5 Advertising Books You Need to Read

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Tested Advertising Methods

by John Caples

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Before the internet and email marketing there was direct response, comprising everything from direct mail to magazine ads with the little form in the corner to cut out and send in. John Caples was the original master of the medium, and this book, first published in 1932, still holds valuable insights. Caples says, “I have seen one mail-order advertisement actually sell, not twice as much, not three times as much, but 19-1/2 times as much as much merchandise as another ad for the same product.” And then he goes on to explain why.

Caples preaches two main things: The importance of the headline, and testing and retesting every variable.

Some other wisdom from Caples:

“Humorous copy, like clever copy, should be avoided by 99 copywriters out of 100. Of the millions of people in the United States, less than half the people in this country have a sense of humor.”

“Choose short simple words to express your meaning. Educated readers understand short words just as well as long words, and everyone else understands short words much better.”

Confessions of an Advertising Man

by David Ogilvy

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One ad man who learned from Caples was David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy & Mather and author of two of the most influential books ever written on the medium. His first, Confessions of an Advertising Man, published in 1962, was a huge hit, selling over a million copies. A Scot by birth, Ogilvy worked as chef, door-to-door salesman and in the British Intelligence Service before finding his way into advertising. But perhaps the most important experience Ogilvy brought to advertising was the time he spent working for pollster George Gallup, studying how ads actually work.

Wonderfully written in the style you’d expect from someone educated at Oxford (until he dropped out, at least), the book is a combination of autobiography and how-to, with chapter titles like “How to Get Clients” and “How to Build Great Campaigns.” The one point that he comes to again and again, though, is that a successful ad is one that sells. Creativity and cleverness are useless if they’re not actually driving business.

Some other gems:

“The customer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will convince her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

“Resist the temptation to write the kind of copy which wins awards. I am always gratified when I win an award, but most of the campaigns which produce results never win awards, because they don’t draw attention to themselves.”

From Those Wonderful Folks who Gave you Pearl Harbor: Front Line Dispatches From the Advertising War

by Jerry Della Femina

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While David Ogilvy was an English gentleman of the Old School, Jerry Della Femina was the anti-Ogilvy. An Italian-American street kid from Brooklyn at a time when the business was completely WASPy, he was part of the generation that overthrew the old order. Dressing loudly and talking even louder, they made advertising “cool” and rejected a lot of the staid wisdom of the older agencies.

The book, published in 1970 at the height of the “Creative Revolution” in advertising, is a rambling, profane, hilarious read; it sounds like Della Femina was sipping his third scotch while dictating to a hot secretary in a mini skirt. It’s brim full of sex, drugs and booze. But for all its entertainment value—it’s been cited as a major inspiration for Mad Men—it’s full of valuable insights on charting a career in a crazy business.

For example:

“The average copywriter and art director never stop learning. You have to known your product so well you could go out and be a salesman for the company pushing the product. What you’re trying to do in all of this is to isolate the problem of the company—naturally they wouldn’t have switched their advertising to your agency if everything was going along fine. What you’re trying to do is to crystallize the problem. Once you arrive at the problem, then your job is really almost over, because the solving of the problem is nothing. The headache is finding out what the problem is.”

“The dilemma is that the good writers in this town are those who are really not afraid. You’ve got to be loose. It’s the one business where you’ve got to be so loose when you’re sitting down to work that you can’t sit there and worry about what going on next door or am I going to lose my job. And there are very few people like that in advertising. Practically none.”

Ogilvy on Advertising

by David Ogilvy

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Twenty-two years after his first book, retired and living in his chateau in France, Ogilvy wrote another which would become probably the best-selling book on the subject ever and required reading in marketing and advertising classes everywhere. If you have one book on this list, this is probably the one. If you don’t, go buy it now.

More nuts-and-bolts than his earlier book, Ogilvy on Advertising packs more knowledge about what works and doesn’t work into its 200-some pages than any other single volume, advice gleaned from years of experience and research on everything from color to font to product naming. Some of it may seem staid and old-fashioned today, but there’s sound reasoning behind it. It’s okay to break his rules, but it’s crucial to understand why they became rules in the first place.

Wisdom from the master:

“Captions should appear under all your photographs. Twice as many people read them as read body copy. And use your captions to sell. The best captions are mini-advertisement in themselves.”

“Another mistake is to put a period at the end of headlines. Periods are also called full stops, because they stop the reader dead in his tracks. You will find no full stops at the end of headlines in newspapers.”

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Ads

by Luke Sullivan

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Luke Sullivan worked for Jerry Della Femina, along with a number of other agencies, and racked up a bunch of awards during a long career. He published this book in 1998, a collection of his advice on creating memorable ads for print, TV, radio and beyond, liberally sprinkled with quotes from other advertising people that he collected over the years.

Like Della Femina’s book, it’s a fun read, but like Ogilvy’s books it’s also full of sound, practical advice on the business of actually cranking out ads.

Some of his advice:

“Allow your partner to come up with terrible ideas. The quickest way to shut down your partner’s contribution to the creative process is to roll your eyes at a bad idea. Don’t, Event if the idea truly and most sincerely blows, just say, “That’s interesting,” scribble it down and move on. (…)No matter what your partner says, see if you can take it and shape it and mold it. Then throw it back to him or her with you idea tacked on.”

“Find out the central truth about your whole product category. The central human truth. Hair coloring isn’t about looking younger. It’s about self-esteem. Cameras aren’t about pictures. They’re about stopping time and holding life as the sands runs out. There are great ads to be written around the edges of any product. But get to the ones written right from the essence of the thing.”

There are a lot more great books on the subject out there, but these five should be on everyone’s advertising bookshelf.