Recently, at Atomic we came across a funny meme on DigiDay. The piece was a blend of clever quotes attributed to David Ogilvy, mixed with a couple pictures from Mad Men. A great comment about finding ideas through creative process stuck out:
“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”
If you look closely, you’ll notice that the quote doesn’t say “the best ideas ARE jokes”. But in this advertising world, many people would prefer to interpret the quote to mean the best ads are “funny”.
Rather than just assume that Ogilvy’s only meant the creative process, Doug asked me to locate the context of this Ogilvy quote. Seems like an easy Google search, right? Wrong.
The Search for Context
After searching through countless blogs, books, and consulting with wikiquote (which had some of Ogilvy’s quotes, but not this one) I came up dry. The pages all listed the quote, but none gave a source.
Finally, a citation of the quote in QFinance: the Ultimate Resource came through. I visited the library to flip through QFinance, and found this reference: “Don’t Get Taken, Take Control” (Tom Sabella, 2006).
I found this citation odd for two reasons: The first; Ogilvy died in 1999 (so how could his quote come from a book written in 2006?). The second: Neither of these books quoting Ogilvy, “the advertising genius,” are about advertising.
With no other leads, I flipped though an edition of Sabella’s book. The quote was there, but there was no reference as to where it came from. It came as one big quote that read:
“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible. If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”
Now, I’d heard the second part of the line before, but not the two together. A quick search on the kindle showed that second portion — “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative”—can be found without the first part in Ogilvy on Advertising.
Except, Ogilvy didn’t say it – it is a quote from another advertising agency: “Benton and Bowles Agency holds that ‘If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.’ Amen.”
Confirming that I’m not alone in this quest, I found a blog post that also notes that it was a Benton and Bowles quote. Even worse, while Ogilvy attributed the quote correctly he changed it. The actual quote is: “It’s not creative unless it sells”.
Now this was all spinning out of control. I found two Ogilvy quotes with issues: One clearly botched quote. Another that people attribute to Ogilvy, but I’m nowhere near an answer as to whether Ogilvy actually said it.
Some Sort of Silver Lining
Quote Investigator recently wrote a blog post about a similar situation. He wrote about a phrase from Dr. Suess. The Investigator found that the original quote was much longer, and that over time, various people had condensed and reworded it into what it has become today. Is this what happened to my Ogilvy quote? That would certainly explain why I haven’t been able to locate its origin. But Quote Investigator also regularly finds quotes and quote attributions that are entirely bogus.
We Need to Care About Accuracy and Clarity
This whole process has left me somewhat frustrated. Ogilvy was an advertising genius. But without knowing the context of his comments, it is easy to misunderstand and misinterpret his meaning.
And then? We enter that modern sport of inventing quotes and tying them to important figures just to make our ideas sound legitimate.
I didn’t find the answer to my question – I just got tangled in even more questions. The most frustrating part for me is not knowing the truth – despite all the bounties of the internet.
I’m not saying it is impossible to find; or that the answers aren’t out there. Someone with more available resources, who has access to more extensive document search engines, may come to find my quote quite quickly. But why does it have to be that complicated? Shouldn’t it be easier to uncover where and when something was said?
At Atomic, we believe good work requires honesty and validity. But until we find better clarity on that supposed Ogilvy quote, we’ll take it for what it seems to really mean: Humor offers tremendous power during the creative process.
A guest post from Atomic employee, Cydni Anderson
Copyright 2014 – Atomic Direct – All Rights Reserved
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