As I sit at home, writing this post (too many interruptions at the office) I realize that when clients are choosing an ad agency, many have no clue on what they are really choosing. In most cases, the overworked and under-recognized copywriters aren’t given a whole lot of thought. One of the first questions for the creative director/CEO/President/Chief Creative officer is to find out where they started in the agency business? The answers should tell you a lot about the agency- if it’s a former copywriter or art director the agency focus will probably be on great creative, if it’s an account planner- strategy may be their lead strength, if it’s a finance person- run, and if it’s a account executive/bag man/sales professional- I’m sure the presentation will be charming.
When it comes to the giants of advertising- and the guy you would want running your ad agency, David Ogilvy belongs on the top of the list. Even though the book is dated, I required all employees to read “Ogilvy on Advertising” for the first 20 years of The Next Wave. I still recommend it- but instead want them to read the excellent “Hey Whipple, Squeze this” by my friend Luke Sullivan first. Ogilvy was a brilliant writer and a consummate ad guy. He understood that you had to eat, sleep and breathe your product in order to do it justice. One of the requirements for working at Crispin Porter + Bogusky according to their employee handbook is that you are an ad person. Ad people are tuned into everything about the business- what accounts are where- and who is doing great work. If you aren’t an ad person you have a job- if you are one- you have a career.
When I stumbled upon this letter from David Ogilvy I knew things hadn’t changed much in the world of advertising. Great ads comes from people who immerse themselves in the work. It may be your most important indicator of what kind of agency you are about to hire:
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:
- I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
- I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
- I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.
- 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.
- Before actually writing the copy, I write down ever conceivable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
- 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.
- 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.
- I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
- 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.
- The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
- Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.
- 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.
The humility of Ogilvy’s letter is quaint. I’ve met other great copywriters and they’ve run the gamut in personality traits, but generally everyone of them is fascinating and perfectly capable of doing many different things. However, I’d beware of those who are really frustrated authors- because if you are writing ads to pay the freight while working on the “great American novel” you probably aren’t really an ad person.
If you are an aspiring copywriter, see number 6 and realize 20 is a low number these days. Another great copywriter who I’ve had the pleasure of working with, Sally Hogshead once wrote 800 headlines for her client, BMW Motorcycles. So get writing.
The other key is to write daily. The day you run out of ideas is the day you die if you are a real copywriter. Blogs make it much easier than it was in David Ogilvy’s day to test your writing chops and get feedback. Real copywriters can’t stop writing- which may explain why I’m sitting at home, writing this post on a Saturday afternoon.