When you write copy for a living, you’re always alive to the possibility that it can be done better. And that you’d best be learning from those around you.
Andrew Ogilvy was alive to that possibility too, and here’s what he says on page 88 of Ogilvy on Advertising, a wonderful book that I just got from Alibris: “It is no bad thing to learn the craft of advertising by copying your elders and betters.” Now, Mr. Ogilvy was (I bet) a charmingly irascible Scot, so he could get away with pronouncements like that. In our politically correct and self esteem-driven world, we certainly don’t have “betters,” do we? And we consistently honor our elders, right?
Ah, but I digress. Mr. Ogilvy’s point is that it’s o.k. to copy. Even good. He copied the best of American ads when he worked in a London ad agency and later began to do his “own thing.” By that point, I suspect, what he had learned from the writers in the U.S. had become second nature, and he could gracefully add his own signature touches.
Notice that Mr. Ogilvy didn’t say “plagiarize.” There’s a difference between outright theft and using what you’ve learned as a platform from which to launch your own excellence. I suspect that we copywriters all do that. We imitate the rhythm of another writer’s sentences, grab onto verb usage or word order, and then we go for what makes the work our own.