If It Doesn’t Sell …

Advertising legend David Ogilvy hated the word “creative” in the context of the work his firm did for clients. In Confessions of an Advertising Man he wrote, “I tell new recruits that I will not allow them to use the word creative to describe the functions they are to perform in the agency.”

The job of advertising, Ogilvy rightly maintained, was to sell the product or service. If it didn’t do that, the advertisement was a failure, no matter how “creative” any of its other attributes.

Madison Avenue has continually failed to heed Ogilvy’s advice. Will you?

If it Doesn't Sell ...

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About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger, CEO of Copyblogger Media, and Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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  1. Nice picture, I’ll add to my blog :)

    • This is a horrible quote. I tried to believe it was a joke of some kind, but apparently it’s not. Ugh, gross.

      • I’m pretty sure you don’t understand the quote if you think it’s gross. Do you know who David Ogilvy was and what he did for a living?

        • What it means is that creativity only has one meaningful purpose, to manipulate people into buying something. I agree with the previous commenter — that’s disgusting.

          • Nope, you’re also wrong. That’s not what he means at all.

            But, if that’s the way you feel, why are you here at a site about sales and marketing? Seems you’d have something better to do.

          • No, disgusting is an emotive word- violent porn might be “disgusting”, but it’s pretty strong to apply it to Ogilvy’s phrase.
            To use a fishing analogy, bait presentation dictates whether your line remains untouched or loaded. Sales ARE about manipulation, however the value of the product being sold dictates whether that manipulation is predatory,dishonest, or merely a method by which the customer is shown the light of its merits and sold..

          • I’m going to re-frame my position. There is a subtle but important difference to how we are interpreting “sell” in light of this quote. It changes the meaning of this entire quote, and without context, there’s no clarity.

            The way I initially read it is that everything creative must be used to actively sell, or in other words the only purpose of creativity is persuasion. That is actually a valid take on the quote as given, and if that’s what he meant, that is indeed disgusting.

            However, an alternative interpretation is that if a product doesn’t sell (in the passive sense) its advertising isn’t usefully creative. I get where that’s coming from, though I still think that’s probably too simplistic. Of course, I certainly wouldn’t describe that as disgusting.

            But here is another Ogilvy quote: “Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.” Clearly, his philosophy and mine have some rather stark incompatibilities.

          • The way I initially read it is that everything creative must be used to actively sell, or in other words the only purpose of creativity is persuasion.

            Brad, thanks for coming back. I can promise you, that’s not what he meant.

            Ogilvy is a bit of our patron saint around here, because he was not only brilliant, he also had a keen sense that delivering value without insulting intelligence was the way to sell (quality) things.

            He was known to chastise fellow advertising executives with this cutting statement:

            “The consumer is not an idiot. She’s your wife” – David Ogilvy

        • I guess what you’re saying he means is that the reason your product isn’t selling is because it isn’t creative. If that’s the case, sure, I can see the logic in that. But I think it’s very poorly worded and it sounds more like “If what you’re painting/making/composing/doing doesn’t make money it isn’t creative.” Anybody who doesn’t know who David Ogilvy was (me until 2 minutes ago, and I’d guess a large portion of the population) wouldn’t know that it was related to advertising. With no context for a relatively obscure person (obscure outside the world of advertising) I would think most people would make that mistake.

          As for me I’m at this site because I subscribe to it along with maybe 50 other sites and I was combing through 600 new posts from them all after a week away. This is the only marketing/advertising site I subscribe to. I probably have something better to do outside but it’s fricking hot.

          • >>>he means is that the reason your product isn’t selling is because it isn’t creative

            No, he’s saying advertising is not creative unless the ad sells what it’s designed to sell.

          • If you had read the introduction to the quote, you would’ve been informed who Ogilvy was, given the advertising context in which the quote was used, and even a brief explanation of the message behind the quote. I don’t know what more Brian could have done to help you understand the ideas presented so you didn’t confuse it in the way you did.

  2. That’s why Van Gogh became depressed. Nobody ever wanted to buy a painting of his. And then he shot himself.

  3. When I first read the quote, I loved it. But as I thought about it, I realized it’s not truth. Many non-creative things sell while just as many creative things don’t sell.

    Maybe I’m just missing something from David….

  4. HA HA HA! So far everyone who has commented doesn’t understand the quote. Funny…I never would have expected…

    Brian, maybe you need to set it up a little better for those unacquainted with Ogilvy and ad industry norms…?

    Best comments EVER!

  5. Similar to the quotes I hear about failed ad campaigns from so-called “creative” and award-winning ad agencies that end up losing clients because they don’t deliver the “meat and potatoes”…. Sales!

    If you get a bunch of creative people from agencies together to choose the ad they like the best, they’ll usually go with something high-brow or funny because it’s “creative”. It’s usually the ad campaigns that deliver a clear and unique message about something the target market actually desires that will fatten the bank accounts of clients.

    Ogilvy was/is amazing.

  6. What Ogilvy was paid to ‘create’ was advertising. The point of advertising is to sell. I don’t know that I agree that ‘if it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative’ – I just think if it doesn’t sell it’s mis-creative. yes, this is a new word that I just made up. It means something can be creative – but not within the context of what the artist was initially commissioned to create. This is a site about marketing and advertising – hence, Ogilvy. Artists or those who don’t want the marketplace to influence their work will be offended by the quote. Those who want to create something that the marketplace will embrace, will probably embrace it. I think it was Brogan at BlueGlass who said ‘don’t be an artist. Be a business person who makes art’.

    Love that.

    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm.com

  7. I’d love to interpret this as I describe below…
    If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative (creative part of the advertising) == meaning that if you didn’t get the Value Props/Product right, creative/design/putting bells n’ whistles on it won’t help.

  8. Powerful stuff, Brian (and the “shareable” is kinda… creative, wouldn’t you say? :P)

    Anyway, I understand fully what Ogilvy’s getting at, and I agree.

    I’d just like to contribute this:

    To “get something to sell” inherently requires creativity.

    It’s not a one-size fits all solution, and each case is context sensitive. If it were just a machine someone could plug into, there wouldn’t be copywriters, or CopyBlogger.

    There is creativity in every single aspect of life, so much so that it almost becomes meaningless to discuss “creativity’s place”.

  9. Seems a strange mix up of messages. If David Ogilvy (who I met many times in the 70’s, because his Agency, O&M, was ‘across the square’ from our own Direct marketing firm) is said to have ‘banned’ the word ‘creative’ in his Agency – WHY is he credited on a poster that infers that anything HAS to be creative to sell..?
    Still, another point., although David Ogilvy was really one of the champions of ‘above the line’ advertising (i.e. blanket advertising to a wide, but personally unknown audience, like early TV) he did concede that ‘below the line’ advertising: in other words, Direct Marketing (my trade, as a Copywriter) and Direct mail, was a much more accurate form of advertising, where we knew the names of the people who we were sending our marketing messages to… also they were on a list of people who were known to be likely to be interested in other things we were selling, AND – we knew what they had bought before, and what promotions they might be interested in responding to next time. He made a statement to that effect in ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ a famous book of the time, and we Direct Marketers always respected him for that, even though the ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line factions were in two opposite camps, and never got on well!
    Funny how today, with the digital age, a lot of ‘advertising’ people still don’t realise that it’s the original forms of Direct Marketing that are doing all the online Web and E-mail selling, promoting and persuading – and in an even faster, more targeted and ‘capturing’ way than before – but still using and expanding the good old ‘direct’ methods we’ve been using since the late 6o’! Rock on, all ye Direct Marketing Copywriters – the future is ours!
    Andy gage. ‘Write2Profit’.

    • I think he discussed the fact that he didn’t let the staff use the word “creative” in Ogilvy on Advertising. Can’t find the quote this second, but I’ll look when I can.

      To your third point, we are direct marketers, which is why we love Ogilvy’s true sensibilities. The Internet is the truest direct marketing medium ever.

      • Thanks for your comment, Brian, and for backing up part of my post about Direct Marketing being the ‘truest’ direct marketing medium…’ as you call it.
        Meanwhile, I’ll save you some time here about Ogilvy, by quoting the ACTUAL quote – on page 25 of the famous ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ book (in front of me now) – where you’ll find that David Ogilvy did NOT say that quote, but ‘quoted’ it thus: ‘ The Benton & Bowles agency holds that ‘if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.’
        He goes on also about the folly of the old ‘above the line’s (or ‘General’ Advertising, as David Ogilvy calls it) highly sought-after Clio ‘Creative’ Awards – where the Agencies that won them, actually lost most of their accounts through lack of sales.
        On page 23 of the book he also says: ‘I am convinced that if all advertisers were to follow the example of their direct response brethren, they would get more sales per dollar. Every Copywriter should start his career in direct response…’ That’s as true today as it was then, particularly in the online world.Andy.

        • Hey Andy: Nice to have a reply from someone who appreciates going to the source.
          I have not found the quote: The industry is infested with idiots who…pretensious etc.” in Ogilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising man.

          Did you notce if it’s in the book you have: Ovilgy on Advertising?

          Best, Bia

    • In Confessions of an Advertising Man Ogilvy wrote, “I tell new recruits that I will not allow them to use the word creative to describe the functions they are to perform in the agency.”

  10. It’s pretty funny home many people misunderstand this quote. Maybe they should go back and read Robert Bruce’s post from a few days ago. http://www.copyblogger.com/advertising-is-dead/

  11. Hmm, at first I was a bit taken aback by the message, until I realized who said it and what context it was being used (yes, I know who Mr. Ogilvy was). All I can suggest to those that don’t get it is to read the entire post and do a tiny bit of research on who the person was that said this before making any knee-jerk reactions.

    I guess Shoemaker was right when he said, (sic) If you want your blog read, be polarizing, but be yourself. Brian, I think you inadvertently lit a fuse.

  12. Hi Brian and co.

    First, I can’t believe that so many people didn’t pick up on the context of this quote… Wow.
    Second, how do you feel about people sharing this (and other infographics) on Facebook as an image with a link to your source in the description? I’ve been wondering about this for a while and would be interested in your take.

  13. Well, I don’t know about David Ogilvy’s issue with being “creative” was. He may have a point, But for me, in the world of advertising, being creative is a norm.

  14. Why no reply to my message May 8th 9.38am Brian..?
    I’ve saved you the time of looking up the Ogilvy Book details regarding the quote…
    I know it’s probably time to change subject now, but ‘twould be nice to get a response from another Direct Marketer, like yourself.
    Andy

    • Andy, I responded earlier today to provide you with the Ogilvy quote that I told you I would look up (barring the word creativity in the office), rather than what you decided to look up instead. Look at the thread above.

  15. I may be too late but I’d still love to say something! :)

    Of all the things that a creation is supposed to do – inspire, challenge, motivate, evoke emotions (positive or negative), move, change or simply make us take note; selling is what an ad is supposed to do.

    So may be that’s how Ogilvy came up with this quote which actually inspires marketers and sellers to not neglect their creative impulse and be just another cog in the wheel.

  16. This argument about the quote being disgusting was funny. :)
    So Advertisers, or Creatives are in the business of Advertising and marketing not to sell, but be creative for the sake of being creative? Don’t forget you are in the business of communication. And your job is to communicate a product, service or company in such a way that the customer wants to bee a part of that communication. And that needs to result in some form of sale in the end. If it fails to do so. Creatives would be out of a Job.