What can SEO agencies learn from David Ogilvy?

David Ogilvy Confessions of an Advertising Man

photo by Ravi Bhatia

On a whim, I picked up David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man a few weeks ago. It was a spontaneous purchase, based upon a recommendation on Quora about advertising must-reads.

Ogilvy and his agency dominated the advertising world for nearly four decades, turning the initial $6,000 in his bank account into 3,000 clients and 267 offices globally. He wrote Confessions when gigantic wooden boxes with tiny black and white screens had become centerpieces of American living rooms and advertisers were looking for ways to capitalize on the new medium without abandoning the old ones; there was still plenty of money to be made from radio and print.

Television wasn’t the final frontier for media, and neither is the Internet. As more mediums present themselves, so do more options and competition for advertisers. For instance, Coca Cola doesn’t limit itself to advertising exclusively on the web. They buy print, television, and online ads, and they emphasize repetition and consistency in cultivating their identities.

Where does SEO fit in?

Ideally, SEO is best utilized as one small part of a broader marketing effort. Brands like Coca Cola likely have in-house SEOs and hire Ogilvy-caliber agencies, which mean that, try as we might, the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is no longer the medium in which local mom and pop retail outlets can compete with Nordstrom and Amazon for the keyword “women’s boots.”

Small businesses don’t have Nordstrom’s advertising budget, so if they want to have any chance of competing against the giants, SEO agencies must advocate for them. SEOs need to know a little bit of everything about advertising, not just the technical things that may have worked for clients in the early 2000s.

Sales Trump All

To Ogilvy, advertising was purely about sales. No matter how creative, hilarious, brilliant, or widely distributed and recognized, advertising that didn’t achieve more sales was bad advertising. This philosophy made Ogilvy’s agency one of the most successful in the industry, from its founding in 1949 to its buyout by British-owned WPP Group in 1989.

In SEO campaigns, an agency can target perfect keywords, submit perfect sitemaps, make perfect on-page adjustments, generate a ton of traffic, and still not convert sales. Without sales, traffic doesn’t matter.

SEOs still tend to think in terms of keywords and upward-trending graphs. They treat search engines like exploitable, programmable computers without the uniquely human abilities to abstract and synthesize. But in this new era of SEO, content can no longer be filler that was written with the sole purpose of helping search engine crawlers understand a page and rank it accordingly.

Instead, content needs to be Ogilvied.

Content needs soul, inspiration, and a few beers to get things flowing (or in Ogilvy’s case, rum). This is because Google’s employees are smart, and its flagship search product is only getting smarter. As search engines get smarter, they act more human. Soul inspires humans to act. Perfect grammar and exclamation points don’t.

Both SEOs and clients need to understand this. Instead of writing and encouraging fluff, they must ensure that every single word on a website calls consumers to action. Agencies need to make recommendations to clients not only about what search engines want, but also about what real people want.

In Summary

Like it or not, SEO is no longer the hacker’s profession. Its origins may be inside a hacker’s garage, but its future is in executing the classic advertising principles that men like Ogilvy practiced.

Above all, Ogilvy considered himself a researcher. He put in the work to understand his clients’ target demographic in addition to analyzing the advertising efforts of their competitors. He never accepted a client whose product he wouldn’t personally use.

SEOs need to keep customers in mind when making their recommendations, and clients need to stop handing off their advertising budget to an SEO dark hole and expecting traffic spikes and conversions without their input. Frequent interaction between client and agency is not just recommended: it’s necessary. No matter how big a pain in the ass it can be for either party.

As Ogilvy said in Confessions, “To succeed in the ever-changing landscape of Internet advertising, don’t bunt. Aim out of the ballpark. Aim for the company of immortals.”

Here are some other great Ogilvyisms:

- Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.
- What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form.
- If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.
- The relationship between a manufacturer and his advertising agency is almost as intimate as the relationship between a patient and his doctor. Make sure that you can live happily with your prospective client before you accept his account.
- Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.
- I have come to believe that it pays to make all your layouts project a feeling of good taste, provided that you do it unobtrusively. An ugly layout suggests an ugly product.
- In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.

Ravi Bhatia is a project manager at Highly Relevant, specializing in online public relations and developing project proposals. He bikes to work and loves telling people about it.

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