David Ogilvy’s Creative Process for Writing Sales Copy

A few days ago, Sean B. Alger sent me the following tweet.

I am a lousy copywriter

It was a bit cryptic. I thought he’d written a post in which he’d described himself as a lousy copywriter. Turns out, he had linked to an old David Ogilvy letter in which Ogilvy had described himself as a lousy copywriter.

As you know, Ogilvy was one of the greatest ad men of the 20th Century. He wrote two classic advertising books: Confessions of an Advertising Man and, one of my personal favorites, Ogilvy on Advertising.

Ogilvy wrote a number of phenomenal ads, not least of which was his ad selling the Rolls-Royce.

So it surprised me (and made me feel better about myself) when I read the letter below. In it, Ogilvy describes his creative process and some of his work habits.

The letter comes from an out-of-print book called The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners. (There are three copies on Amazon right now going for between $261 and $270 each.)

Here’s the letter:

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.

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.

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

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.

5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.

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.

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.)

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

Yours sincerely,

D.O.

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.

Comments are closed