David Ogilvy’s Copywriting Process

In April 19, 1955 David Ogilvy wrote this to a Mr. Ray Calt. It outlines his process for copywriting an ad. It’s refreshing and human and I’m grateful for this honest look into his thoughts about work. (source)


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.

Here’s some more writing tips on this site, and for all you freelancers out there (or wannabe freelancers), here’s a big ol’ guide about how to become a freelance writer.