David Ogilvy's first interview since he died? Possibly not but Watson and The Drum prove his ideas are still alive

David Ogilvy illustration

What could the industry today learn from the lessons of the past? As part of The Drum's AI issue, using IBM Watson’s ability to understand context and natural language, we got a glimpse into some of the most interesting insights from the father of modern advertising.

The Mad Men era of advertising is long behind us, but some of its lessons are timeless: not least those imparted by David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy & Mather, who was once described by Time magazine as “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry”.

That was in 1962, but even today, 17 years after his death, Ogilvy remains one of advertising’s most revered minds, universally acknowledged as the father of modern advertising and credited with pioneering a unique style of ad that didn’t insult the intelligence of the individual.

But what could today’s advertising leaders, or indeed those just starting out on their advertising careers, learn from Ogilvy? The Drum decided to find out, teaming with IBM’s Watson to analyse Ogilvy’s myriad writings and talks to draw out insights and advice.

A man of many words, Ogilvy became the authority on advertising in his day, penning a number of books on the subject and representing the industry in numerous TV and newspaper interviews. But until now it has been difficult to connect with his viewpoints and advice quickly and accurately.

Without reading all of his books or poring over all of his interviews, one might struggle to pinpoint his views on any one particular topic – copywriting, for example, or the role of research in an agency. Even trickier would be finding out his personal views on sex in advertising, how he handled stress during his career, or what he would have done if he hadn’t gone into the industry.

Using machine learning, IBM Watson was able to pull out relevant, insightful snippets from this large volume of information, enabling easy reference to Ogilvy’s many observations.

HOW WE DID IT

We held a brainstorming session where we came up with a lot of ideas, and one of those was that we could create an interview with David Ogilvy. We did change tack a bit, in that we decided it would be a little bit creepy to do an interview with him. Instead, we would look at it from the point of view that we were teaching Watson to answer questions from the body of information – the things that Ogilvy said and wrote. There are many parallels this project has with expert systems and virtual assistants; this is almost like an expert advertising advisor that inexperienced employees can question for insightful advice and tips.

Building the system involves gathering large amounts of unstructured text – in this case, lots of content that David Ogilvy said or wrote. This content is loaded or ingested by Watson, following which training can begin. Training takes the form of providing Watson with example question/answer pairs so that Watson can begin to better understand the user’s question and the most appropriate answers from the content. The machine learning aspects of Watson allows the system to learn over time to provide more and more appropriate answers, and in production systems this process can be automated.

Although this project is a narrow use of the capabilities of Watson, it is relevant in the context of systems that provide meaningful and appropriate answers to natural language questions demonstrates much wider value.

Watson ingested a huge amount of things Ogilvy said or wrote – his book Ogilvy on Advertising, as well as numerous other writings and interviews with journalists and broadcasters, many of which were in video format and then transcribed. In total Watson ingested at least 58,000 words and was then taught to respond with the best ‘answer’ to example questions posed by The Drum, such as “what are the most important rules of advertising?”

Using Watson’s ability to understand natural language, one can make sense of such a large volume of material quickly. And the results were enlightening.

One thing to emerge from the questions we put to Watson was Ogilvy’s sense of principle. When asked what kind of people he prefers to work with, the response was: “I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings. I abhor quarrelsome people. I abhor people who wage paper warfare.”

Cindy Gallop, founder of BBH New York and advertising consultant, says Ogilvy’s influence is still keenly felt in the industry today, both as a symbol of great communication and a pillar of principles. “David Ogilvy continues to be of huge importance to the industry because he is the perfect example of my own philosophy of ‘communication through demonstration’,” she says.

“Not only did he have an exceptional grasp on the principles of what our industry needs in order to do its best work, he communicated them in radically simple, creatively articulated soundbites that meant everybody understood exactly what he meant immediately.

“He represented not only our creative but also our moral compass. The principles, integrity, etiquette and equality that he espoused are all too sadly lacking in many areas of the industry today.”

Jonathan Mildenhall, chief marketing officer at Airbnb, believes we can all learn from Ogilvy’s values. “David was a perfect gentleman, a perfect rebel, meaning he practised humanity and creativity each and every day,” he says. “These are both values the world ought to practise each and every day, too. After all, wouldn’t we all benefit if the world was full of more humanity and more creativity?”

Below we find out what questions the industry would most liked to have put to Ogilvy, with Watson putting forth the most appropriate ‘responses’.

Robin Wight, president, Engine

How important is research and ‘doing your homework’ on a product?

“You don’t stand a tinker’s chance of producing successful advertising unless you start by doing your homework. I have always found this extremely tedious, but there is no substitute for it. First, study the product you are going to advertise. The more you know about it, the more likely you are to come up with a big idea for selling it. When I got the Rolls-Royce account, I spent three weeks reading about the car and came across a statement that ‘at sixty miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock.’ This became the headline, and it was followed by 607 words of factual copy.”

What are the most important rules of advertising?

“I am sometimes attacked for imposing ‘rules.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. I hate rules. All I do is report on how consumers react to different stimuli. I may say to a copywriter, ‘Research shows that commercials with celebrities are below average in persuading people to buy products. Are you sure you want to use a celebrity?’ Call that a rule? Or I may say to an art director, ‘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.’ A hint, perhaps, but scarcely a rule.

Nicole Yershon, head of innovative solutions, Ogilvy

What does creativity mean to you?

“You won’t find ‘creativity’ in the 12-volume Oxford Dictionary. Do you think it means originality? Says Reeves, ‘Originality is the most dangerous word in advertising. Preoccupied with originality, copywriters pursue something as illusory as swamp fire, for which the Latin phrase is ignis fatuus.’

“Mozart said, ‘I have never made the slightest effort to compose anything original.’”

Big agencies or small?

“There will always be more small accounts than big ones, so small agencies are not an endangered species. Within the limits of their resources, they can often out-perform the big ones. Creativity is not a function of size. Small can be beautiful.”

Jonathan Mildenhall, chief marketing officer, Airbnb

Is it hard to find the right talent in the agency world?

“When I started Ogilvy & Mather in New York, we paid much higher salaries to our account executives than the clients paid to their product managers. That’s why we got the best people from the best schools, ie Harvard Business School, and were able to lead clients, strategically and otherwise. That time is over. Now the clients can pay higher salaries than we can, and we have difficulties in getting people who are as good as theirs. That’s why the initiative has moved from the agencies to the clients. This is a very serious situation that has come about because the clients are cutting down on our commissions. In that way they almost force us to hire less-qualified people. I don’t know how it will end.”

Matthew Charlton, chief executive, Brothers and Sisters

What has been your biggest professional disappointment?

“I really don’t know. It was always hard to lose clients and good people. But one day I looked it up and realised that I had fired five times more clients than had fired me. One of the clients I lost was Guinness. It happened when we were a very small agency in New York. The reason was that one of our copywriters got drunk at a party where journalists were present. He said some awful things about Guinness, and the next day the American manager fired us. The poor man got all shocked when I broke into tears in front of him. He didn’t expect that. Some years later, we got the client back, and this time for the whole world. So the story has a happy ending.”

Cindy Gallop, founder of BBH New York, IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn

What is the one thing you would you advise any agency against?

“Never allow yourself the luxury of writing letters of complaint. After my first transatlantic voyage I wrote to my travel agency complaining that the service on the Queen Mary was slovenly and the decoration vulgar. Three months later we were on the point of getting the Cunard account when they happened to see my letter. It took them twenty years to forgive me and give us their account.”

What’s your view on the role of sex in adverts?

“The first advertisement I ever produced showed a naked woman. It was a mistake, not because it was sexy, but because it was irrelevant to the product – a cooking stove.”

David Shing, digital prophet, AOL

If you hadn’t gone into advertising, what would you have done instead?

“I can’t play golf or bridge. I’m no good at arithmetic or languages. The only thing I’m good at is advertising. And between you and me, I think I do that better than most people. So you should never feel sorry for a man who does what he knows he is good at, especially not if it is the only thing he is good at. So if I should start again, I would probably rush to the nearest agency. If there hadn’t been anything called advertising, I might have been an archaeologist. But I don’t think I would have had the brain for it. You see, I have a very small brain.”

Do you have any views on the gender discussion currently in vogue and the role of women coming more to the fore?

“Like most boys of my generation, I started life believing that women belonged in the home, until I noticed how much happier my mother was when she went out to work. My first woman vice-president was Reva Korda, a brilliant copywriter who later became head of the creative department. For all her brains and ability, even Reva encountered male copywriters and art directors who felt uncomfortable working under any woman.”

Barrie Brien, group chief executive, Creston

Have you ever resigned a client, and why?

“I have resigned accounts five times as often as I have been fired, and always for the same reason: the client’s behaviour was eroding the morale of the people working on his account. Erosion of morale does unacceptable damage to an agency.”

Shane Hoyne, chief marketing officer Europe, Bacardi Global Brands

Do agencies rely too much on intuition rather than insights?

“I asked an indifferent copywriter what books he had read about advertising. He told me he had not read any; he preferred to rely on his own intuition. ‘Suppose,’ I asked, ‘your gall-bladder has to be removed this evening. Will you choose a surgeon who has read some books on anatomy and knows where to find your gall-bladder, or a surgeon who relies on his intuition? Why should our clients be expected to bet millions of dollars on your intuition?’”

Debbie Klein, chief executive, Engine

What makes a good agency boss?

“When you are head of an agency, you know that your staff look to you to bring in new business, more than anything else. If you fail to do so over an extended period, you sense that you are losing their confidence, and are tempted to grab any account you can get. Don’t. Above all, don’t join the melancholy procession of agencies that always accompanies a dying brand on its way to the cemetery.”

Where do the best ideas come from?

“Senior men have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get.”

Sonia Carter, head of social and digital media, Europe, Mondelez International

Committee or creative director?

“A lot of advertisements and television commercials look like minutes of a committee meeting, and that is what they are. Advertising seems to sell most when it is written by a solitary individual. He must study the product, the research and the precedents. Then he must shut the door of his office and write the advertisements.”

This article was first published as part of The Drum's AI issue, guest edited using IBM Watson technology.

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