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10 Rules for Great Copywriting from David Ogilvy

Kim Brebach - Thursday, June 28, 2018

Copywriting - why boring won't make them buy | Technoledge y

At a time when we're drowning in a tsunami of content - web, email and social, good, bad and mostly irrelevant - we take a look at the rule book from one of the greats. If you want to cut through in less time with more impact, you can learn a lot from a master of the craft      

Simplicity, Brevity, Clarity

David Ogilvy was hailed as The Father of Advertising in the 1999 obituary by the New York Times. He emigrated to the USA from Britain in 1938 and worked for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey. Ogilvy later said that Gallup was one of the major influences on his thinking, which focused on understanding consumers’ desires as the key to successful advertising.

In 1948, David founded the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in New York and pretty much never looked back. There were no tricks to his success, just a lot of creativity and clear thinking. ‘Tell the truth but make truth fascinating,’ was Ogilvy’s advice. ‘You know, you can’t bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them in buying it.’

By the sixties, Ogilvy had become the most famous copywriter in the world, and his advice on writing has been shared by copywriters ever since. 


Writing That Works; How to Communicate Effectively In Business by Roman & Raphaelson is still in print. ‘If Strunk and White had gone to business school,’ writes one of the reviewers, ‘this is the book they would have written. It’s an antidote to the interminable memo, the pointless presentation, and the endless e-mail.’

Strunk & White’s tiny gem of a book is a great place to start, all the same. So is Ogilvy’s advice to write the way you talk. I have friends whose speech is fluid, clear and colourful. A soon as they write something, the words become stiff and awkward as if they’d been dressed in tuxedos.

Instead of using short words, short sentences and short paragraphs, they try to set records for the longest distance ever covered by a single sentence. They add insult to injury by dreaming up complex sentence structures that turn reading into hard labour.

Never use Jargon

Just look at digital marketing experts who write about monetising and weaponising or talk up their actionable strategies. Then we have micro-blogging and multi-variate testing … 

Ogilvy calls big, empty words the hallmarks of a pretentious ass. Next Generation, class-leading, best-of-breed, ground-breaking and other worn-out terms are also proof that the writer lacks imagination and originality.

Clichés are close cousins, favoured by lazy writers who engage in ‘top-of-the-head writing’ as Sol Stein calls it. ‘They show no ‘concern for precision or freshness in the use of language,’ Stein says, and their writing is ‘stuffed with tired images’ that pop into their heads because they’re so familiar. ‘The top of the head is fit for growing hair,’ Stein makes clear, ‘but not for generating fine prose.’

Check this piece for a fun take on clichés

Brevity and Breathing Space

Never write more than 2 pages on any subject, says Ogilvy. That’s good advice for business writing, including blog posts. With today's time-starved readers, one page is even better. Here are some simple rules: Keep your sentences to 14 words or less, and limit your paragraphs to 4 lines.

More good advice from David Ogilvy is to sleep on important emails and check them again the next morning. If it’s really important, ask a colleague or your boss or a friend to review the email before you send it. This is a good way to avoid shooting out an incendiary email that you'll regret once your anger subsides.


Keep It Simple. Nothing loses readers faster than complex words they have to look up. Use English words, avoid words derived from Latin. Not only does that make for simpler, shorter sentences, but English words tend to be stronger as well.

Ogilvy’s point about making crystal clear what you want the recipient to do is spot on, too. How many emails have you read from top to bottom and wondered: what on earth does she want me to do with this? Clarity is just as vital in your calls to action, on your website’s landing pages or in your marketing emails: tell people exactly what you want them to do.

If it’s important or sensitive, make it face to face

There are times when writing is not the best way to communicate. Delicate and sensitive issues, or divisive or loaded ones, are best handled face-to-face or at least by phone. Body language and tone of voice can tell you a great deal more than words on a screen. 


PS: If you want your content to cut through, give us a call. Clients tell us we're pretty good at it.

Additional Reading

The Secret Behind David Ogilvy’s Brilliant Headline Copywriting

What One of the World’s Great Novelists Learned About Writing from David Ogilvy

Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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