Three lessons from a Mad Man

Normally by the third week of January I’ve already broken whatever New Year’s resolution I’ve made. But this year I’m still on track. I resolved to read a book a month for professional development, and the first book I chose was The King of Madison Avenue by Kenneth Roman.

A biography of David Ogilvy from a man who knew him well, Roman’s book was a really interesting read with loads of stories, personal insights and funny anecdotes to highlight Ogilvy’s philosophy on advertising. Here are three lessons I took away from this book.

Use your client’s products. This was something Ogilvy was quite passionate about and something that I’m determined to get better at. I think it’s quite easy in an agency setting to make light of your client’s products or allow the emotions of running the account get in the way of the actual product. But if you don’t use the product, how will you know what it’s really about and how to market it? How will you be able to speak about it with authenticity? Consumers have always been able to see through flimsy advertisements and they are clamoring for truth and relevance in marketing. Luckily for me, my client right now is a pub company with venues in really cool locations, with good British cask ale and fine wine and delicious seasonal food. So it shouldn’t be too hard to put this rule into practice!

Research, research, research. Ogilvy spent time early in his career working for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute and the experience left him a believer in research till the end of his life. His ads and his agency were successful because he did research into what consumers wanted and what would make them respond favorably to marketing. It wasn’t enough to create a visually exciting ad or to be led by emotions or gut feelings. Ogilvy wanted facts. This hunger for knowledge extended beyond customer surveys. He said he had read every book written on advertising and made the effort to be a life-long student of his craft. Part of this resolution is to develop that same desire for knowing more and to put that knowledge into practice for my client.

The importance of writing well. Print advertising’s Golden Age may well have been in the 1950s and 1960s, and the men and women who created a lasting legacy all had one thing in common – the ability to write well. While Ogilvy may be remembered more for his memos and letters than the ads he personally created, he and his colleagues were passionate about clear, concise and engaging language that sold products. And it’s just as essential today. Marketing messages are competing for attention in an incredibly noisy space and an advert that is too long or sloppy or difficult to understand will turn consumers away instantly. Word craft is not something you have to be born with. It can be learned and developed and refined through hard work and perseverance. But the payoff makes it worth it.

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