Main illustration: Drew Shannon
David Ogilvy was one of the greatest ad men ever. His contributions to the marketing industry are incalculable. It’s hard to imagine a world without his iconic ads.
So where did he get his best ideas from? Let’s take one of his most famous ads, the Rolls Royce advertisement from 1959.
Did he spend months sweating over an original tagline to impress clients? He did not. When asked where he found inspiration for the ad, he admitted it was a 20-year-old headline he repackaged.
Ogilvy knew that writing should be approached the same way an engineer approaches the building of a bridge. Once you know what to do, you can draw on the same materials over and over again.
Unlike Ogilvy’s creative department, many marketers today (especially those involved in “content marketing”) tend to shy away from using what’s worked before. They throw away tried and tested ideas in favour of the new shiny one, as if to say: “I wrote a blog post on that subject two years ago, I’m not going to cover it again.”
In engineering, this is a well known anti-pattern referred to as the “not invented here” syndrome – nobody wants to tinker with an existing idea when they could build a new one instead.
“Programmers are, in their hearts, architects, and the first thing they want to do when they get to a site is to bulldoze the place flat and build something grand. We’re not excited by incremental renovation: tinkering, improving, planting flower beds.” – Joel Spolsky
In marketing, if you want to stand out amid the clutter, you have to be consistent. You can’t expect everyone to be obsessed with you. Just because you said something once doesn’t mean everyone heard/read it. To reach past the “front row,” you often need to make multiple impressions before your message gets through. The fourth time you reuse an idea will, for a lot of people, be the first time they notice it.
Take the idea below, coined by our co-founder Des in a blog post almost 4 years ago. Here’s how it has been successfully reused by our content team, from a video, to an article, to a microsite, and also in a book.
That doesn’t mean we always have to repeat ourselves over and over again. Every time we repackage and market ideas again, we breathe new life into them. With each format shift we’re hitting a different segment of the market, and that requires a different design and some different packaging, but it’s all tied together with the same tried and tested idea.
The notion that just because an idea is more than 4 years old it is redundant is patently absurd. Sometimes, the most creative approaches come from connecting what’s lying around gathering dust.
Reuse isn’t just for marketing – it applies to every team in a startup. Whether it’s pattern libraries of UI, or older code that has been tested and fixed countless times before, they’re not any worse for having been used before. In fact, they’re better. Every time you reuse, you’re refining proven ideas, adding clarity over time.
There are, of course, times when you need to innovate. There are times existing patterns won’t work, or what you’re trying to achieve simply hasn’t been done before. But if you’ve got tried and tested ideas that work, reuse them.