Contrary to common opinion, David Ogilvy didn’t have a preference for long copy.
What he had was an overwhelming bias towards anything that had been proven to work (which included long copy). Ogilvy’s real, professed preferences were for consumer testing, research-driven techniques, and performance-based advertising in the truest sense of the term.
Based on those things, the conclusion he came to was that messaging and relevance had to have highest priority. Everything else – creativity, design, layout – should be subordinated to the end goal of conveying a salient message in as persuasive a manner as possible. In print, this took the form of what has come to be known as “The Ogilvy Layout.”
There are three main parts to the Ogilvy Layout, with a corresponding and crucial quality for each element:
In his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy writes about the importance of captions no less than 4 times, urging the reader to include captions underneath all of their photographs each and ever time. According to the research Ogilvy cites, 4 times as many readers read captions as body copy and 10 times as many people read headlines as body copy.
So while it may seem obvious that the headline and the main picture (or “hero shot” in today’s lingo) should be related, it also seems that you can grab even more reader-grabbing power for your headlines if you make use of some of the compelling “what’s this picture all about” draw of captions. Here’s a perfect example of this:
Pretty difficult not to read a bit more about that story, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing: because of his attention to research, Ogilvy knew what many online copywriters are still learning:
**People scan and skim first and read second
and they only read IF their scan turns up something worthwhile.**
Now, in magazines, which are mostly read as a diversion, the first thing to get scanned are pictures. We are visual creatures and pictures typically convey a lot of information (and emotion) fast, so a strong visual is almost always going to be the first thing the eye fixes on when the reader is engaging in general browsing for interest. Please note, though, that this scanning order changes for task oriented individuals interacting with a website. People scanning a web page redefine “worthwhile” by relevance to their task, and therefore focus on the headlines first.
Getting back to magazine ads, if the picture is intriguing, the next thing a person will scan is the headline and possibly the caption. After that, and only after that, the person in question will skim (or read) the body copy.
For emphasis, this is THE order in which an audience will scan a magazine ad/page:
To quote Ogilvy himself:
“Readers look first at the illustration, then at the headline, then at the copy. So put these elements in that order – illustration at the top, headline under the illustration, copy under the headline. If you put the headline above the illustration, you are asking people to scan in an order which does not fit their habit.”
And to paraphrase Steve Krug, don’t make the reader think; it’s just as easy to stop reading or engaging with the ad as it is to expend the extra effort navigating an oh-so-creative-but-against-the-grain layout.
The brilliant people over at Think Eye Tracking recently put three different car ads to the test: one Ogilvy-inspired 1-page layout compared to 2 new-school double-trucks (aka 2-page spreads). You can see their blog post about their tests here, but I’ve also posted the Ogilvy-inspired heat map below. Check it out:
Notice how the headline and body copy receive most of the attention. The picture draws the eye, but the messaging gets the most time and attention from the viewer/reader.
Unfortunately, a direct comparison of heat maps isn’t possible, because Think Eye Tracking only posted the heat map from the Porsche add and not the ones from the Mercedes and BMW ads. But they DID give percentages of each ad’s ability to create reader retention of various elements within the ad, including the call to action. Assuming that the call to action was made within or at the end of the body copy (a fairly safe assumption), we can see how the ads stack up in terms of getting people to read the copy/pay attention to the messaging:
The Ogilvy Layout doubled readership of the copy while using half the ad space!
Incidentally, the use of a 1-pager instead of a double-spread was also recommended by Ogilvy, as the double-spread cost much more but didn’t increase readership in proportion to its cost.
And for those of you who read this far, or who doubted Ogivly’s performance-based bias, enjoy this short video of Ogilvy addressing the Direct Marketers of his day:
Just for the record, while I DO draw some distinctions between the online world and old-school direct marketing, I also think that online “marketers” who stray too far from direct marketing principles end up producing websites like this:
In case you’re wondering, yes, that is the URL used in the Porsche ad’s call to action. Just the sort of thing you’d remember after flipping through the ad isn’t it? Not.
Anyway, go ahead and frustrate yourself by interacting with that “piece of work” for awhile. You’ll undoubtedly find yourself wishing that the same, sane approach to design and layout had been used in creating the website as had been used in designing the ad.
P.S. I’m not advocating a literal use of the Ogilvy layout to a digital format, but rather an intelligent application of Ogilvy’s subordination of design, creativity, and layout to messaging. More about that in a follow up post…
[Editor's note: the author of this post is now blogging at jeffsextonwrites.com]