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Direct-Response Advertising Stands the Test of Time

As we slog through the last quarter of a year that’s defied predictions, few in printing, print procurement or marketing will attempt to state with certainty what’s coming next economically.

In this context, it’s interesting to revisit some long-ago predictions about the future of advertising by the late David Ogilvy, who wrote the bible of advertising in the sixties-through-eighties era.

Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy & Mather, predicted in “Ogilvy on Advertising,” published in 1985, that:

  • Research would improve, making advertising more effective.
  • Print advertising would experience a resurgence.
  • Direct-response advertising would become mainstream.
  • Advertising would become more information-focused.
  • Billboards would disappear.
  • The “clutter” of radio and TV commercials would be controlled.
  • Political candidates would stop lying in ads.

Well, he was wrong about billboards and honesty in political campaign advertising. But Ogilvy was on to something when it came to direct-response advertising, especially direct mail.

Making the predictions was something his publisher asked him to do for the book, but he sincerely believed in the value of direct-response advertising (it works and you can prove it). Though Ogilvy died in 1999, you can hear him speak about it in videos online.

He referred to direct-response marketing (via direct mail) as his “secret weapon,” responsible for growing his fledgling ad agency by leaps and bounds within six months. He sent out personalized direct mailings to prospective clients every four weeks—and even he was surprised at the amount of business the mailings generated. 

In contrast, he thought general or image advertising was self-indulgent and ineffective. “You people who know direct response have it in your power to rescue the advertising business from its manifold lunacies,” he said in the video cited above.

In addition to personalized direct mail, Ogilvy also believed in print’s enduring value. This was in part because he believed in the effectiveness of “long copy,” or providing detailed information about a product’s benefits, which print excels at. He believed in being truthful in ads and providing useful information combined with storytelling to create and hold interest. In contrast, he felt that bombarding TV viewers with commercials worked against effectiveness. All of Ogilvy’s ideas were based on his understanding of human nature—and they’ve held up fairly well because of that.

So far, the pandemic era has only reinforced the value of direct mail, particularly in offering relief from ever-increasing digital clutter, which is many times greater than the commercial clutter Ogilvy decried on TV. Had he lived long enough to make predictions for 2021, Ogilvy surely would have cited growth in direct-response advertising—and he might even have seen further signs of the print resurgence he had forecast years ago.

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