Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten creative books #5: Ogilvy on Advertising

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

Believe it or not, I’ve been posting here on a daily basis for nearly a decade, which means that I’ve devoted something like five hundred working days to this blog. When I first threw it together, however, I couldn’t have spent more than a couple of hours deciding on its overall layout, which has turned out to be surprisingly consistent. It took me a while to get the hang of the format, and I’ve tweaked a few minor elements along the way, but this site looks pretty much the same now as it did eight years ago. Part of this is because I knew how I wanted each post to look—black text on white, a headline, an illustration or two, and not much else. (I ended up using a WordPress theme called The Journalist that is no longer being actively updated, and I plan to stick with it for as long as I possibly can.) But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that my preferences along these lines had been formed by the legendary advertising executive David Ogilvy, who laid out his conclusions as clearly as possible in his book Ogilvy on Advertising: “Research suggests that if you set the copy in black type on a white background, more people will read it than if you set it in white type on a black background.” Ogilvy was infuriated by print ads that refused to acknowledge this basic fact, complaining that he had counted forty-seven offenders in a single recent issue of one magazine: “I have even seen coupons in reverse; you cannot fill them out unless you have white ink in the house.” And as the creative director of the agency Ogilvy & Mather, he enforced the same layout on all of his magazine advertisements, with a color photograph, a headline, and the copy set in black type underneath. “I challenge you to invent a better layout than these,” Oglivy concludes, and I don’t think anyone ever has. And within the limitations imposed by the template of this blog, I’ve spent much of my online life operating within the constraints that Ogilvy recommends.

It might seem questionable to take creative inspiration from a book about advertising, but this one has a few strong points in its favor. The first is that Ogilvy on Advertising really reads—I pick it up every couple of years, and I can never resist leafing through the whole thing. Another is that the ads themselves are more interesting and beautiful than a lot of the content that was being published at the time, or even now. But its real value lies in the challenges of the advertising industry itself, which constantly confronts its practitioners with the need to balance lasting interest with the demands of the moment. At times, Ogilvy can come across as hostile to familiar standards of creativity, as when he witheringly writes: “I occasionally use the hideous word creative myself, for lack of a better…Meanwhile, I have to invent a Big Idea for a new advertising campaign, and I have to invent it before Tuesday. ‘Creativity’ strikes me as a high-falutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.” Yet here’s what he says about the process itself:

I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea. I am supposed to be one of the more fertile inventors of big ideas, but in my long career as a copywriter I have not had more than twenty, if that. Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

And his test for a big idea is one that all artists should remember: “Could it be used for thirty years?” It was true of the Pepperidge Farm baker, who came to Oglivy in a dream—and perhaps we’d all be better off if we asked ourselves, before devoting ourselves to any new idea, if it could be useful for thirty years.

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. I’m enjoying your series on My ten creative books. A great theme. Fascinating to see what inspires others. You have made me wonder what my choices would be. I’m working on it.


    August 6, 2018 at 2:29 am

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