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Tuesday, Jul. 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old-School Layout Still a Winner

By Jeff Sexton
July 28th, 2009

Human nature hasn’t changed and neither have the priorities required for successfully conveying your message.

Ogilvy on Advertising-1Contrary 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.”

Understanding Ogilvy’s Layout and Why it Still Works

Rolls Royce AdThere are three main parts to the Ogilvy Layout, with a corresponding and crucial quality for each element:

  1. The picture, which should have “story appeal”
  2. The headline, which should tie into the “story appeal” of the picture
  3. And the body copy, which most be placed in the right relationship to both the picture and the headline as to anticipate the reader’s visual preferences and enhance readability.

I’ve dealt with Story Appeal in previous posts, but let’s talk about headlines before diving into why Ogilvy’s favorite arrangement continues to stand the test of time.

What I’ve Noticed About Ogilvy’s Headlines

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:

fishyzippo

Pretty difficult not to read a bit more about that story, isn’t it?

Let’s Talk Layout and Arrangement

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:

  1. Picture first,
  2. Headline second,
  3. Copy last.

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.

Eye Tracking Heat Maps Prove the Power of Ogilvy’s 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:

porsche-911-with-heatmap

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:

  • Ogilvy Layout/Porsche Ad: 59% of readers noted the call to action
  • Mercedes Ad: 29%
  • BMW Ad: 11%

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:

YouTube Preview Image

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:

www.porsche.co.uk/innerstrength

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]

Add Your Comments

Comments (58)

  1. Wow, this is an excellent article! It is great to see the timeless and proven tactics still seem to apply today.

    Mike

  2. Interesting. I was just thinking while reading this that online we always lead with the headline for most content and landing pages. Wonder how that would work out for articles, etc. from an attention standpoint. We’re pretty constrained by CMS priorities there.

    Definitely testing this on landing pages though. Great work as always, Jeff.

  3. Very inspiring. Ready to put it into action online with websites and lead capture pages.

  4. Excellent article.

  5. Interesting stuff and some good grist for the testing mill, thanks Jeff.

    For web pages I frequently use a headline embedded in the image itself, followed by a sub-head as “HTML text”…definitly going to see how those same pages do if the image text is removed and the sub-head is tightened up as a full headline.

  6. [...] – Jeff Sexton, Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old School Layout Still a Winner [...]

  7. Wow so the old is new again, great advise for web pages too. Good heatmap service at Crazyegg.com

  8. Jeff, thanks for always bringing us the “good stuff.” This article is so pertinant to today’s furniture retailers. I wish I could get all 10,000 or so of them to read your story. Thanks.

  9. Thank you for a great article. I’m in the process of planing the next layout of our website and this sure gives something to include in the considerations :)

  10. Thanks for such a great blog. A great photo grabs attention! And the skim first and then read is an interesting concept. Hard research on that?

  11. Thanks for the information.

  12. Spot on. Shame so many of my clients take the copy, get a designer to make it pretty, then pay no attention to the UI.

  13. Where is the smell in Persuasion? The chemical reaction :)

  14. Good point about the Porsche website – first time i checked it out! :)

  15. Great article Jeff, many thanks for bringing the video to our attention, I’ve not seen it before.

  16. [...] Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old-School Layout Still a Winner | FutureNow’s GrokDotCom / Marketin… [...]

  17. Great article! It just shows great marketing ideas are timeless.

  18. Inspiring article. Looking forward to the follow up post.

  19. It’s really amazing how people try to over think design. Simple will never go out of style.

    Great article.

  20. Great post and very thought provoking. However its not that surprising, Ogilvy was a genius.

  21. Thank you to everyone for all the great comments. Just wanted to answer Susan Weinschenk’s question:

    Most of the hard research on how web visitors scan pages has been done by Jakob Nielson. This article, along with the content it links to, should be more than enough to get you started:

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html

    Hope that helps.

    - Jeff

  22. Excellent post, Jeff. I’ve leveraged so much of Ogilvy’s learnings in the past that I’ve internalized them – which is good and bad. It’s wonderful to have a breakdown of exactly WHY we do it the way we do. Thank you!

    BTW – you’ve also convinced me to go out and buy the book. Not an easy feat. Well done.

  23. Great comments!! This can merge into a nice homepage layout.

  24. That’s weird. I’d expect with all the research in the field people would come up with something better by now.

  25. [...] recently read an enlightening article  – Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old-School Layout Still a Winner – where Jeff Sexton discusses some of the beliefs held by advertising mogul David Ogilvy. [...]

  26. [...] Grokdotcom met en avant les travaux du génial publicitaire David Ogilvy et son travail remarqué dans la presse. Je ne connaissais pas David Ogilvy mais il a visiblement écrit un livre intitulé “Ogilvy on advertising” dans lequel il décrypte les résultats de tests assez surprenants. Je détaille ici pour vous l’article de Grokdotcom et la méthode Ogilvy. [...]

  27. [...] Shared Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old-School Layout Still a Winner | FutureNow’s GrokDotCom / Marketin… [...]

  28. [...] came across this bit o’ trivia while writing my post on Ogilvy’s preferred ad layout.  I found it written up by Robert Rosenthal at Freaking Marketing, who had done the detective work [...]

  29. [...] came across this bit o’ trivia while writing my post on Ogilvy’s preferred ad layout.  I found it written up by Robert Rosenthal at Freaking Marketing, who had done the detective [...]

  30. [...] Pruebas señalan que los Lay-Outs de la vieja escuela de Ogilvy aún son ganadores. Una disección publicitaria que tiene un gran valor por la forma en como se describe la eficiencia de todos los elementos que se incrustan en un anuncio. [...]

  31. He hits the nail directly on the head with the ‘Chasm’ that separates the Direct Advertising & General Advertising worlds. I’ve never heard it so well explained. Although the the worlds have slowly started to come together, their is still plenty of ignorance from the General Advertising world.

  32. Great article Jeff. I studied Ogilvy in my advertising class in college. Thanks.

  33. There’s no question that if David Ogilvy was starting out today he’d join an SEM firm or site design. It’s interesting to note that he spent the depression selling stoves door-to-door in Scotland learning what propositions resulted in getting in the door and which didn’t. Old school version of AdWord testing.

  34. Jeff, great article… I’ve just seen that Ogilvy video for the first time and landed here while searching for a transcript. So your piece above was an added bonus. I/we’ve long tested and taught Ogilvy’s ideas and I can confidently agree, he figured out a lot long ago that way too many now have either never absorbed or completely forgotten.

  35. [...] How to fight back: Tug at their heartstrings so they’ll open the purse strings. Good photography has the ability to provoke an emotional reaction. Use that to your advantage. Whenever possible, avoid using weak place-holder images in your mock-ups. Before you present any mock, even an early iteration, take some time to find great imagery that helps communicate their brand and your design. And don’t be afraid to draw on some expert advice on the subject. When David Ogilvy wrote his classic book Ogilvy On Advertising, one of the key lessons was the importance of a good image for memorable design. And, as the good folks over at FutureNow write, “Tests Indicate Ogilvy’s Old-School Layout Still a Winner”. [...]

  36. excellent post!
    It is inctedibel how people try to think the design over and over.

  37. It is very important how you draft the layout for an advertising. It should pull the people to make it sure that they took the products.

  38. Notice how it correspond to Google heatmap? coincidence?

  39. I think there is a hierarchy to capturing the readers attention but it isn’t necessarily top, middle bottom as Ogilvy asserts. Rather, the hierarchy is what gets noticed 1rst, 2nd, and 3rd. It’s more a matter of size and what gets sensed and attended to first. Spending half a page on an image should result in at least 50% of attention. Likewise, bolder and larger fonts get noticed faster and more often than smaller and more narrow fonts.

  40. Outstanding article, Jeff. I have implemented a lot of Ogilvy’s learnings previously that I’ve internalized them – and that is good as well as unfavorable. It’s actually great to have an explanation of why we take action the way we do. Thank you!

    By the way – you’ve also persuaded me to purchase the book. Not an easy task. Congratulations.

  41. Interesting article, it’s interesting to think why we do certain things sometimes… And why we take those actions. I certainly am guilty of skim reading things and not always thoroughly.

  42. This is the first time I have listened to Ogilvy and I am very impressed. It’s difficult keep in mind that we should be remembering the basics and how successful they are. There is no need to deviate for creativity’s sake.

  43. I 100% agree with all the stuff that Oglivy teaches. Some of it should be common sense but we tend to let our creativity over rule simplicity. But I am going to internalize some of his teachings and see where it takes me and my business.

  44. Maybe Spending half a page on an image should result in at least 50% of attention.

    Btw thank you for a great article.

  45. great one! awesome how people making the design thing over and over.

  46. nice fish and zippo.. yeah old school layout may be a winner for a long time

  47. There’s no question that if David Ogilvy was starting out today he’d join an SEM firm or site design. It’s interesting to note that he spent the depression selling stoves door-to-door in Scotland learning what propositions resulted in getting in the door and which didn’t. Old school version of AdWord testing.

  48. [...] Tests Indicate that Ogilvy’s Old-School Layout is Still a Winner Share [+] Share & Bookmark • Twitter • StumbleUpon • Digg • Delicious • Facebook [...]

  49. Cant say i agree with this for 2011! Old school has a place but most want dynamic ultra modern visualisations IMO.

  50. It’s a highly effective layout but the story still needs to be interesting. The scan and skim first and read later is spot on. It’s exactly what I do when it comes to read anything so it needs something to grab the readers attention.

  51. I finished the Ogilvy video I could not understand few things. After reading this post i now see the clear picture. Still i believe the Google heatmap is the right way to improve clicks.

  52. There’s no question that if David Ogilvy was starting out today he’d join an SEM firm or site design. It’s interesting to note that he spent the depression selling stoves door-to-door in Scotland learning what propositions resulted in getting in the door and which didn’t. Old school version of AdWord testing.

  53. i believe theres a hierarchy to capturing the readers attention, but it isn’t necessarily top, middle bottom as Ogilvy asserts.

    Rather, the hierarchy is what gets noticed 1rst, 2nd, and 3rd. It’s more a matter of size & what gets sensed and attended to first.

    Spending half a page on an image should result in at least 50% of attention.

    Likewise, bolder and larger fonts get noticed faster and more often than smaller and more narrow fonts.

  54. David, you are so right about it. I’d have probably commented the same thing!

    We are all learning every day, so true :)

  55. He hits the nail directly on the head with the ‘Chasm’ that separates the Direct Advertising & General Advertising worlds. I’ve never heard it so well explained. Although the the worlds have slowly started to come together, their is still plenty of ignorance from the General Advertising world.

  56. Wow this post is as great today as when you wrote it 2 and a half years ago Jeff. Not bad! Mr. Ogilvy’s video is still relevant decades later.

    Now that is evergreen content!

  57. Excellent post, Jeff. I’ve leveraged so much of Ogilvy’s learnings in the past that I’ve internalized them – which is good and bad. It’s wonderful to have a breakdown of exactly WHY we do it the way we do. Thank you!

    BTW – you’ve also convinced me to go out and buy the book. Not an easy feat. Well done.

  58. I like the conclusion that says “messaging and relevance had to have highest priority”. At the end of the day, Story is still king. Thanks for sharing Jeff!

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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