor is genius or nonsense. Anyway…)

Consider it inside information: bold-faced selling is getting much harder.

So, what’s to be done?

Should you still “sell, or else?”

Or, as I suggest, should you in fact “share, or else?”

Indeed, this is how I got to my pithy adaptation…

The day Gary Vaynerchuk took over the world

Gary Vaynerchuk isn’t a god. (At least, not yet.) But he is very clever.

He’s clever because he makes predictions – and he believes in them come what may.

He reminds me of an old newsletter writer, a chap called Gary North (another Gary, weirdly), who one of my mentors, Mark Ford, used to tell a story about.

It was rumoured North was so convinced by claims of an imminent Y2K meltdown that he buried a tractor in preparation for the coming apocalypse. What he planned to do with the soiled JCB, I don’t know. But I do know that despite his almighty misjudgment, his followers forgave him.

Not just that – they continued to buy from him.

Why?

Because he evidenced the reasons for his opinion so well and he stuck so firmly by what he predicted. For Gary North, it wasn’t just a case of “sell, or else” – he was sharing his opinion whether you wanted to take it or not. I’m sure at the time selling wasn’t his first priority. He just wanted to share his plan for dealing with the end of the world.

Vaynerchuk is the same. Though his predictions are less catastrophic. For years now he’s been predicting the rise of social media and its importance for businesses. He’s made his case over and over – online, in books, from the stage, on TV – to the point where he’s almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I feel like he’s the personification of the dictum, “share, or else”. If he hasn’t coined it – he should.

I’ve followed him for a while and aside from admiring his direct, my-way-or-the-high-way approach to marketing, what I think he’s done most successfully is link his core marketing beliefs to the buzz phrase ‘social media’.

Whether he’s done so consciously or not is irrelevant. It’s worked a dream either way.

You see, when you scratch below the fact that social media is just another media (the clue is in the fucking name), you see what social media really represents is the market. And despite what various polls and info-graphics will have you believe, it’s the same damn market there’s always been: people who want to buy things from you.

Remember them?

Yup – it’s those pesky customers again!

Indeed, one of a number of modern day ad men considered to be the new David Ogilvy – a rum bloke called Dave Trott – has wisely clocked on to this fact too.

Trott’s another very clever chap like Vaynerchuk. (They both swear brilliantly too, hence me leaving a few expletives unedited in this piece.)

I saw Trott live (I’m all up for making rock stars out of ad men again) at a gig (a conference, in truth) at the back-end of 2013. He pointed out that the media is irrelevant: the customer is a customer, whether you Facebook her, email her or cold call the poor woman all through the night.

He drew a little picture. It made perfect sense.

So, once we understand the market on social media is roughly the same market that was on your email list and that market was the same as the market on your direct mail lists (give or take a few thousand late adopters, who can be captured using modern tools anyway), we understand that our market is now ‘plugged-in’ whether we like it or not and that they’re ultra-aware of the world around them.

That’s the true lesson of social media – not that you can get lots of people to buy Oreos if you tweet quickly during a Superbowl commercial – it’s that the internet has truly leaked out of the computer. The prominence of social media itself will die away and merge with other media, but one fact will remain: the world now interacts in a way we’ve never known before.

In fact, we still don’t know how far it’ll go. In The Circle, Dave Eggers describes a frighteningly possible, Google-style utopia – let’s hope Eggers’ imagination is just that.

Either way, one thing we do know is that in this ultra-aware marketplace, “sell, or else” just isn’t going to cut it.

And here we are, back on point – don’t worry, I know you thought you’d lost me there. I just wanted to mix the article up a bit, bring in some new faces and what not.

We still come back to the same idea: that David Ogilvy is wrong and that as copywriters working in the industry today, we should not be aiming to “sell, or else”.

Indeed, let’s conclude my thoughts on this issue for the time being, because I do want to open this up for discussion.

I want to hear what you think: do we still “sell, or else?” Or are we modern writers a more considerate bunch of lads and lasses?

Personally, I think the change in approach is inevitable. In truth, it’s already happening. I believe we write to share. I believe that if our copy aims to educate as well as entice, in the long run we will sell more anyway.

Right now, I’m advising my own copywriters to think about what they’re teaching their readers as well as what they’re trying to sell. I want readers to finish reading our copy feeling wiser. I want readers to take something away regardless of whether they make a purchase.

Don’t get me wrong; I still want them to make the purchase. But I’m not so scared of Ogilvy’s threat anymore. I know that if I don’t sell today, by sharing something useful, I’ll more likely sell tomorrow, or the next day.

Considered this way, Ogilvy’s threat sounds a little desperate. Out of context, he sounds like a bully.

And anyway…

Surely if I share my knowledge with you, you’ll be more comfortable sharing your money with me, right? Sharing’s not so bad after all.

So, as a copywriter working today, let me offer you a new challenge:

Go out into the industry today and with a brave face…

Share, or else you’ll be forced to sell.

Ah. That’s a better phrase. I’ll claim that one!

Best,
Glenn

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About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of AllGoodCopy.com and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

Comments (7)

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  1. You asked for comments, Glenn. So here goes …

    If you’re writing a sales letter, or email then ‘Sell, or else’ holds. Selling is – of course – the point of a sales letter.

    But I certainly don’t advise ‘Sell, or else’ every time you send an email to your list.

    When you send an interesting and useful email to your list – the stuff people like to read – ‘interesting and useful, or else,’ applies 🙂

    And I’d say the same holds true for the other social media:

    If you’re selling: sell, or else.
    Being interesting: be interesting, or else.

    You get the idea … I’ll get my coat.

    G.

  2. That was like Samson shaking the pillars of the institutions – or like snakes and ladders – up a bit, down a bit, back where we started.

    I saw Clive James interviewing a Russian journalist around the time of perestroika. The Russian journalist said that once the bosses in the Soviet Union gave over control to the public of what was shown on TV, a huge market for programmes about the paranormal appeared.

    The Russian journalist said that what was interesting wasn’t that people like programmes about the paranormal, but rather that for the first time, everyone knew what everyone liked.

    And isn’t that the internet? We share for all the same reasons we have always shared – to be ‘in’, to be seen as clever, because we want to excite people about what we are excited about, etc. But the feedback loop is now huge – and fast.

    I don’t have a string of successes under my belt so that I can tell you… This works; this doesn’t.’

    But it occurs to me though that ‘sell versus share’ might just be about matching the language to the zeitgeist. Some of the copy that worked years might seem cringeworthy now simply because it’s out of touch with current conversation. And to know what the tone of the current conversation is, you have to join in.

    One could say that ‘share’ means ‘speak naturally about the thing you are talking about and do it so cleverly that your reader doesn’t know he is being sold to.’

    The real question for me about Gary Vaynerchuk is how he got his audience. It’s one thing to make predictions: It’s another thing to have an audience who are listening to those predictions.

    • Glenn Fisher says:

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, David. I think we’re rustling around on similar ground. I guess things can get a little semantic, though I think it’s always positive to be thinking about these things as we are.

      As for how Vaynerchuk got his followers – the usual method from what I can see.. he provided good content (see his wine review stuff) that people found useful and leveraged that to attract more people through the usual online and offline channels. He just did it with a lot of drive, I think.

  3. Bobbi says:

    You make a lot of sense. I don’t make a living as a writer. Heck, I don’t make much of a living working 2 jobs-but they allow me a life. But I had an epiphany.
    Selling is based on trust. My very small business has stayed alive in a catastrophic business climate based on the trust of clients and others in the industry. They call me because they know that I will give them info they need and they can trust it. And I share much of it freely. This costs me some jobs if they are just price-shopping but gains me more of the right ones. I could care less about this particular work but I care about the trust and solving the clients problems. And they know that. I’d rather write. Another epiphany. It’s a numbers game. (OK, I’m a slow learner) Enough people who trust me enough to try the widgets I might have for sale will lead to income eventually, enough, as I define it. Since I don’t yet have any widgets to sell, and I’m really not sure I what I want to sell, I decided I could build the trust now buy finding an audience and sharing. So I share good stuff. I promote good stuff. I am establishing myself as someone who brings value to the table. Because it’s the right thing. And without anything to sell. And I am looking for the widget(s), one’s that I trust and am willing to be associated with. As well as learning as much as I can from those who have gone before. So that when I find a product that excites me enough to want to take the plunge, I have built the foundation. I have an audience. I have the numbers. The thing is, it’s fun. And even if I never turn writing into revenue, I’ve made connections that enrich my life. And after all, isn’t that the point?

  4. CK says:

    Found your site today (nice!) and this particular post addresses an issue I’ve had for years and is particularly relevant to a project I’m currently smack in the middle of- writing copy and crafting an introductory strategy for my own site and service.

    It would seem that you’re focusing on “the -now- savvy Consumer.” Meaning, people are so saturated with advertising and so thoroughly embalmed in sales messaging that, in any person’s growing understanding of the world, they can’t help but see and feel the ulterior motives at work.

    And who really enjoys being subjected to ulterior motives?

    I’d suggest that every human being in the past several decades (or century, if you prefer) has bought something under the gun of a hard sell and regretted it later. We have been fed exaggerated explications (lies?)and pressured with half baked information and emotional skewering through unsavory car-salesman-esque tactics by hucksters and greed seekers. (look what’s happened to traditional car sales approaches)

    And then we believed we’d receive intangibles that have little to do with the product or service. Promises (premises) were not kept.

    The slimy residue felt afterwards gives reason to pause and asses the situation. We decide not to fall prey again.

    Then and Now
    In the past, exposure to ads of any kind were far fewer. Choices were far more limited: Location was the major factor. As you’ve pointed out, the internet changed all that.

    Now, choice has become almost infinite and can be extremely overwhelming. You can find tens, hundreds, thousands of options for many products and services, so the ole “I’ve got just the thing you want to satisfy your base (lower instinct) needs” line just doesn’t float well anymore.

    So it seems to me that my general strategy for choosing has become MOSTLY based on trust. Can I trust that you actually offer the thing I’m looking for. Can you help me to figure out what exactly I need: no more, no less? How can I save time by shortening the amount of work it takes to discover the so called “features and benefits” and how does that compare?

    Do you really care?

    I’ve also encountered that the reality of those younger than I, say in their 20’s to early 30’s is dominated by vouching. “What this offers sounds good, but do I know anyone who has it, uses it?” Not any ole testimonial, but one of my friends. There’s that trust again.

    Around here kids take required classes in High School social studies that include introducing key concepts of advertising and how to avoid falling for it.

    The lessons of old were very much about appealing to base instincts, and the lesser drives of unconscious people.

    It seems obvious to me that as people become more informed and more aware of their own motives, thoughts, feelings, that there comes a need to rise to higher virtue across the board.

    Thus, sharing of one’s direct experience as a human being is the rising currency of connection. Connection builds trust over time.

    By ‘virtue’ I’m not talking about moralizing, simply that more people around the world are discovering that the are far more people everywhere who share very fundamental experiences and higher desires in and around Life and Self. Love, Family, Friendship, Personal Growth, Community, “my place in the world and its impact.

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