06 August 2014


There's something unseemly about poking fun at failed predictions, as though one was building a shrine to moral superiority atop a foundation of hindsight.  When Terry O'Reilly and I wrote The Age of Persuasion, we toyed with the idea, but chose instead to frame ours as a wish last rather than a series of earnest prognostications.  There was a good reason for this.

David Ogilvy.

The wartime British Intelligence officer, door-to stove salesman, and disciple of  George Gallup, (yes, the 'Gallup Poll' guy), who was, himself one of the founding fathers of modern market research.   

I'm not alone among copywriters in my love-hate relationship with this long-departed gentleman and Ad legend, who founded the empire that thrives today as Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide.  And whose contribution to the tone, dignity and art of advertising informed a generation.  The go-to work in all of Ogilvy-dom is the print add for Rolls Royce, as lovingly and skillfully crafted as the vehicle itself:

In his wonderful 1963 book Ogilvy on Advertising, he offers a (baker's) dozen predictions as to what will transpire in the ad world in years to come.  

51 years later, it's time to take a peek and see how he did.

To his credit, the great man attributes this to the prodding of his publisher, and confesses a declining interest in the industry's future.   What's so fascinating today is how spectacularly wrong so many of them were.  To quote the man:  "So here goes:"

1.  The quality of research will improve, and this will generate a bigger corpus of knowledge as to what works and what doesn't.  Creative people will learn to exploit this knowledge, thereby improving the strike rate at the cash register.

YES! Nailed it (as the kids say).  
As anyone who's answered a dinnertime phone call or been button-holed in a shopping mall can attest, the prolific growth of market research is itself a force of nature. 

Ogilvy (bless him) also cautioned: "I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination."

2.  Advertising will contain more information and less hot air.
Swing and a miss. Strike one.

3.  Billboards will be abolished.
Strike two.  Though I could kiss him on the mouth right now.

4.   The clutter of commercials on television and radio will be brought under control.
Ooooo.  'Wrong' seems too small a word.  (See The Age of Persuasion, Chapter 1)

5.  There will be a vast increase in the use of advertising by governments for the purpose of education, particularly health education.  
Granted: the Ad Council in the US does incredible public service work, so much of it health-related. The Government of Canada, meanwhile,  has defunded Participaction, but has spent upwards of $100 million since 2009 (sayeth the Globe) selling Canadians on its Economic Action Plan.  Let's call this a wash.

6.  Advertising will play a part in bringing the Population Explosion under control.
Hey, whatever happened to the Population Explosion as a world crisis?  Or acid rain, for that matter.

7.  Candidates for political office will stop using dishonest advertising.
Okay, David, drive way down that highway past a place called 'Wrong'.  Then keep driving till I tell you to stop.

[9 & 10 deal with the ownership and nationality of major ad agencies.  Let's bypass this, except to note that Mr. O bats about .290 on these.]

11.  Multinational manufacturers will increase their market shares all over the non-Communist world, and will market more of their brands internationally.  The advertising campaigns for these brands will emanate from the headquarters of multinational agencies, but will be adapted to respect differences in local culture.

Yes to the first part- though he never imagined Big Macs in Beijing.

No to the second part about centralized global agencies:  today, the empire he founded, Ogilvy and Mather, has more than 100 offices in more than 50 countries.  We'll cut him some slack:  Mr. Ogilvy retired twenty years before the advent of email.

12.  Direct response advertising will cease to be a separate speciality, and will be folded into the 'general' agencies.
He was kinda sorta right in the 80's, and wildly right in the Digital Age.

13.   Ways will be found to produce effective television commercials at a more sensible cost.
Buffalo NY area car dealer ads notwithstanding, this one's a howler, worth of a place near the record exec who told The Beatles "guitar bands are on their way out."

Enough fun at the giant's expense.

Did the great man predict that he'd regret giving in to his publisher's request for predictions?  I don't know.  But the man took huge risks. Built an empire.  Changed for the better the advertising end of popular culture.  And lived out his days in a lavish medieval French castle.

That's gotta be worth a mulligan.

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