Writing is hard business

He dropped out of college. He was a cook, salesman, diplomatist and a farmer. The guy knew absolutely nothing about marketing, and not a lick of copy writing experience. He was unemployed at 38 when he tried to get an adverting agency to hire him.

Image Credit: Ogilvy on Advertising

No American agency would hire this guy, and then, a London agency picked him up and gave him a chance. Three years later, he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

Who am I talking about? One of the most respected and sought after wizards in the advertising industry, british-born David Ogilvy. In 1948 he started what would eventually be Ogilvy & Mather, a Manhattan-based advertising agency that has since been responsible for some of the worlds most recognized ad campaigns.

So, what makes a guy like this put out some of the best work in the world? It’s not what you would think. Read the letter below written by Ogilvy in 1955 to a Mr. Ray Calt to find out.

April 19, 1955

Dear Mr. Calt:

On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:

1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.

2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.

3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.

4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.

5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.

6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.

7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)

8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.

9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.

10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.

11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)

12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.

Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.

Yours sincerely,

D.O.

(Source: The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners