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Book review: Confessions of an Advertising Man

Jon Persson
Jon Persson Brand identity designer

“Fourteen years before writing these Confessions, I had gone to New York and started an advertising agency. Americans thought I was crazy. What could a Scotsman know about advertising?

My agency was an immediate and meteoric success.”

These are the words with which David Ogilvy start off his legendary Confessions of an Advertising Man.

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I began flipping through the pages of this book.

I thought I had purchased an autobiography—one which, if I was lucky, might teach me something about the creative industry.

But as I came to find out as I was flipping through the pages of this book after it had been sitting on my desk for a couple of months, it is much more than that.

First, a short biography of David Ogilvy:

David Ogilvy sitting in an armchair, smoking a pipe.

David Ogilvy—a brief biography

David Ogilvy CBE (1911 – 1999) was born into a British upper-class family in 1911. He received a scholarship to attend Oxford University but was soon expelled for poor academic performance.

He went on to work as an assistant chef at Hotel Majestic in Paris for a year, before he returned to the UK to become a door-to-door salesman in Scotland. He was eventually hired as an account executive by the British advertising agency Mather & Crowther. In 1938, Ogilvy convinced his employer to let him work at Dr. George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey for a year. He would later credit much of his success to what he learned working for Dr. Gallup.

During World War II, he worked for the British Intelligence Service and became an alumnus of the secret Camp X, a British paramilitary installation located in Canada, where, he was trained in sabotage and close combat, as well as propaganda and psy-ops.

After the war, Ogilvy lived among the Amish for several years, before moving to Manhattan.

With the backing of his old employer Mather & Crowther, which was now run by his brother, he successfully launched an advertising agency on Madison Avenue—Ogilvy & Mather.

Over the years, Ogilvy and his ad agency did work for Rolls Royce, Sears, the British government, the state of Puerto Rico, Dove, Shell, and dozens of major brands in the CPG industry.

The book held up against a backdrop of nature and an urban skyline.

Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963)

David Ogilvy wrote this iconic book in 1963, fourteen years after launching his wildly successful advertising agency. Confessions quickly became an international bestseller, selling millions of copies and being translated into 14 languages.

Media Week called it “Required reading for anyone in business.”

Like I said earlier, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book.

I thought it might be an ordinary autobiography, containing one or two nuggets of wisdom from one of the titans of Madison Avenue.

I was mistaken.

The autobiographical aspect of the Confessions is merely a backdrop used to communicate lessons in leadership, client acquisition, client management, copywriting, and advertising—among other things.

Confessions doesn’t concern itself with the abstract. Nearly every single paragraph is used to dispense some practical truth or piece of advice.

It is, in short, a practical guide to advertising.

The structure

It’s difficult to find any fault in the structure of this book. The table of contents is, just like the book itself, extremely practical:

1. Foreword

The foreword, written by Sir Alan Parker, praises Ogilvy’s genius and explains the cult status of the book, but also warns of presumed embellishments about Ogilvy’s life.

2. The Story Behind This Book

In this chapter, added in 1988, Ogilvy explains the raison d’etre of Confessions, briefly talks about cheap clients, corporate culture, and other things that are given a more in-depth treatment later on in the book.

3. Background

The origin story of David Ogilvy; from growing up in Lewis Carroll’s old house in Guildford, to being on Sir William Stephenson’s staff in British Security Coordination.

4. How to Manage an Advertising Agency

Principles of leadership, mostly told through anecdotes about Ogilvy’s days as a chef in the kitchen of Hotel Majestic in Paris. The principal role of a good leader: to provide an atmosphere in which creative mavericks can do good wor. Ogilvy also shares principles for being a good employee.

5. How to Get Clients

Acquiring clients as a small agency; addressing size objections; methods of self-advertising; the sport of sales; showing enthusiasm vs. indifference; the importance of setting criteria for prospective clients; how to avoid being pigeon-holed; and the importance of being honest and showing your flaws.

6. How to Keep Clients

Cultivating long-term and mutually beneficial relationships with your clients; the importance of candour; why you constantly need to “resell” your agency to corporate clients; how to give more effective presentations.

7. How to Be a Good Client

Fifteen rules to extract the best possible service from your agency; questions to ask before firing an agency.

8. How to Build Great Campaigns

Ten principles of creating great campaigns; the importance of investing in a consistent brand image; the importance of Great Ideas; the role of facts in advertising.

9. How to Write Potent Copy

Features of effective headlines; features of effective body copy.

10. How to Illustrate Advertisements and Posters

Importance of story appeal and of great photography; advice on how to break up longer copy; mostly incorrect statements about design.

11. How to Make Good Television Commercials

This chapter is very brief owing to the novelty of television in 1963, and David Ogilvy’s inexperience with the medium; mostly contains general principles about advertising campaigns.

12. How to Make Good Campaigns for Food Products, Tourist Destinations and Proprietary Medicines

The value of content marketing, social proof, and fashion; the importance of never straining credulity.

13. How to Rise to the Top of the Tree – Advice to the Young

Becoming an expert on your clients’ businesses; how to blow your competition out of the water; how to navigate office politics; how to build a personal brand.

14. Should Advertising Be Abolished?

In this chapter Ogilvy presents anti-advertising and pro-advertising arguments from various economists, and argues for the economic benefits of advertising (to the public, not just individual companies).

15. A Collection of Ogilvy-isms

A short and incomplete list of the quotes & aphorisms David Ogilvy was known for, for example:

“It is important to admit your mistakes and to do so before you are charged with them.”

Confessions is well-written, practical, and entertaining. I cannot recommend it enough; it is truly a fantastic read.

However, the book is not without faults: in a couple of places, he offers advice (especially about design) which is sadly misinformed. I am sure that, in the spirit of admitting one’s mistakes and being honest, Ogilvy would have conceded these points had he only been better informed.

Points of contention

Here are the points which, after careful consideration, I have decided that Ogilvy is incorrect about:

1. Advertisements set in reverse (i.e. light text on a dark background)

Ogilvy talks about this as if it were a cardinal sin of design. You will find his statements on pages 21 and 139:

I recently counted forty-nine advertisements set in reverse (white type on black background) in one issue of a German magazine, long years after research demonstrated that reverse is difficult to read.

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man (p. 21)

And, expressed more forcefully:

Never set your copy in reverse (white type on a black background), and never set it over a grey or colored tint. The old school of art directors believed that these devices forced people to read the copy; we now know that they make reading physically impossible.

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man (p. 139)

Look at this advertisement from Apple:

Apple ad with reverse (white-on-black) type

Were you able to read that? Good. So it should be clear that reading copy set in reverse is—in fact—not “physically impossible” at all. Not even close.

See, the reason why white text on dark backgrounds can be less legible is that lighter-value elements tend to bleed into the void of darker-value regions, causing them to look “heavier” on a dark background.

This can pretty easily be accounted for by increasing the tracking (i.e. letter-spacing) of the lighter-value letters.

One might also opt to set the type in a light-grey/off-white color, and use a not-quite-black background to prevent the bleeding from happening in the first place.

So why would you reverse type in the first place? I’m sure there are many reasons why. The main ones that come to mind are:

  • To emphasise something and draw people’s attention there

  • To create a visually appealing design

  • To break up blocks of text and make content more digestible

I’m sure these are all benefits that David Ogilvy would value very much, had he been better informed about the ways in which you can make reverse type just as legible as normal type.

Overall though, I think far too much emphasis is placed on legibility as opposed to aesthetic appeal.

Of course it’s important that people can read your text.

But beyond achieving a baseline level of legibility, marginal improvements in this area are very seldom worth the large sacrifices you have to make in terms of visual interest & dramatic effect.

It doesn’t matter that your text is 0.1% more legible if it looks so plain and boring that no one bothers to read it in the first place.

2. The role of content and form in advertising

On page 110, Ogilvy claims:

What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form.

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man (p. 110)

He is wrong. (And he also goes on to contradict himself on pages 133 and 135.)

We are visual creatures at heart. The written language is—in the grand scheme of human evolution—a fairly recent invention.

Our brains are still wired to make decisions based on subtle visual cues. For most of human history, failure to do this fast and accurately would often lead to a gruesome death.

The modern field of behavioral economics is constantly proving that form matters just as much as, if not more than, content in guiding people’s decisions.

As Ellen Lupton states in her book Design is Storytelling:

Seemingly minor design decisions—like preselecting a radio button or changing the color of a candy wrapper—can influence choices at an unconscious level.

Ellen Lupton
Ellen Lupton Design is Storytelling

For example:

Participants in a study were given three boxes of detergent to test over a period of time. The detergent inside the boxes was all the same, but the packages were printed in different colors: some were blue, some were yellow, and some were both blue and yellow. Users generally preferred the detergent in the multicolored boxes. They explain their choices in terms of the product’s performance, but in fact, the only real difference was graphic design.

Ellen Lupton
Ellen Lupton Design is Storytelling

That last bit may explain Ogilvy’s error. As a staunch adherent to research and consumer surveys, he had no doubt found that consumers reported that their decisions were informed by the content of advertisements. More on the dangers of relying too much on consumer surveys shortly.

For more on how our decision-making is influenced by design—and other seemingly irrational factors—see Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, and this Psychology Today article adapted from the book.

3. The importance of “balance, movement, and design”

Quoth David Ogilvy:

Most of the art schools which train unsuspecting students for careers in advertising still subscribe to the mystique of the Bauhaus. They hold that the success of an advertisement depends on such things as ‘balance,’ ‘movement,’ and ‘design.’ But can they prove it?

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man (p. 136)

This seems like pure arrogance on the part of Ogilvy. Balance, movement, and design can create clarity and guide users to interact with something in a certain way. Not only do we look for and prefer objects that are visually pleasing to us; failure to resolve issues like balance and movement leads to confusion (and boredom) and makes whatever content you have worthless.

For an in-depth look at the practical usefulness of good design, see my article The business value of design.

4. Serif vs. sans-serif type

Serif type … is easier to read than sans serif type … The Bauhaus brigade is not aware of this fact.

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man (p. 139)

This was indeed long thought to be the case. More recent research, however, is inconclusive:

Colin Wheildon, who conducted scientific studies from 1982 to 1990, found that sans-serif fonts created various difficulties for readers that impaired their comprehension.

According to Kathleen Tinkel, studies suggest that ‘most sans-serif typefaces may be slightly less legible than most serif faces, but … the difference can be offset by careful setting’.

Other studies have found no significant difference in readability for serif or sans-serif … Another study indicated that comprehension times for individual words are slightly faster when written in a sans serif font versus a serif font.

Wikipedia Serif, Readability and legibility (source)

As long as you are choosing between high-quality options, the choice of serif vs. sans-serif ought to be based on style, tone, and personality—not hardly-noticeable differences in legibility.

As a side note: Ogilvy seems to really have it in for the Bauhaus school. Regardless of what you think of them, it’s silly to fault them for this supposed design “sin” when Joseph Albers, an influential Bauhaus figure, sings the praises of serif type (and criticises sans-serif type) in the first chapter of his magnum opus, Interactions of Color.

5. Advertisements that entertain

Finally, Ogilvy sets up an interesting dichotomy:

That between advertisements that entertain, and advertisements that sell.

Based on research by Horace Schwerin, he claims that:

The purpose of a commercial is not to entertain the viewer, but to sell him. Horace Schwerin reports that there is no correlation between people liking commercials and being sold by them.

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man (p. 145)

Modern research into the neuroscience of advertising would contest this view. Here’s Peter Murray, Ph.D. in consumer psychology, in Psychology Today:

Advertising research reveals that the consumer’s emotional response to an ad has far greater influence on their reported intent to buy a product than does the ad’s content — by a factor of 3-to-1 for television commercials and 2-to-1 for print ads.

Dr. Peter Murray
Dr. Peter Murray How Emotions Influence What We Buy (Psychology Today)

Moreover, he continues:

“Research conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation concluded that ‘likeability’ is the measure most predictive of whether an advertisement will increase a brand’s sales.”

Clearly, the idea that the likeability of an advertisement has no impact on how effective it is in generating sales, both runs counter to common sense (why would we buy from a brand if we don’t like what they’re saying to us?) and modern psychological and neuroscientific research.

So what’s happened since Ogilvy’s time? Did the facts change?

That’s doubtful.

The more likely situation is this:

Ogilvy, shaped by his time working for Dr. Gallup’s research institute, put too much stock in consumer surveys.

Douglas van Praet, whose agency created the wildly successful Volkswagen advertising campaign known as “The Force”, warns against the dangers of using marketing research as a crutch:

Despite lip service paid to emotions, businesses routinely make multimillion-dollar marketing decisions on the false premise that respondents in survey research can consciously explain the unconscious origins of their actions. They fail to recognize that most of the business of life happens through our emotions, below the threshold of awareness.

For too long, standard marketing theory has had it backwards. The most startling truth is we don’t even think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions. They constitute the foundation on which they’re made!

Emotions, not words, are the innate universal language of humans and the primary means by which we learn new behaviors. We learn best kinesthetically, through feeling not thinking, which is why ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and ‘talk is cheap.’

Douglas van Praet
Douglas van Praet The Myth of Marketing (Source: Fast Company)

By the way—here’s his Volkswagen ad, which he goes on to say might not have made it through the traditional research process:

Concluding thoughts

One can easily look past these errors. Considering Ogilvy’s Confessions were written some 55 years ago, at a time when the scientific disciplines of behavioral economics and neuroscience were hardly even invented, it is surprising that there aren’t more errors to be found.

I’m sure some of the technical copywriting advice may be dubious or outdated—that’s not my expertise so I’ll abstain from commenting on it. But overall, Confessions is an extraordinarily useful and educational book, which, to this day, serves as an obligatory textbook in many advertising schools.

This book has a lot to offer anyone who’s looking to become a better business owner, regardless of what industry they’re in. For people interested in marketing, it’s required reading.

PS. If you found this article interesting, you’ll love my previous one. It’s about Ogilvy’s 7 principles of marketing, and is full of great quotes from Confessions.

Jon Persson


Brand strategist, identity designer, and owner of CultMethod. I help small business owners create brands that attract customers and command premium prices.

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