If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative." Why You Should Revisit David Ogilvy's 1985 Masterclass

John Sampogna

Sometimes, you just have to revisit the classics to remember how simple it can be.

And while the world has changed a lot since the publishing of David Ogilvy’s book ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ in 1985, much of the masterclass still holds true today.

I’ve kept a copy close to my desk for years and often flip through it, whether it’s in reference to something we are doing campaign or content-related at Wondersauce or just because it’s a great book and I enjoy his writing style.

Ogilvy outlines a straightforward process for consistently creating effective work in the chapter, 'How to Produce Advertising That Sells'.

His emphasis on simplicity has always empowered me when I felt stuck or lost. A few snippets that are worth applying to anything you produce are as follows:

Do Your Homework

“First, study the product you are going to advertise. The more you know about it, the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it.”

Ogilvy encourages marketers to have hands-on experience with products, often testing and demoing everything from luxury cars to gasoline firsthand. Another key aspect is understanding the product’s campaign history and competitive landscape. It’s crucial to look into their past and present advertising efforts to get a better idea of what’s working and what’s not.

My favorite quote from this section is also great ammo to leverage when asking for additional time to conduct research.

“If you are too lazy to do this kind of homework, you may occasionally luck into a successful campaign, but you will run the risk of skidding about on what my brother Francis called “the slippery surface of irrelevant brilliance.”


Ogilvy defines positioning as “what the product does and who it is for.”

While this passage is shorter, it’s arguably the most important. Ogilvy had a skill for taking common products like a car or bar of soap, and finding a completely unique way of positioning it. This approach generated advertising campaigns that felt fresh and demanded attention. I don’t think anyone would argue that this still holds true today. Understanding your audience is everything, and you don’t have to look further than what Liquid Death Death has done in successfully creating demand for one of the largest commodities in the world.

Brand Image + Make the product the hero

Another critical aspect of ad building is selecting the right visual component to pair with the message and idea.

Ogilvy prioritizes quality, especially for brands that are “visible to your friends, like beer, cigarettes and automobiles: products you ‘wear.’ If your advertising looks cheap or shoddy, it will rub off on your product. Who wants to be seen using shoddy products.”

In a world where ad testing is considered best practice and tactics like Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO) allow us to swap out assets that are performing better dynamically, you need strong imagery and a lot of it. And whenever possible, make the product itself the hero of the ad. At the end of the day, the goal is to sell more of them.

What’s the big idea?

This is my favorite part of the chapter as it contradicts the widely adopted concept that every campaign, ad, or piece of marketing has a big idea.

It’s obviously something we want to strive for, especially with earned media being one of the most important elements of modern marketing.

But Ogilvy himself claims that maybe one campaign out of every hundred contains a big idea. One of the most helpful takeaways from this section is a checklist of questions to help identify when something you develop or review with your team has “big idea” potential.

If something you are working on checks “yes” to the following five questions, you may be on to something special.

1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
3. Is it unique?
4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
5. Could it be used in 30 years?

Word of mouth

Way back in the 60s, earned media was called word of mouth. Ok, I’m being facetious here, but in a world where your Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) and Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) are constantly under a microscope, creating work that gets people talking for free is always the goal.

Ogilvy talks about a Maxwell House coffee jingle that entered pop culture and ended at number 7 on the hit parade music list.

Creating work that drives earned media is very hard, and the good news is that Ogilvy agrees! In fact, he states, “This kind of thing is manna from heaven, but nobody knows how to do it on purple. At least, I don’t.”

Last but not least.

The lessons of direct response

We have the luxury of measurement and immediate feedback today. We understand what works and what needs to be optimized or removed altogether. We are also now trained in the ways of Meta and Google, where a good ad can lead to an immediate sale.

Compared to 2024, direct-response advertising wasn’t sexy back then, but Ogilvy argues it was the most effective and went as far as saying, “I am convinced that if all advertisers were to follow the example of their direct response brethren, they would get more sales per dollar.” and that “Every copywriter should start their career by spending two years in direct response.”

So what’s the lesson here?

If most of your work consists of direct-response advertising, you are actually developing an invaluable skill that should gracefully scale with you when you’re given the opportunity to create something for a higher impact moment.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this book is a great reminder that while change is inevitable, the tried and true tactics and processes established by the talented people before you still hold merit.

Which books or articles do you find yourself returning to, year after year?

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