Does David Ogilvy still matter?


"The world David Ogilvy inhabited no longer exists."

One of the most valuable things about Twitter—if one uses it right—is that it's the ultimate RSS feed. Inevitably, compelling content comes right into one's feed. So it was with an interesting Point/Counterpoint (H/T @TheDrum) on the legacy of advertising giant David Ogilvy.

In two posts, different authors take opposing opinions on the continuing relevance of Ogilvy. In the first, David Baldwin (Founder of the Raleigh, NC agency Baldwin& and author of The Belief Economy) argues that Ogilvy's methods have become irrelevant. In our times, he argues, media has "become more personal" and that people, particular millenials, value brands that express and act on beliefs that reflect their own priorities. Furthermore, he dismissed Ogilvy's time as one in which advertisers didn't face the myriad of mobile, social and interactive media channels that proliferate today. More succinctly, Baldwin states that "the world David Ogilvy inhabited no longer exists."

This is striking language, and also familiar. Fast Company magazine—in a seminal article on the future of advertising from 2010—addressed those who believed they could preserve the traditional strategies and tactics of "Big Idea" advertising:

“This is a holdover from 20th-century marketing,” says Brian Collins, a former Ogilvy exec who now runs an innovation consultancy. “People who think that way are supremely well equipped to work in a world that no longer exists.”

Note the pedigree of the source.

JP Hanson (Chief Executive of brand agency Rouser) responded aggressively. He stated that the singular purpose of marketing has not changed since Ogilvy's heyday: to sell.

Hanson questions the purpose-based view of branding, as well as its real relevance to consumers, stating it is overrated. He opined that the focus on purpose and values has more to do with brand marketers feeling discomfort with the idea that "selling" is their true purpose. Successful modern brands, he continues, enjoy preferred status because of positioning, rather than values or purpose.

These are interesting points, but both authors overlook more relevant factors: two major trends have altered brand communication since Ogilvy's time, while a third pillar has remained central.

Customers prefer to choose how and when they engage with a brand

The first trend is in the nature of branding that directly affects marketing. Branding is no longer a simply a matter of selling products or services. It is a matter of journeys and experiences. Every interaction with a brand defines its relevance and value, and the total experience determines if people will trust the brand with continued patronage, and even advocacy. International ad conglomerate WPP states that, while experiences and journeys are central to modern branding and marketing, that these are not linear matters. Customers prefer to choose how and when they engage with a brand, and the possible number of journeys is myriad. Brands must connect with consumers along all points of the experience to maximize impact, and build preferred trust. Noted author and brand consultant Denise Lee Yohn adds: "Eventually, Apple may no longer exist as a product company, or even a technology company, but an experience company."

The second trend is reflective of our current social and mobile media age. But rather than simply being a matter of these technologies adoption, there is a more central issue. The traditional advertising/marketing model of sender > message > receiver is no longer relevant. Communication for brands is now circular, and customer participation is as important as the brand's. 

Ogilvy's ongoing relevance has to do with whether his approaches intersect with new realities

McKinsey published an article summarizing many of these new factors. Important insights included:

"In today’s decision journey, consumer-driven marketing is increasingly important as customers seize control of the process and actively “pull” information helpful to them. Our research found that two-thirds of the touch points during the active-evaluation phase involve consumer-driven marketing activities, such as Internet reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family..."

Yet for all the changes in the nature of branding, marketing, communication and technology, one consistency has remained: the premium on emotional connection between brands and people. WPP states that "Consistent emotions deliver consistent brand experiences." Harvard Business Review recommended brands define emotional connection as the "true North" of their strategy, and that a focus on delivering emotionally-relevant experiences at key points in the customer journey increased both customer satisfaction and ROI.

Ultimately, Ogilvy's ongoing relevance as a creative or strategy guide has less to do about changes in technology or shifting priorities in younger generation, and more to do with whether—and which of—his approaches intersect with new realities. It's highly unlikely that a creative who drove many successful campaigns over time could not have dealt with new conditions. The better question may be to ask how one might apply Ogilvy's techniques and views to experiences and journeys, to a circular communications model, and to engage at an emotional level. Equally important: what would make those approaches the appropriate, valid choice in application.