Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Because I don’t have a background in marketing and I just learned to write on the go, I feel like I need to backfill my knowledge from time to time.

I always thought marketing was pretty much PR and throwing in an annoying jingle to invade my brain.

Over the last decade, and last five years especially, as marketing and writing evolved into an intentional professional (as opposed to one I just fell into and might one day miraculously somehow fall out of), I’m learning how wrong I’ve been. 

To educate myself a bit more, I’ve been reading about copywriting and studying what works to lever people out of their lethargy to get them to do what you want.

Everytime I write something like that, I feel a little bit creepy. 

I’ve also been reading some books from “olde skool” advertisers and marketers. The most recent is Ogilvy On Advertising by David Ogilvy.

He writes just this side of pretentious, assured of his own ability but able to point out that others are brilliant too. I bet the guy was a great dinner companion, if you could keep up. 

I realize the following is not an original insight. 


As I read the book, it really began to strike me that there’s nothing new. Inbound is built on the concepts he talked about specific to advertising. His reverence for words and focusing on delivering factual information to the reader hit a receptive audience in me. 

Much like every generation thinks the second generation onwards after theirs is wholly comprised of a bunch of disrespectful degenerates, ungrateful to their elders, disdainful of tradition, intent on destroying all that is good and pure in the world, and a bunch of lazy fuckers on top of it all; marketing seems like an industry that’s perpetually fixated on the NEXT THING.

My wife and I were talking about someone the other day. He gets the form of marketing, but not the soul.

Love and understand your customers and your marketing will lift your business up. (OK, this could also be seen as “barely holding onto love” or “clinging” but I’m going positive! Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The soul of marketing is to be helpful to the audience while getting them to buy something. It’s the words. The research. The knowledge of and respect for your customer. The form is the delivery method — print ad, email, website, whatever.

The beating red heartbeat of marketing is understanding the product, how it helps the customer, and knowing what words get those two things to meet. 

What I’m learning is that the soul of marketing hasn’t changed. Here are 15 things I learned from Ogilvy. And, seriously, the chapter “What little I know about advertising” was worth the price of the book all by itself. Likewise, other than the references, the ideas in “How to produce advertising that sells” could have been written this morning.

15 Not-So-Secret Content Marketing Secrets I Learned From Ogilvy

My copy of Ogilvy On Advertising; I keep my books pristine. This is one that I should have marked up as I read.

These are in no particular order and jotted down into a notebook after I finished the book. They are either quotes or themes that struck me as “Duh, the essence of marketing doesn’t change.”

1. Long copy works. While it’s read less, it’s more effective (i.e., leads to more sales). Think about every donation pitch you’ve received over the years — none of them are a cute image, short caption, and a form are they? Multiple pages with the appeal and how to send money repeated over and over. In the context of TV, think about every 2 a.m. infomercial you’ve ever watched and how strangely addicting they are. Long copy sells. 

Sidenote: I loved that one of the reasons he said it works is that it looks more impressive and gives the impression you have something to say — even if the reader only reads the headlines. That was something I told a client before and they scoffed at me. 

2. Make the customer the hero. I’ve said this before and will again — nobody cares about your company.

3. Use clear and simple language. During the years I wrote a weekly or bi-weekly newsletter, I was reminded of this repeatedly. Every time I thought myself clever with a subject line, open rates would dip a few percentage points. When I returned to a “just the facts” approach, up they would go. 

I also shoot for a 6th grade reading level — don’t use “obfuscate” when “confuse” will do.

4. Do your research. Know your product inside and out and who you’re selling it too. 

5. Longer (10 word) headlines sell. I run my headlines through both CoSchedule and Sharethrough’s headline analyzers. I prefer the latter as it measures sentiment and emotion a bit better and favors longer headlines. 

Of course, break the rule in either direction if you need to. And with a strong enough image, sometimes a headline isn’t needed (that one’s exclusive to ads and calls to action though). 

Useful reminder about headlines: Headlines are for selling and telling.

6. Copy what works. Being “original” or “creative” at the expense of being effective is the first step on the short trip to being fired or losing a client. Do your own thing in your own time — you’re being paid to bring in leads/sales. Find out what works. Copy it until you have better ideas.

7. Offer a benefit. Part of making everything about the customer, how are they going to save time, lose those love handles (personal, that one), have more and better sex, look smarter (maybe even BE smarter), enjoy life more, or whatever your product DOES for the customer.

8. Sell the product. I struggle with this. It’s easy to get lost in trying to be helpful or educate and shy away from the reason you’re doing it. Don’t make your audience guess what you do since they’ll get it wrong or won’t bother to try. Also ask for the sale — make it as easy as possible for people to become your customers. [By the way, I can help your marketing efforts if you need an extra set of hands and/or auxiliary brain.]

9. Don’t outsmart your audience. Do you like hanging out with your arrogant twit of a brother-in-law? Yeah, neither do your customers. 

10. Facts provide sales. As a should’ve been history major; adore. 

11. Discounts are boring to write, but everyone loves a discount. See 6 and 7 above.

12. Social proof rules. Fifty years before there were digital marketing courses on word of mouth and influencers, people liked to hear recommendations from other people. Duh. While I’m not sure this has changed, it still feels true to me: celebrity endorsements don’t work. People remember the celebrity, not the product. What works is finding endorsements of people like the audience you are selling/marketing to. 

I know I’ve seen major actors in ads, can’t remember what the product was. I’m literally blanking on the SUV that Mr “alright, alright, alright” shills for. I think it can work for lesser known actors. JK Simmons for Farmers is one example. The first time I saw one of those, I had a “where’ve I seen him” moment. Of course, he’s more well-known now, but he’s remains more emcee for the stories that are the star of the commercials than the focus of the commercials themselves — unlike Mr. Alright. 

I think the personalized, one-to-one esque communication of social media changes this up slightly. After all, the Kardashians have made a mint off of being famous and selling things. 

13. Photos should tell the story when possible, though huge faces are off-putting. A single person is often better than a group. Photos that show the results of using the product (a complete meal rather than the ingredients) often works better than pics of the product. While I think technology has created a more image-centric world, I think those basic thoughts are still solid. Basically, if a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a picture combined with the right caption, headline, and story has gotta be worth 1,000,000. Or something like that. 

14. Show the price. Not sure about you, but I HATE having to guess how much something is going to cost me. Tell. Me. Ogilvy makes the point that people often assume they can’t afford something without a price tag. I know that I’ve walked into stores and thought there’s no way I can buy any of this stuff (even though I realized I could when I a clerk checked the price for me). This is one of the reasons I HATE going into jewelry stores. 

15. If it ain’t broke, keep doing it. If you have a campaign that works, run it again. You don’t need to recreate everything from scratch just because. Think about the Marlboro Man, the Energizer Bunny, the Geico Gecko, Flo from Progressive, etc. There’s nothing wrong with consistency. Then, when it stops working — do something different. Note: this doesn’t mean you don’t experiment or tweak.

Everything in Ogilvy On Advertising is inbound marketing and/or Storybrand and/or They Ask, You Answer

Those are all excellent concepts and works, and I’ve been inspired by each. But they ain’t new. 

The More Things Change

I’ve developed two pet peeves in my life:

  1. Impatience for the tendency of each generation to bitch and moan about the younger generation. Just. Shut. Up. Yes, they like different music. No, your music wasn’t always better.
  2. An apathy for the cult of the new. That sounds cranky. It’s not. “Stuff” around us often gets better/faster/cheaper over time. And this isn’t about new music or that ephemeral stuff. Nope. What I mean is the continued misplaced belief that “new” equals “different” and ignoring that the underlying motivations of human behavior — to be loved, respected, feared, venerated, desired, etc. — don’t change.  

Rather than bang on, I’m just going to share this quote in full from the book relevant to this cult of the new. It’s from Bill Bernbach, one of the 6 giants who invented modern advertising (according to Ogilvy):

Human nature hasn’t changed for a billion years. It won’t even vary in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man — what compulsions drive him, what instincts dominate his every action, even though his language too often camouflages what really motivates him. For if you know these things about a man, you can touch him at the core of his being. One thing is unchangingly sure. The creative man with an insight into human nature, with the artistry to touch and move people, will succeed. Without them he will fail.

Note: this was written at some point in the late 1970s, insert your favorite substitute for “man.” Still applies. 

I’ll wrap this with a long quote about the importance of focusing on the customer, not the client. It also reminds me that companies tend to want to advertise/market what they think is important about themselves rather than what the customer thinks is important. Or, maybe this quote speaks to me because my wife’s English, regardless:

When you undertake to advertise a foreign country, you have to be prepared for a lot of political flak. Research told me that what American tourists most wanted to see in Britain was history and tradition — Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Oxford, that kind of thing. So that is what I featured in our advertisements, only to be slaughtered in the British press for projecting an image of a country living in the past. Why did I not project a progressive industrial society? Why did I not feature the nuclear power stations which Britain had just invented? Because our research had shown that American tourists had no desire to see such things, that’s why.

Make sure your marketing focuses on your customers’ desired destinations.

And read Ogilvy On Advertising. It’s a good investment of your time.  

Need help creating your content marketing strategy and/or content? Drop me a line at, reply below, or give me a call (or text, text is better, what with all the phone spam) at 301-275-7496.


  1. I really like your language and how you explain something. I am quite new and try to get traffic on my website. I definitely need more time! I have so many ideas to write down evergreen contents (I hope it is) and have to learn all about traffic and linking and social media! I have fun but starting is hard! Nevertheless thank you and I hope I can learn a lot more from your experiences! Good job!

    Liked by 1 person

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