What Would the Father of Advertising Think of Social Media?

By: Tara Maupai

With brands increasingly involving platforms such as Instagram and TikTok in advertising campaigns, some questions arise: is social media real advertising? Would David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising” approve of it? To answer this question, we look at insight provided by Ogilvy and his teachings through his books, “Confessions of an Advertising Man” and “Ogilvy on Advertising.” Although Ogilvy’s work was published decades ago, his content creation principles are prevalent in modern advertising — alive and well in social media — and I’ll use his own words to explain how.   

“To stand out, you must be well defined in the minds of consumers: who you are and what you do.”

A catalyst for building a brand: While the best advertising stays true to its brand, first that brand must be developed. Utilizing social media platforms allows companies and creators to produce and build upon their personalities. For both new and well-established brands, social media is the way to reiterate those brand personas. When deciding between brands that sell or promise the same thing, consumers are going to choose the brands they feel they resonate with the most. Not only do brands market their products, but they market themselves, too. Branding arguably is what sells products more so than the products do themselves. Take Merriam-Webster for example: by taking the task of selling a dictionary (boring, as all dictionaries are) and building a personality of fun, witty, and relatable on Twitter, their account grew by over 200,000 followers in a year and is continuing to grow and maintain popularity.

 “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

Research and analytics are key: Ogilvy believed in the importance of research in advertising, including testing product and branding concepts. Audience and engagement analytics offered by social media channels Instagram, Twitter and TikTok as well as third-party tools provide developed and extensive data. This data helps brands and creators measure success as well as weak points within products, campaigns, or just overall big ideas. Knowing everything about your audience and industry before a campaign is activated helps brands be that much more successful. Comment sections, shares, replies and direct messages are also crucial, delivering direct feedback through conversations that brands and other consumers can respond and react to. 

“Unless your campaign has a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

Perfect for big ideas: Social media is a collection of big ideas shared across the globe. Campaigns can be multifaceted across many platforms at once and even the smallest of businesses can take advantage of social media marketing strategies and find success in their original and innovative content going viral. Brands often reach viral status through creating clever challenges, hashtags, essentially relating content to pop culture and tapping into the subconscious minds of consumers while presenting original and fun material. They must be able to keep up and constantly create content or they’ll fall behind in the algorithm, losing out on followers and profit. Not only does social media allow for the expression of specific big ideas within a singular campaign, but it also allows brands to express their overarching big idea, or governing brand idea, aka the GBI. Discovering the GBI sets the framework for everything pertaining to the brand: its messaging, strategies, story, promise and experience. While Ogilvy himself did not use the term GBI, he would have given it the D.O. stamp of approval, because it admirably encapsulates his entire school of thought.

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Requires compelling copy: Copywriting in social media relies on headlines and short yet persuasive writing. According to an article about attention span on social media, Facebook reported that the average attention span of a smartphone user on a social media platform was 1.7 seconds, even less than those using desktops, which is 2.5 seconds. To prevent audiences from scrolling past a post, it must immediately catch their eye. There are so many different things to look at on social media, consumers’ attention spans do not have time to read or watch something boring. A prime example of this is the moniker used on the internet, “Too Long Didn’t Read,” or “TL;DR.” Social media algorithms emphasize skilled and accessible copywriting to effectively reach and captivate the appropriate audiences, which goes beyond just cute or catchy taglines: drawing consumers in through headlines and copy takes refined strategy.

“You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it.”

Captivating visuals are mandatory: There are many different visual elements that a brand can use to become successful on social media: photography, videos, graphics, art and much more. Whereas in traditional advertising, each medium has its own set of rules. If there were to be one rule about social media, it is this: you have to be creative. Much like traditional advertising, it is distasteful and taboo to copy other brands or creators’ work. This means that visuals must be original, showing consumers something that they haven’t seen before, or in a different light. This is where photography and other artistic direction shine through on social media. To compete with other brands and creators on social media as well as draw and maintain the attention of consumers, eye-catching visual content is a must.

“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

Drives sales on- and offline: The biggest lesson that David Ogilvy gave to the advertising industry was that the point of the business is to sell – above all. Brands use social media to not only direct consumers to their stores, website, or partnered e-commerce retailers but also use the platform itself as a marketplace to sell straight out of, like Instagram Shopping and TikTok Shopping. Showing products and services in action is a large part of advertising campaigns as well, especially when partnering with influencers. Consumers being able to witness products and services in action contribute to brand reputation and consumer trust. Within the service of selling on social media, another Ogilvy principle is ever-present: storytelling. By fusing storytelling inside advertisements, you truly appeal to consumers. Ogilvy explains this notion in an interview clip from 1985. The goal of advertising comes down to selling – while it takes hard work, just as any traditional advertising channel, social media pushes exceptional selling statistics.

Above all, Ogilvy wanted creative minds to understand this: the heart of advertising comes from understanding consumers, and the audiences you wish to reach —  grasping who they are, and why they do what they do. After accomplishing that, the possibilities are endless. You can predict what will draw them and keep them in, what they will buy, how and when they will buy it. Social media in advertising effectively embodies Ogilvy’s philosophies. So, to finally answer the question, yes —  he would undoubtedly approve of and consider social media to be real advertising.

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