Deconstructing “Why David Ogilvy must die” – a lesson for the fake marketers…

An appalling piece of digital drivel appeared in The Drum last week. It is typical of the fake news constantly conjured by the fake marketers, those who call themselves digital marketers.

The horrible truth is that the digital marketing clerks have been manufacturing fake news since the internet was invented. They have claimed outrageously that everything has changed; there are new rules of marketing and PR; new business blueprints; and everything that has always worked in marketing, no longer does – even though it still does.

These pixel pushers provide no evidence to support their arguments, apart from platitudes about the number of people using some new social platforms. Sales and revenue are words banned from their lexicon.

In a desperate bid to try to differentiate themselves, because the majority are not experienced marketers (and deep down they know that nothing has changed, apart from technology), they have bullshitted their way into the psych of the marketing industry.

But as I wrote recently, the digital chooks are coming home to roost. Or read anything from Bob Hoffman, Mark Ritson or Drayton Bird to get a common sense perspective of the digital marketing truth.

The Drum article, which has been derided by marketers around the planet, is typical of the posturing by marketers trying to differentiate themselves in a sea of sameness. So I thought I’d deconstruct it, as it’s a great demonstration of the bollocks passing for digital marketing intelligence. My notes in blue.

Here it is:

David Ogilvy reigned as one of advertising’s kings for a chunk of the 20th century. In his time, he was probably probably the most famous copywriter in the world with copy that was at once clever and straightforward, and above all, crafted to sell products. If there were a Mount Rushmore of the advertising industry, Ogilvy’s face would be immortalized upon it. I remain in awe of his talent and a big fan. I love David Ogilvy.

That said, “David Ogilvy” must die.

I know, the king’s physical being departed this world in 1999, but the advertising principles of his era — some might call them iron clad rules — continue to drive how we practice our craft. “Your role is to sell, don’t let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising.”

The role of marketing is to acquire and keep customers profitably. The only way to do this is to sell stuff. The sole outcome of your marketing activity is one of these three things:

  • To acquire a new customer
  • To get them to spend more with you more often
  • To keep them spending with you as long as possible

If your marketing messages aren’t doing any of these, you’re wasting your money.

Many of these applications and concepts of this legendary time in our business have little place in 21st-century advertising and marketing. Often during my career, which began in 1985, I heard the words from clients, “I don’t care if it’s good work, I just want it to sell my product.”

Firstly – it’s not good work if it doesn’t sell. Period. Am sure there isn’t an agency in town who’d prefer a new business prospect say “good work” and never get in touch, than respond directly to the agency’s advertisement to drum up new business.

All the applications of David Ogilvy, Claude Hopkins, John Caples, Rosser Reeves, Howard Gossage, Bernbach, Burnett and more, have every place in 21st century marketing. Scientific Advertising has just about everything you need to know about online marketing and it was first published in 1923.

The new paradigm is to sell more relevantly. Here are some reasons the old ways must change:

There is no new paradigm – it’s a bullshit statement. Successful marketers have always sold with relevance, otherwise they wouldn’t get a sale. There isn’t a business on the planet that can exist without sales. Technology changes, people don’t. We still buy emotionally and justify rationally. How else can you explain Jimmy Choos!

“Selling” at all costs isn’t enough anymore. Ogilvy had one goal above all others: Sell, sell, and sell some more, his principles widely adopted across the advertising world. It’s time for brands to disconnect from the old ways and learn how to connect with people through a set of clearly communicated core beliefs and values.

People do not want to be connected with their toilet paper brand through a set of clearly communicated core beliefs and values. Well maybe this is an exception:

Ogilvy himself never had to create for the Internet, mobile devices, apps, video games or social media feeds. Because media has become so much more personal, advertising must be more nuanced. People — not consumers — want products to match their core values and beliefs. The game has changed.

David admitted both publicly and privately, that the secret weapon in his success to grow Ogilvy & Mather was direct mail. It is one of the most personal and powerful channels. I chatted with him on this topic in two different meetings. He would have loved modern digital channels because he could use his 20th century skills to great effect.

Purpose, not just products. We live in what I call, The Belief Economy, driven mainly by millennials and iGen, which demands that brands have a defined, authentic belief system and act accordingly.

The economy is not driven by millennials and iGen – they have bugger all disposable income. The single largest group influencing the economy in the western world is still those known as baby boomers. No labelled segment gives a toss about a brand’s defined, authentic belief system. They wouldn’t even pass a test if asked to explain it.

WTF planet do you live on? More than 90% of all sales never involve the internet, they happen in store with almost no consideration whatsoever. They are mainly packaged goods and fresh food. Here’s a typical customer thought process when shopping in store or online “I need toilet paper. Do they have my favourite brand (created via TV ads selling the brand) or is another brand on sale? Oh I’ll grab that packet.”

Sustainable clothing company Patagonia has a devoted customer base, in large part because it does not adhere to the old system of advertising. In 2011, the company ran a campaign around Christmas, urging customers not to buy a specific jacket. The idea behind the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign was to urge people to buy a new jacket only if they needed it. Additionally, they offered to repair people’s current jackets rather than have them thrown out. They’re still doing things like this today as evidenced by their latest campaign, “The President Stole Your Land.”

Good on Patagonia – they used a tactic and it worked. Whooppeee. Next year it will be a new tactic. Because the average tenure of a marketing manager is less than 18 months and the new manager always does something different to the previous manager. After all, that’s why they were hired.

Collaboration over consumption. The term “consumer” dehumanizes people, reducing them to faceless entities that represent nothing more than dollar signs. But today’s tools allow brands to motivate and inspire and provide an opportunity for co-creation which creates something more valuable than selling, buy-in.

Collaboration over consumption? Does anyone know what this means? Do customers call Unilever to discuss the scent additives of the soap powder they plan to buy? Ever gone shopping with kids? There’s no collaboration there. I don’t know of any tools that motivate and inspire or provide opportunity for blah, blah… buy-in.

Though come to think of it, since they were invented, ice cream parlours have let customers collaborate by choosing their own flavours. My local barista lets me tell him how I want my coffee. Even the sandwich shop lets me nominate my fillings. But this is a decades-old process. Nothing new to see here folks when it comes to collaboration or consumption.

I’d like to collaborate for vanilla thanks

What impact do brands have beyond the advertising and sale of a product? What does the brand stand for? All of these questions require careful consideration, and brands should not run from them because they can’t afford to. It’s time to lean in and give a damn.

Yes, brands do need to stand for something that resonates with their customers. Brands won’t sell otherwise. And remember in every category in the world, the number one brand is always the brand with the most customers. That is, the brand that makes the most sales.

Ogilvy famously said, “The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife.” He was trying to instill a sense of the person in the ad industry at a time when wives and moms were the gatekeepers of products that entered the household. Wives are no longer the gatekeepers. Now, everyone shops for everything all the time.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and the same-sex revolution is changing everything up and down society. The very idea of shopping has changed. It can be done online in between completing reports at work. Or people shop in-store with online mobile comparison help — a medium that did not exist robustly even ten years ago.

Yes, Ogilvy wrote for the times. He was spot-on when he wrote it. Though he did say he would have written that phrase differently had he written the book later in his career.

Brands without a communicated set of values will be left behind as the economic buying power of Millennials and iGen continues to grow over the next 40 years. A brand’s values and impact are even more critical to iGen, and research strongly indicates both generations’ purchasing decisions are influenced by knowing what a brand stands for.

Only fake marketers think customers care about brands as much as fake marketers do. Every generation has bought brands based on what the brand stood for in terms of its positioning. It’s not something new.

Centuries before the digital revolution, Confucius said “Men’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.” The observation is still relevant. Technology changes, people don’t. Read The Marketer Stripped Bare, by John Hancock.

The old rules aren’t right or wrong, but some of them are growing outdated, and advertising needs to evolve alongside Millennials and iGen.

The “old rules” (read truth) apply today more than ever, as the skills of communication have been desperately lost in the age of digital marketing. The OECD Adult Literacy Study revealed roughly 82% of people struggle to comprehend basic English, so we need persuasive writing skills like never before.

After all, your marketing activity, particularly direct marketing, now known as digital marketing, is trying to get your customers to do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. And that’s not easy. It also has no relation to technology.

“David Ogilvy” must die because the world David Ogilvy inhabited no longer exists sociologically or physically.

Never before have we needed to study the past if we want to succeed going forward. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

And if the fake marketers continue on their dishonest path, they will continue to fail the industry and themselves.

BTW, here’s an article I wrote in 2015 explaining why we still need David Ogilvy’s thinking in the digital world.


  1. Great article, cheers Malcolm. Technology may change, but human nature never will. No-one cared about brand values in the 1950s and they still don’t. They just want you to tell them what’s in it for them.

  2. Mal. This may well be your seminal piece (and I mean that in the nicest possible way…).

    With your permission I will redistribute it to my MSc Wine Business students at the Burgundy School of Business, Dijon.

    On reflection, it is sad that your expert insights are not being collated into a multi-million selling text book instead of being lost in the fog of fake expertise…. but hey, never say never!

    I just hope you (and I) are around long enough to reap some of the benefit.

  3. Digital marketing must be nothing but traditional marketing applied to the online environment and its multiple platforms. You might include guerrilla marketing as well. Platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr have their own language, so marketers must know how to communicate in each one.

    Most “digital marketers” came straight from online ponzi schemes. Or even Herbalife or other “multilevel marketing” schemes. They are people trying to make some bucks from home. Some are noisier than others, and most of them are selling nothing useful.

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