Copywriting Best and Worst Practices – A Response to David Ogilvy

In 1955, David Ogilvy (1911-1999) otherwise known as the “Father of Advertising” wrote a letter to a Mr. Ray Calt regarding his work habits as a copywriter. Although Mr. Ogilvy is no longer with us, his legacy continues to live on today in the advertising industry. His letter sheds invaluable insight into copywriting practices in the advertising industry. What is interesting to note, however, are the similarities and differences with copywriting practices in the online marketing industry.

David Ogilvy’s letter and my personal response are published below.

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.

I’m the exact opposite of Mr. Ogilvy. I have never written anything outside of the office. Actually… I take that back. I have never written anything efficiently outside of the office. For me, there are too many interruptions at home. My bed, for starters… I love to nap. Work from home sounds great on paper, but probably wouldn’t do wonders for my productivity if and when put to practice. I guess it really depends on the individual.  

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.

Likewise, Mr. Ogilvy. Although, I wouldn’t say I take my research as far back as 20 years! Admirable effort on your behalf, Sir. I would say I spend 75% of my time researching the topic and contrasting the different points of view and 25% of my time actually writing the copy itself.

3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.

Agree. I’m a strong believer in thoroughly researching before writing. I believe that the more research I consume, the more I am able to give back to the reader in terms of expertise and contrasting outlooks. I always assume that I don’t know anything about the topic at hand. I also find that the more I research prior to writing, the quicker I’m able to flesh out the content… most likely because I’m more confident about what I’m writing.

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.

Yes, it’s always important to develop crystal clear goals at the start of each and every campaign. Without defining the problem and purpose for the campaign, I feel scattered and am likely to waste precious time heading in the wrong direction. 

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.

Given the volume of copy our company produces, I believe it would be entirely too time consuming to write down every single conceivable fact and selling idea. Instead, I try to come up with a few USPs – Unique Selling Propositions – and fine tune the one I believe works best for the client.

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.

Boy, how things have changed. It seems like The Internet Marketing industry today is a lot faster paced than the advertising industry back in the day. Writing 20 alternative headlines for every piece of copy is again quite a time consuming task given the output required. However, I do agree that it’s extremely important to always ask the opinions of my clients and coworkers before publishing material.

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.)

Luckily for my lungs, and significant other, I don’t smoke. I try not to do any stressful work from home and Mr. Ogilvy has just given me another valid reason not to… Not only does it adversely affect my productivity, but it also has the potential to adversely affect my relationship with my significant other. I always try to separate work from home. Some light reading and small tasks are fine, but I try to stay away from completing major projects at home.

8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.

I used to be like this… Until I realized that I was letting my nerves and perfectionist qualities get the best of me. It was holding me back from delivering work on time to the client. The trick is to have a little bit more confidence in your work. First, get the work done… Then you can fine tune it until your heart’s content. Again, ask for feedback from your coworkers and clients. If the client does not like it, at least you had something to show them by the deadline.

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

… Whatever floats your boat? At our office, shots of Cuban coffee do the job! You can tell we’re located in Miami…

10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.

As writers, I’m convinced that it’s in our genes. Perfectionism, that is. Editing and fine tuning seem like a never ending process. Again, I try not to spend too much time editing during the writing process as it interrupts my creative juices from flowing and can also cause me to miss a deadline.

11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)

Well Sir, not all of us are lucky enough to have a secretary who can type our drafts for us! Good thing I can type, and type fast at that…79 wpm. Oh yeah!

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.

Again, I used to be like this…. Until I realized that not every client is going to like your style. Copywriting is very subjective. So try not to get angry at the client if they do turn your copy upside down. Always take on constructive criticism and learn from it. Stay positive!

Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.

This may have been the case for the advertising industry back in the day, but certainly not for online marketing today. At times difficult? Yes. Slow? No, definitely not! The Internet Marketing industry is extremely fast paced, especially with Google’s ever-changing algorithm updates.  Copywriters must strive to keep up to date and on top of such changes as they have the potential to be detrimental to our clients and their online businesses.

Yours sincerely,
With best regards,



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August 1, 2012

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 30, 2012 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    The father of advertising, Ilike it!
    Dave L.

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