Legendary Adman David Ogilvy On How to Write Copy That Sells

“The more I think about it,” said Leo Burnett to the writers of his agency, “the more firmly I believe that good advertising can be reduced to one simple principle. It is called The Law of the Headline.”

Although very few people understand how advertising works, let alone appreciate its subtleties, most people know whether an advertisement has worked on them or not. They may be wrong, but they feel that the writing was good enough for them to know it had made a sale and therefore it must have been good.

This belief is so pervasive that I am convinced that the public believes advertising to be easy because if one ‘tries hard enough’ one must be successful. It’s not easy to write copy that sells.

Holding this idea, most advertising people try to persuade the public that their products and services are wonderfully different from anything else on the market. They tell you “what’s it like,” they show you what is new about it or how long they have been in business; some even claim that a product is so good for you that it will do this or that.

Most of these claims are, of course, in direct contravention of the laws laid down by Leo Burnett – and if they were all true there would not be room on the shelves for another product. But people who have tried a number of products (which is most consumers) know what these claims are worth.

I do not believe that there is a single product or service in this world that is so good as to be immune from the law of “Don’t tell me, show me.” That’s how to write copy that sells.

Every advertisement must therefore sell the consumer on the idea that if you buy this brand, you will get more of what you are already buying. Remember that the consumer is not a moron, he’s your client.

When most people are asked to write copy that sells, they begin by saying: “What is it?” or “How does it work?” Instead of first writing a headline and then asking themselves what it is they want to say about their product or service, they corruptly try to tell you what they are selling. It is a simple rule that can save more money than any other in the advertising business: “Get your headline right and you don’t need to worry about your copy.”

When I was running the Ogilvy & Mather London office, I once hired an experienced copywriter who had passed his probationary period with flying colors. It was the first time I had hired an experienced copywriter, so I asked him to show me his best creative work over the last twelve months. Could he write copy that sells?

Read it carefully – and what do you see? Ninety percent of the headlines he wrote were bad-tempered and negative: “What if your wife bought a new hat?”; “What if your husband came home with a new beard?”; “What if your mother-in-law planned to spend the weekend?”

I asked him what he meant by all this malevolence. He said, “Oh, it’s just my style.”

“Your style is not appropriate to advertising,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because when people read it they’ll be so irritated that they won’t read the copy.”

I went on: “Any headline you write is a promise. It says to the reader, ‘If you let me tell my story on page two or three, I will give you what I promised in my headline.’ So your headline should be written with two words in mind. First, ‘Is it believable?’ And second, ‘Is it compelling?”

He was disgruntled when he left the agency. He was unable to write copy that sells.

A few days later I received a letter from him asking me to recommend him to another advertising agency. I did – and six months later he again asked for work. When he came to see me I looked over his portfolio again and this time every headline was positive. He had started to write copy that sells.

“I’ve changed my style,” he said with quiet pride.

“Oh, is that all?” I said. “I thought you’d become a more mature person.”

He went on to write many successful advertisements for other clients before he left advertising to become a psychiatrist.

I have observed over the years that most people cannot resist the temptation of telling you what their product is instead of inviting you to look at it with your own eyes, through your own imagination. The result: lack of impact and lack of sales. When this happens, many copywriters put on their Freudian hats and start talking about the unconscious mind. Nonsense.

In my experience, 80 percent of all advertising never breaks through the barrier because it is not written as a consumer story in which you persuade people to share your point of view on life. It is not dramatic enough; it doesn’t have an “Angry Point of View.”

You don’t have to be a professional writer or artist. You just have to write in the way that you would talk. But before you conclude, let me give you a few ground rules:

Set aside some time – preferably on Saturday night – switch off all distractions, make yourself comfortable and then start writing your advertisement as if it were an essay on your favorite subject. Don’t tell me what you’re selling, don’t try to persuade me to buy the product or service. Instead, try to make me laugh or cry with your copy; reduce my blood pressure by making me relax, and then invite me into a world of fantasy which I can share – where I can see myself in a better, happier situation as the result of what you are selling.

What’s more, I want to know that you have taken a personal interest in me and my problem. Show your concern about me by choosing words with which you can communicate – use adjectives and verbs, but don’t be afraid to tell a story about yourself, if it is relevant.

And if you want to know if it’s working, the acid test is: Are people reading it twice? If they are, you’re on the right track. But remember this: The average person reads no more than 28 percent of what he or she sees. So don’t make me read your copy – make me see it with my own eyes, make me feel it.

If you can do that, I’m yours – and so is everyone else who reads your advertisement.

You will find a variety of opinions about how to write an effective headline. This is all right: Every person has a different way of thinking, and every method works for some people part of the time. But try this technique:

Write the headline first. This forces you to think about what is most important – and usually produces a better headline. Then write your copy around that sentence so that it is integrated with an idea in the headline. Your opening line sells on the promise of your headline, without words that tell or show; it should be powerful, dramatic and attention-getting without being too long. At the same time it should invite the reader to know more – and read on.

Begin your copy with a question – like “Have you ever …” or “Can you imagine …?” – and the reader will be hooked into your fantasy idea.

A headline that stands out, which beats all the others on the page, may not always work as well as one that is unmemorable but pulls better.

I went to hear a speech by an advertising agency executive who told me he had discovered in his many years of experience that “the way you write is the way you sell.” He reported that he once saw two students from the School of Advertising get up and present their work to a group of professionals. One student presented his copy in a flat, unemotional voice – which was read word for word by the other student. The speaker said he found it difficult to concentrate on what they were saying because there was no emotional involvement or conviction in their presentation.

So when you write your copy, try to put some of yourself into it – let the reader feel that this is an idea that means something to you.

Remember too that all successful advertising is honest advertising: It tells the truth as vividly and dramatically as possible. I doubt whether there has ever been a campaign which was successful by lying. Advertising which is dishonest in any degree always appears to be so – and loses its effect.

So there you have it follow David Ogilvy’s advice to write copy that sells. Be positive and show, don’t tell.

Write Copy That Sells
Discover How to Write Copy That Sells from Ogilvy’s Book

If you want to learn how to write copy that sells I’d recommend Ogilvy’s book – Ogilvy on Advertising. You can click here to buy it.

Otherwise you can hire us to write copy that sells better and at a lower cost than anywhere else online. Click here to contact us.