Inside Ogilvy's Mystery Box

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h1What are stories, but mystery boxes?

J.J. Abrams

One hundred years ago in Surrey, England, a great storyteller and arguably the world's greatest adman is born. This man of seemingly humble origins – a college dropout and onetime door-to-door salesman – will go on to author several bestselling books, become one of the most quotable figures in modern business, and start one of the largest and most influential advertising agencies in the world. "Who is this mystery man, this skillful raconteur," you ask? Why, none other than the venerable David Ogilvy.

With the impending centennial celebration of his birth (June 23, 1911), the ad world has been struck by a keen sense of nostalgia. Retrospectives of Ogilvy’s most celebrated work have cropped up across the web, shining a distinct light on how much the industry has changed since the Mad Men days of early-morning Bloody Mary meetings and copy-centric print ads. But despite the marked difference of today’s ad game to that of Ogilvy's, there’s a clear thread of influence found in Ogilvy's work that has permeated the art of storytelling throughout the decades.

Take his famed Man in the Hathaway Shirt campaign, for example. In a stroke of genius, Ogilvy added an eye patch to a trim, stern looking middle-aged shirt model. The patch was everything. It instantly brought intrigue to the narrative. But what's truly brilliant is that the copy never actually addressed the story behind the eye patch – it simply delivered informative content about the shirt, and the shirts sold out.

Ogilvy's strategy of keeping the central mystery alive has time and time again proven to be one of the most powerful storytelling devices in modern media. J.J. Abrams, creator of LOST and director of Cloverfield and Super 8, has made an entire career out of preserving what he likes to call "The Mystery Box." His knack for sustained secret keeping has earned Abrams critical acclaim and box-office success, cementing his A-list status.

The same goes for the music industry. Bands like The Weeknd release albums anonymously, with rumors of involvement from known artists (e.g., Kanye, Drake). The elusive Burial makes a game of it: "Only about five people outside of my family know I make tunes, I think. I hope," he says. Modern street art’s entire existence is reliant on an inherent veil of secrecy, with its most celebrated and talked about contributor, Banksy, refusing to step into the limelight and becoming all the more famous for it.

Today, the Internet gives us instant access to anything we want. Social networks have turned us into a population of TMI over-sharers. Which is why it's refreshing to leave a little something to the imagination. Ogilvy reminds us of this…great story telling is sometimes about the content we keep in the box.