A retrospective on David Ogilvy’s life and work

David Ogilvy believed in the power of copy – specifically, long-form copy – because he thought that those who were willing to read it were those who were deeply interested in the product – writes Jessica Swanda

If you’re in advertising, you’ve no doubt heard the name David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising.” Some people believe he was the inspiration for the character Don Draper from the television hit Madmen.

Regardless, his ads in the 1950s and 1960s made quite a splash, because they were remarkably different from the day’s normal ads. Even today’s advertisers can look back and admire the creativity of his work and the genius of his advertising philosophies.

A life before advertising

To see a brief background of Ogilvy’s life, we must transport back to England in the early 1900s. His family couldn’t afford college tuition, so he attended Christ Church in Oxford on a scholarship. But he dropped out before graduating. For a short time, he was a cook for the Hotel Majestic in Paris but was unsatisfied with the job and returned to England.

Becoming a salesman

Back in his homeland, he became a salesman for Aga stoves. He was such a successful salesman that he ended up writing a guide for other Aga salesmen in 1935. It was so well-done that Fortune later called it “probably the best sales manual ever written”. However, it didn’t propel him into fame or even convince him to go into advertising just yet.

Love for research

Three years later, Ogilvy moved to America and worked for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute. A huge admirer of Gallup and his work, Ogilvy developed a deep dedication to research that he carried with him into all of his future advertising.

He also applied this love for researching people’s behaviour in World War II, where he served with the Intelligence Service at the British Embassy in Washington.

An ad agency is born

At the age of 38, he founded an ad agency in New York. Yes, it was as sudden as it sounds. Ogilvy began this agency before he had ever even written an ad. The company was backed by a London agency that he eventually merged with to form the international company, Ogilvy & Mather – still a dominating force today.

His greatest ads

Who would have thought that a middle-aged man starting a new advertising career with no ad background or college degree would become known as the ‘father of advertising’? Goes to show that in America, you can become whoever you want – if you’re willing to work for it.

To get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it was like to start an ad agency without having ever written an advertisement, you’ll have to read his well-known book Confessions of an Advertising Man.

His brand new agency did indeed succeed. Ogilvy went on to capture huge accounts, such as Shell Oil and American Express. His most successful and most remembered works were for Rolls Royce, Sears, Hathaway Shirts, Schweppes, Puerto Rico, and Dove.

Rolls Royce

This ad’s headline was used on multiple ads and is one of his most-remembered lines of copy. The following quote about attention to detail in these cars is supported by 13 super specific details about Rolls Royce cars. Don’t miss numbers 10 and 11.

Hathaway Shirts

One of his most iconic creations – ‘The Man in the Hathaway Shirt’ – built mystique around a military-cut gentleman wearing a never-explained eye patch and sporting a crisp Hathaway shirt.

Hathaway was a small company at the time and couldn’t afford a large advertising budget.

On his way to the photo shoot for Hathaway’s print ads, Ogilvy spontaneously grabbed an eye patch. They decided to include the patch in the original print ad for the New Yorker. The day the ad ran, Hathaway’s New York store sold out of shirts.

As a side note, is it just me or does the vintage Hathaway Man series seem vaguely similar to Dos Equis’s modern ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ campaign? A glaring difference, though, is Dos Equis’s focus on the man himself, while Hathaway’s ads never tell their man’s story (or why he wears an eye patch).


David Ogilvy actually created Sear’s very first national advertising campaign.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s tourism board hired Ogilvy’s agency to revitalize the island’s image in the 1950s. He created print ads with beautiful images photographed by Elliott Erwitt.

In 2009, Ogilvy & Mather did a refresh on this campaign, using the same photographer. You can read about that campaign in the New York Times.

David Ogilvy also produced ads like the one below to bring more industries and factories to the island. Of this particular ad, Ogilvy said: “This is the most effective advertisement I have ever written. It brought scores of new industries to Puerto Rico.”


Also featured in The New Yorker were ads, such as this one, for Schweppes. This particular ad states that “Commander Whitehead has come to these United States to make sure that every drop of Schweppes Quinine Water bottled here has the original flavour. [The] secret of Schweppes unique carbonation is locked in his brief case.”

Ogilvy seemed to enjoy using slightly quirky figures to represent a brand.

Fun fact , the model for Commander Whitehead was actually a Schweppes executive.


Back then, Dove was not yet a powerhouse in the soap industry. Ogilvy’s advertising for Dove completely repositioned the brand. He focused on the fact that Dove soap was one quarter cream, even making this fact his headline occasionally. Dove soap became known as a soap that would moisturise your skin, rather than strip oils from it like all the other soaps.

His advertising philosophies

Ogilvy believed in the power of copy – specifically, long-form copy. He believed that those who were willing to read any copy at all were those who were deeply interested in the product. So they would actually appreciate learning more specifics about it.

He was also a big believer in the power of headlines. He’s often most remembered for his headlines, such as the one he wrote for Rolls Royce. He even went so far as to say in his Confessions of an Advertising Man book: “The headline is the most important element in most advertisements.”

Ogilvy liked to use his clients’ products. He was of the mind that you need to believe in a product to be able to successfully advertise it. He declared in Confessions: “I buy shares in [my clients’] company, so that I can think like a member of their family. I also resign accounts when I lose confidence in the product.”

Indeed he did. He eventually resigned Rolls Royce, when he lost confidence in their cars.

To uncover many more of Ogilvy’s views on advertising and perhaps learn some valuable guidelines for offline marketing, read Ogilvy on Advertising. And to read his philosophies on running a successful ad agency, read his book Confessions of an Advertising Man.

Jessica Swanda is a freelance copywriter based in the United States and a version of this article was originally published here


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