Big Ideas and Direct Storytelling Keep Marketing Alive and Well

By J.F. McKenna

When I was an apprentice reporter, my editors repeatedly reminded me to “never bury the lead.”

The formula for newspaper success was simple. Find the heart of the story. Tell it straight. Send the copy to the desk.

Pretty simple, eh? Amazing how many fellow reporters–and this sometimes stubborn staff writer, truth be told–struggled with the time-tested journalistic algorithm.

But once on target, success was ensured. The right story delivered, the maximum number of eyeballs captured.

Over the years, I have transferred that lesson to marketing-communications. The ROI remains the same.

Find the real message. Tell it well. Win over the customer.

Surprisingly, many of today’s “mad men” still struggle with the formula. Much to their clients’ regret. In many cases, they even enlist the latest social-media tools to expertly “bury the lead.”

Too bad my crusty editors of past days are not around. They wouldn’t know a tweet from a click-through rate, but they would spot a messaging undertaker instantly. And they would know how to fix a weak story even faster.

The same can be said about the grand old man of advertising, David Ogilvy.

The business world, particularly the Young Turks of marketing today, are paying renewed attention to Ogilvy, who died in 1999. He lives on through his own books and the work of his able disciples. A Scotch-Irish polymath, Ogilvy was a genius who put all his stock in direct truth-telling.

Ogilvy understood the basic metric of successful marketing: “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Back in February, Success magazine’s Emma Johnson wrote a delightful paean to “The Original Mad Man.” Ogilvy’s philosophy, Johnson wrote, “was to hit on what he called the ‘Big Idea’–one he executed with gorgeous photographs, direct headlines in big type, and an emphasis on giving viewers plain information about the product.”

Like my editorial mentors, Ogilvy never allowed the real message to be lowered into the ground and covered up.

Success was his, as captured eyeballs and phenomenal sales attested. Ogilvy’s clients ranged from Shell Oil to Lever Brothers and from Campbell soup to Rolls-Royce.

An outspoken champion of vigorous research and ethical behavior, Ogilvy never fell into the trap that the message or the medium was greater than the product or the service. As he reminded his colleagues, “advertising reflects the mores of a society, but it does not influence them.”

Allan Adamson, author of BrandSimple (Palgrove Macmillian), is a spiritual descendent of Ogilvy’s. In his book on branding management, he writes: “I was fortunate enough to start my career at Ogilvy & Mather in the late 1970s….[There] was one thing that stuck with me more than anything else—the need to identify a simple but meaningful idea on which to base your brand and then to create and transmit the branding signals necessary to bring the idea to life.”

Ignore the big idea today and no amount of Web analytics and keyword targeting will save you.

Take it from this writer and editor–“bury the lead” and it will be your funeral with clients and customers.


J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. Contact him at .



  1. Thanks for the update, is there any way I can get an update sent in an email whenever there is a fresh update?

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