David Ogilvy – Habits of a Copywriter


One of the greatest “ad  men” was David Ogilvy. Back in 1948, he started a Manhattan-based ad agency known as Ogilvy & Mather. This agency produced some of the world’s most iconic ad campaigns, and later, in 1963, he wrote the best selling book Confessions of an Advertising Man.

Time magazine called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry” in the early-’60s; his name, and that of his agency, have been mentioned more than once in Mad Men for good reason.

Donald Draper’s character must have been at least partially modeled after Ogilvy.

Here is a letter written by Ogilvy in 1955, sharing his work habits as a copywriter:

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,


Amazing, right?

We have this romanticized idea of amazing writers, successful tech leaders and great innovators. In actuality, when we peel back all of that success, we find a common thread among these.

Hard work and dedication.

For your blog writing to get better. For your video production to become more engaging. For your stories to be more gripping.

It’s going to take time. It’s going to take work. It’s going to take dedication.

There is no 12 steps. There is no shortcut to success. There is only a lonely, narrow, rocky path that awaits.

Are you ready to climb?

[via Letters of Note ]


Eric Dye

I am a blogger, business owner and lover of coffee. I spend most of my time as Programs Director for Open Church, but you'll also find me as a writer and editor for ChurchMag, as well as working on Live Theme and ChurchMag Press. All while enjoying my family and sipping espresso in Italy.

We have 7 comments...
Now let's hear from you!

  1. says

    I had never heard of this guy until you wrote this post Eric. But its so true, its amazing how much time it takes to write one page of copy. I think its important to have a heart of doing this with excellence so that we can put in the time time it takes to output high quality content.

  2. says

    Great post. This is one of the most understated points about the creative arts…so many times people don’t realize all the hard work or negotiations that go on behind the scenes with a particular project (book, movie, ad copy, etc.). Often, all that is seen is the finished product. This is one reason why I like watching “behind the scenes” documentaries with movies that have great special effects, for instance.


What would you like to say?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *