Ogilvy & The Iceberg

A particular David Ogilvy graphic has been floating around the interwebs of late. It lays out the ad icon’s “5 Work Habits as a Copywriter.”

This graphic does more than provide good guidance on how to write copy/content. It provides tremendous insight into how great advertising is made.

Ogilvy, while a pioneer of modern advertising, was never a big hero of mine. He insisted on long-form ads, even after audiences showed a clear preference for minimalist copy. And, generally, he placed far too much importance appealing to the rational part of the consumer’s brain.

(On the latter issue, Bill Bernbach was always my guy. He knew that human decisions tend to be emotional ones — even in the most logical of contexts. Even the cool, level-headed executive is driven by his/her own aspirations, predilections and fears.)

That said, Ogilvy was dead-on when it came to the process of creating something great.

That process — the creative process — requires discipline, thought, experience, intellectual curiosity and tireless work.

Yet most people wouldn’t associate these terms with advertising and marketing professionals. Engineers, architects and researchers, sure; but those ad monkeys?

And, hey, to a large degree, we’ve earned that criticism. Our profession tends to draw more than a few undisciplined “artists”: people who think that whatever cool whims come to them can be almost effortlessly transformed into great work with a few actions on a Mac.

They can’t.

(I once suggested a book to an art-director colleague, who responded, without a hint of humor or irony, “No thanks. I don’t read. I’m an artist.”)

For starters, creating something should rarely start with creating something. It should start with understanding background and context.

A well-written creative brief, for example, should explain the job at hand, its business goal, the overarching strategy it supports (if defined), why the client decided to run this campaign, and what said client’s expectations are. It should also detail who the target audience is, what their needs are, which brands they prefer in the marketplace, and what they think of your brand (good and/or bad).

From there, you start asking questions. What is the most positive thing this product/service/brand can say about itself? How does that compare to what its competitors are saying? How much does this matter to our audience? What else can we say? And what else after that? Is there an offer? Does that offer make sense for this audience? And anything else that occurs to you. In this context, it is absolutely true that there are no bad questions.

Next, you do your research. Ogilvy said that he looked “at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.” That may seem like overkill … but, if you want to follow the Great Ones, this is where the bar has been set. And let’s not forget: in the modern era, you have much more to contend with than print ads. What are your competitors saying on their website(s)? On social media? Via apps? At live events? And on and on.

Once you and your creative team have digested all of that, and given due thought and consideration to your client’s problem, then — and only then — do you schedule your first “brainstorming session.” Because only then will you have people coming together who can tackle the problem in a thoughtful, strategic, well-considered way.

Or, as Ogilvy put it, you write the headline last.

(I’ve worked at more than a few agencies that start new projects with the brainstorming session. They bring creative staff into a room, give them a cursory overview of the project at hand, then ask them to start brainfarting their way to the “Big Idea.” It wastes time, degrades the process, and gives people with real talent the wrong idea about how our job should be done.)

The Big Idea, the headline, the key message your audience sees — this all comprises the tip of the iceberg. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” That other seven-eighths — that part that nobody sees — is the work.

And that’s what Ogilvy was getting at. The habits and guidelines he created for himself and his team reflect the strategic process that’s required to get the work done, and done well. They also reflect an understanding that said process, which drives successful advertising and marketing, is, indeed, worthy of those aforementioned words:

Discipline. Thought. Experience. Intellectual curiosity. Tireless work.

I’ll light my pipe to that.

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