The Rolls-Royce Effect

Lessons from the legendary David Ogilvy

As you now know, David Ogilvy was a renowned advertising executive who was often called “The Father of Advertising.” Time Magazine dubbed him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry. That was in 1962, after he’d been in the business for 24 years and had revolutionized the way copywriters created ads.

Ogilvy wrote about his approach to advertising in Confessions of an Advertising Man, first published in 1963. Some people believe this served as the model for Mad Men’s Don Draper, and indeed, if you look at pictures of Ogilvy, he was just as dashing as the TV character.

Ogilvy’s work followed four basic principles:

Creative brilliance: Copywriters needed to come up with brilliant concepts. They need to not only caught readers’ attention, but sell them on the product. He was a proponent of what was called the “big idea,” one brilliant idea that would be central to each ad campaign.

Research: Ogilvy did not believe in “blowing smoke.” His copy was meticulously based in fact. He did the necessary research to uncover the one amazing fact around which he could build an entire ad campaign; this often served as the basis for his “big idea.”

Actual Results: Ogilvy was a strong believer in judging the quality of an ad by its success at selling something. Always test the outcome of an ad, and if it isn’t selling, make whatever changes are necessary to make it work.

Professional Discipline: Advertising executives were not to be dabblers in the creative realm. They needed to hone their craft and develop programs to train the next generation of advertisers.

The Most Famous Headline in Advertising History

Ogilvy wrote many famous ads during his career, but the one that is said to have been the most famous headline in advertising history was the one he created for Rolls-Royce. The headline read:

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

This groundbreaking ad illustrates all the principles that made Ogilvy’s work so great.

The headline itself was a wonderful example of the “big idea.” No one had ever seen a headline like that before. It intrigued people and pulled them in to read the rest of the ad.

The body of the ad was made up of 13 facts that were interesting, and clearly explained why the Rolls-Royce was so unique, and worth its sky-high price.

And of course he tested the ad in a number of venues before launching the nationwide campaign.

You might think that copywriters just sit around waiting for inspiration to come, but that’s not the way it actually works. In describing the process he used to write the Rolls-Royce ad, Ogilvy said he started out, as he always did, by doing his homework. He claimed this was a tedious process, but a necessary one.

He said that as a copywriter you had to study the product and find out as much about it as you can. The more you know about a product, the more likely you are to be able to come up with the big idea.

When he got the Rolls-Royce account, he spent three weeks reading about the car. In the process he came upon this statement from one of the engineers: “At sixty miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock.” That became the headline, which was followed by 607 words of factual copy.

In a sense, Ogilvy didn’t even write the world’s most famous headline; he took it from a report. But his genius was in recognizing the power of the statement to work as the lead-in to the rest of the ad.

Of course the rest of the ad pulled its weight too. Each of the carefully crafted 13 points raised and then answered a question the reader might have. It even addressed the issue of price in a clever way, stating that the Bentley, manufactured by the same company, was exactly the same except for the grille, and a much reduced price. People could buy a Bentley “if they feel diffident about driving a Rolls-Royce.” This would subtly appeal to Rolls-Royce buyers, who would never see themselves as being diffident about anything.

Lessons for Advertisers Today

Ogilvy brought a modern touch to advertising that really made his work stand out – and also made it tremendously effective.

Many of the copywriters I work with do just as he said; they spend tons of time researching before they ever start writing. Very often the facts themselves give rise to the “big idea” that will really sell the product. It’s the perspiration of research that gives rise to the creative inspiration.

We should also remember to always deal in facts. Especially today, consumers are wary of empty claims that seem to have nothing to back them up. In advertising your product or service, you should provide fact after fact that explains why what you’re selling has the most benefits for your prospect.

And as we always say, test and test again. That’s the only way to arrive at the best ad or longer sales piece that will get you the best results.

Some David Ogilvy Quotes

I just want to finish with some of my favorite quotes from David Ogilvy. They really sum up his philosophy that advertisers would do well to follow today:

“The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”

“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

“It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.”

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

“A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

[And here’s one that I just like.]

“Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going gaga.”

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