David Ogilvy’s Laws of Direct Response Marketing

David Ogilvy was quite simply one of the most famous advertising and direct response marketing men ever. The man was a genius, legendary in the field. In fact, he turned that field upside down many times. In this article, I’ll reveal 12 of his best secrets, which you can use to dominate your marketplace. He revealed these in Paris at a big advertising conference in the 1960s, and thoroughly shocked the entire audience. It’s powerful stuff and, for many of those there, it was a hard truth to face — but it was the truth.

At that historic convention, Ogilvy took the stage and said flatly, “There is a huge chasm between you generalists and we direct marketers. We directs belong to a different world, and your gods are not our gods.” He went on to say, “You generalists pride yourself on being creative — whatever that awful word means. You cultivate the mystique of creativity. Some of you are pretentious posers. You are the glamour boys and girls of the advertising community. You regard advertising as an art form, and expect your clients to finance expressions of your genius.”

Those are his first two points, which I call Ogilvy’s Laws. I suspect the mainstream Madison Avenue types didn’t care to hear this at all, not to mention what came next.

His Third Law was, “We direct marketers do not regard ourselves as artists or regard advertising as an art form. Our clients don’t give a damn whether we win awards or prizes. They pay us to sell products, nothing else.”

Law Number Four: “You must be the most seductive salesman in the world if you can persuade hardheaded businesspeople to pay for your kind of advertising, because I know what this is about. When sales go up, you claim credit for it. When sales go down, you blame the product.” I’ll bet a pin could have dropped in the room and it would have sounded like thunder.

Number Five: “We in direct response know exactly, to the penny, how many products we sell with each of our advertisements.”

Number Six: “You generalists use short copy, we direct marketers use long copy. Experience has taught us that short copy doesn’t sell very well.”

Number Seven, “In our headlines, we promise the consumer a benefit. You generalists don’t think that to do that is creative.”

Number Eight: “You have never had to live with the discipline of knowing the results of your advertising.”

Number Nine: “We pack our advertising and letters with information about the product. We have found out that you have to do this if you want to sell anything.” Truer words were never spoken.

Number Ten: “Act eccentric while you’re young. That way when you’re old, people don’t think of you as going gaga. You don’t think I’m gaga, do you?”

Number Eleven: “Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

And Ogilvy’s Law Number Twelve: “Remove advertising, disable a person or firm from proclaiming its wares and its merits, and the whole of society and the economy is transformed. The enemies of advertising and direct response are the enemies of freedom.”

What a powerful speech he gave! What a powerful way to tell them that, “We in direct response marketing have to measure everything we do, and we are found to be successful or unsuccessful in any project based on the end results.” He was telling the Madison Avenue advertising types, “You don’t do this. You just throw things on the screen and make up a nice jingle, and if it works well, you want all the credit. If it doesn’t work, you tell the client their product was no good.”

The advertising executives of his day were probably aghast that one of their own giants was talking to them this way. Even today, Madison Avenue types are smug in their certainty that their way is the only way, and they’re high and mighty about the fancy ads they produce. They like to win awards for having the best-looking ads… but they don’t necessarily care about helping their clients make the most money possible. Style rules over substance in their narrow little world. I wish I could have been there, watching this speech take place, just to see how people reacted as Ogilvy challenged the status quo — especially his contention that they’d never had to live with the discipline of knowing the results of their advertising.

One of the greatest things about direct mail marketing, and DRM in general, is that you can know without a doubt if it worked or not. Now, it’s not good for standard ad agencies to find that out for sure whether or not their stuff works, because many times they discover that what they’re doing isn’t working. But you, of course, want to know if your advertising is producing results. With direct mail you can know exactly how much it costs to produce a mailing. You can analyze your results and determine how much profit you brought in. You can counter that with your fulfillment expenses, and know to the dollar whether that mailing made a profit or not. It’s accountable in that respect, and that’s very valuable, because you must know what’s working and what isn’t.

Another thing Ogilvy pointed out that makes special sense to me was his Law Number Nine: “We pack our advertising and letters with information about the product. We have found out that you have to do this if you want to sell anything.” Unlike other advertising methods, direct mail is specific about the offer or product. Other advertising is light and fluffy, made to look good or fun — but doesn’t do any hard selling. We pack our offers with information about what our products will do for people, and the end results they’ll achieve when they use our product or service. What he’s laid out here is a blueprint for success in direct mail. This is what we do in the direct mail world, and this is why we are successful. He draws a stark contrast between what they do in the creative world of Madison Avenue and what practical marketers do.

Ogilvy was a rebel, and I respect the spirit behind his ideas.

You see, direct mail marketing is basically salesmanship in an envelope. A direct mail letter offers all the best qualities of the greatest salesperson you can imagine. You hone and perfect it, get everything just as nice as you can, and then put it all into an envelope — sometimes just a small one, if you’re using two-step marketing.

The first step is to get people to accept a low or no-cost offer and qualify themselves, then follow up with a bigger envelope with more material in it. Done well, it does everything a good salesman does, and gets the right person interested. It makes them want to know more. It tells the full sales story. It answers and overcomes all the objections the prospect has; and last but not least, it closes the sale. This is every single thing you would expect a good salesperson to do — only cheaper.

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