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David Ogilvy’s 7 Tips for Writing Copy That Sells

David Ogilvy is an advertising legend.

Often described as the “Original Mad Man,” and “The Father of Advertising,” Ogilvy is known largely for his advertising work while serving as the founder of Ogilvy & Mather. In addition to building a multibillion dollar company, he also helped create hugely successful campaigns for clients such as Dove, Shell, and Rolls-Royce.

If you spend any amount of time reading or watching David, you’re sure to be inspired to write better copy, so I’d encourage you to read his book or watch some of the videos floating around the web. In the meantime though, I’d like to present you with what I believe to be the best of Ogilvy’s arsenal:

1. Go Big or Go Home

Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals. -David Ogilvy

The product you represent is depending on you, and if you allow yourself to take shortcuts or present a less than compelling argument, then you’ve failed. As an entrepreneur or business owner, you simply cannot afford bad copy. If you cannot achieve perfection on your own, then you should hire someone who can.

2. Do Your Homework

Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals. -David Ogilvy

Ogilvy spent years working for George Gallup, founder of the Gallup Poll, and it was during this time that he realized the true value that comes with knowing exactly what your target audience is thinking.

You cannot write copy unless you know:

  • Who you’re writing it for
  • How that person thinks
  • What that person needs

If you haven’t done your research, then you’re simply faking it, and it’s that type of copy that gets marketers in trouble, either with the government or with their boss.

To write great copy, you need to understand your audience to the letter, so that you know how you can best serve them. Nothing else will do.

3. Never Talk down to Your Customers

A consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence, and don’t shock her. -David Ogilvy

This is a great Ogilvy quote (for the video, click here), speaking on behalf of consumers everywhere. As great as your product may be, speaking down to your audience is going to turn them away, and as much as you’d love them to be infatuated with your charming pitch, understand that, at the end of the day, they simply want to solve a problem.

Treat your customer with respect and dignity. You’re on equal footing, or perhaps a bit lower, considering you’re the one who needs the sale. Reflect that position in your copy.

4. The Headline is 80%

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar. -David Ogilvy

Headlines are as close to a magic bullet as you’re going to get, and if you’re going to be perfect in only once place, do it here. Write a strong headline that works.

Here’s how:

5. Don’t Get Distracted from Making the Sale

If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative. -David Ogilvy

Couldn’t be more true. Marketers love to be cute and funny, original and innovative, but it’s also dangerous.

People don’t set aside time to read ads; they are probably in a hurry, just taking a quick glance before they move on to something else. If your point isn’t immediately obvious, chances are they won’t get it, and you’ll lose them forever.

If you want people to buy, you need them to see your product in their hands and be able to envision how it’ll improve their lives. Everything else is secondary. If you can awe them with your words in the process, fine, but don’t do it at the expense of the sale.

6. Explain Why They Should Buy

The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be. -David Ogilvy

You’ve hooked them with the headline, and you’re telling them all about the product, but before they decide to buy from you, they want to know one thing:


Why is the product important? Why is it a good deal? Why should they be interested? Why should they buy it from you? Why should they buy it now, rather than later? Why should they trust you?

Consciously or subconsciously, all of those questions are going through a customer’s head. If you want them to act, you need to answer them, and that means making your copy informative.

7. Your Copy Is Important. Treat It That Way.

Like a midwife, I make my living bringing new babies into the world, except that mine are new advertising campaigns. -David Ogilvy

All too often, business owners treat their sales copy like an afterthought. They scribble down a few notes, have someone check it to make sure it’s grammatically correct, and send it out. Then they wonder why it doesn’t get results.

David Ogilvy, on the other hand, looked at each of his campaigns like his babies. He nurtured them, fought for them, helped them develop. And he produced some of the best-selling campaigns in the history of advertising.

The truth is, writing great copy takes time and energy. Some of the best copywriters will spend weeks just crafting the headline, and they might take months to write the body copy.

It’s not because they’re slow. It’s because they know the importance of getting it right.

Are you committed to that type of excellence?

If not, you should be.

About the Author: Nathan Hangen is the co-founder of Virtuous Giant, creator of IgnitionDeck, a crowdfunding plugin for WordPress. You can follow him on Twitter via @nhangen.

  1. A nice, simple breakdown of the basics that I know but can’t always explain to people who don’t get it — I’ll just send ’em here! Thanks.

  2. Thanks, I learned a lot just writing this. Ogilvy certainly earned my respect. We need more like him.

  3. Great article Nathan. Ogilvy is a hero for those who hear about “good enough” and want to puke.

    “Some of the best copywriters will spend weeks just crafting the headline, and they might take months to write the body copy.”
    In a recent article on Copyblogger, Jon Morrow suggested that spending less than an hour on each post is one warning sign that your content might suck. He also said that most of the popular bloggers he knows spend anywhere from 2 to 10 hours on each blog post they write, and suggested that “If you’re not, you should be.”
    Jon’s comment caused strife for several people so I’m pretty sure some of them just fell over dead after reading Ogilvy’s words.

    Thanks for bringing Ogilvy into the conversation.

  4. Christine Livingston Sep 25, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Loved your article, Nathan.

    You’ve used the term “sales copy” throughout. I wonder how many bloggers actually see their posts that way but, unless you’re just blogging for the sheer hell of it, most bloggers are trying to use their writing to inspire a connection and hence the sale of some kind of product or other. Right?

    I’m certainly taking a lot away here in terms of mine!

  5. Michael Leahy Sep 27, 2010 at 7:57 am

    I read the book, and can really recommend it. Of course things have changed since he wrote it, but people haven’t!

  6. Great post. Another point Ogilvy drove home in “Ogilvy on Advertising” is to always make a promise in your copy. Believe it was in one of the later chapters when he said something to this effect, “Always make a promise in your copy. If you take one thing away from this book, I hope it’s that. Seems simple and yet you wouldn’t believe how many ads have no promise whatsoever.”

  7. Justin Norris Sep 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Very useful post, thanks Nathan.

    The great thing about principles like these is that they are as relevant today as when they were first articulated.

    Point #2 about research is especially important and it seems not always well-understood out there. Too often we write things for ourselves and not based on what the audience actually wants.

  8. Works not only for copy writing!

  9. Points #2, #3 are mandatory for any copywriter or even they can be called the Golden Rules.
    #4 is often the Grey Area, tough to reach the target customer.

    Anyways nice post, looking forward for other reader comments.

  10. Ogilvy and (Dan) Kennedy are two of my favorites. Thanks for the post. It’s always great to have a quick reminder of the basics!

  11. Good morning Nathan!
    This has certainly given me an “Aha!” moment. I’ve just realised I’ve been writing to ‘sell’ the wrong thing. Instead of promoting my business, I’ve been promoting everyone else’s. Doh!

    I fail miserably on # 5 (probably most of the others too…) so now I know that’s what I need to focus on next.
    Thank you!

  12. BELIEVE. If Mr Ogilvy was right here right now, I’d ask him to consider adding that single concept to this list. What is it that we create if we don’t believe it ourselves? As a songwriter, I take this single-word practice to heart. All the cleverness, all the facts, all the timing… they should be bound together with the lasting thread of belief. Do that, and you’ve sewn it up.

    • Shishir Chhetri Sep 14, 2015 at 5:17 am

      Hi Carl,

      Could you talk a little more about what you are saying. I would love to hear.

      Thank you

  13. Great tips!
    We’re applying all of these rules to Job Ads – Everyone seems to throw these fundamental rules out the window for some reason when it comes to writing ads on job boards….guess that’s why they get 100’s of crappy applicants applying for their roles.

  14. Stephen Monday Oct 02, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Mr. Olgilvy was a “one of a kind” type sales writer. He pitched his wares as though they were “one of a kind” as well – and they were. If you can present yours in the same manner, it will be “one of a kind” as well.
    When yours is “set apart” from the rest, there is no competition who can touch you. Can you make your benefits stand out to your readers like this? If you can, then you can sell – no question about it.
    The hardest thing about doing this? Is being willing to “put in the work” to “get it there.”

  15. Could someone please translate this into pictures so I can share it with our non-reading art directors? Thanks.

  16. Galang Wijaya Oct 10, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Can’t agree more! Even on the hardest and best part of it: to have the same understanding with colleagues and clients on “the importance of getting it right.” Thanks for this.

  17. Nobody is going to pay you for coming up with headlines in a week. More likely you’d be fired for working so slow.

  18. #5 Don’t Get Distracted from Making the Sale. Here lies the problem. People are focused on making the sale that they forget how to attract their customers. Great post btw. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Stephen Dohrmann Jul 26, 2016 at 11:38 am

    In an effective copy platform, the basic selling proposition must be integrated with audience engagement. Contemporary copy style greatly favors the theory of “consumer gratification response.”
    The primary copy tactic to effectively achieve audience engagement is entertainment. Humor in particular.
    No matter how compelling the product/service inheritantly unique benefit might represent, today’s consumers will “tune out” the message unless they they are firstly engaged.
    Thus, we have OLGILVY’s essential reliance on the power of the HEADLINE.


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