Tom Holmes talks to The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland.

From being described as the worst graduate trainee that Ogilvy & Mather had ever hired, Rory took a while to find his calling in life. From unlikely beginnings as a classics teacher to his current job as Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group, Rory’s rise through the ranks is as unconventional as his dress sense.

One of marketing’s most original thinkers and influential speakers, Rory is a leading light in the advertising industry and as outspoken as he is creative. A champion of behavioural economics and an early adopter of new technologies, his collection of his cravats is as legendary as his appetite for chicken jalfrezi.

The Wiki Man attempts to give an insight into Rory’s unique character and personality, through a winding journey of blog posts, interviews, tweets and reference materials, to give a rich and engaging introduction to Rory’s mind.


Rory Sutherland, The Wiki Man

Rory Sutherland, The Wiki Man 

TH: What does the Rory Sutherland brand stand for?

RS: W.W. Clements, a former CEO and president of the Dr Pepper Company, described the taste of Dr Pepper as one-of-a-kind, saying “I’ve always maintained you cannot tell anyone what Dr Pepper tastes like because it’s so different. It’s not an apple, it’s not an orange, it’s not a strawberry, it’s not a root beer, it’s not even a cola. It’s a different kind of drink with a unique taste all its own.

I am an avid fan of Dr Pepper, which, despite the absence of any supporting evidence, I am convinced possesses actual medicinal powers.

And, if any of my character traits are the result of deliberate effort rather than mere accident, it is that, like Dr Pepper, I try to avoid categorisation.

Dr Pepper logo

I have a slightly exaggerated fear of the obvious, or of being easily stereotyped.

In this, I have been generously indulged by Ogilvy. But it is quite important. The switch from commission to payment by the hour has forced people in agencies to over-specialise to the point of individual irrelevance. (I have a friend who is both a very good planner and a very good copywriter; he finds it almost impossible to find a job, since no one knows which departmental budget should be used to pay him, or how to charge him out).

This pin-factory approach to our business, and the need for clients to be presented with some neat, Taylorist idea of “the creative process” seems to exemplify much that is wrong with our business. To force everyone to define themselves as “digital” or “a social specialist” or an “advertising planner” is deeply inimical to problem solving and the creative imagination.

There is a phrase used in mathematics – and now widely used in the software industry – called “the inventor’s paradox”. This comes from the insight that, in problem solving, the best way to solve a specific problem is often by solving a different, more general problem to the one you have been given to solve. Too much specialisation makes us ill-prepared to do that. One of many reasons I have stayed at Ogilvy for 23 years is that it does seem better placed to exploit the inventor’s paradox than many more narrowly focussed organisations.


Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy

Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman, OgilvyOne London and Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK

TH: How satisfying has it been making a career out of tinkering with perception?

RS: A career? How dare you? I have never had anything so vulgar as a career. It is a job and it is a vocation.

In fact I have come to the strange conclusion that tinkering with perception is often more than just acceptable, it is a duty. When making decisions, people are influenced not only by the information they receive but by the manner in which it is presented and by the context in which it is framed. It is only by presenting people with possibilities in multiple ways that there is any hope of them reaching a sane decision.

Let me give you an anecdotal example. A few months ago I visited a friend at the RAC Club. “Gosh, this is posh. How much does it cost to join?” I asked in my vulgar Welsh way. It was about £1,000 a year. There might even have been a joining fee (a commitment device exploiting sunk-cost bias, in behavioural economics terms) of £1,500, too.

“Bloody hell, that’s expensive, I thought.” Because it is, isn’t it?

Or, rather, it is expensive when framed one way. It’s expensive for a club, certainly.

But a few months earlier I had wondered about buying a little flat in London. This would have been unlikely to appreciate in value, and the council tax, broadband, utilities, insurance and god knows what else would have cost about £3,500 a year, not including the cost of mortgage interest. I would have perhaps stayed there for 20 nights a year.

By contrast the RAC is a bargain. It has three bars, several restaurants, a swimming pool, a Turkish bath, a garden, a library, a staff of fifty, its own post office and the opportunity to rent rooms for about £80 a night. In Pall Mall. When your comparative frame is the cost of residential property ownership, the RAC isn’t expensive: it’s a bargain.



Royal Automobile Club


But, unprompted, very few people will ever make this comparison. People don’t, generally – we are simply not very good at making cross-category comparisons. Mentally everyone frames “property” in the mental category of “investment” while club membership is filed in the mental pigeonhole labeled “cost”.

Unless you continually tinker with people’s frames of reference, they may make dumb decisions.

Ultimately the responsible job of marketing is to make it easy for people to make good decisions, and to ensure they are happy with those decisions once they have made them.

This raises some intriguing philosophical and ethical questions. For instance there are innumerable areas where information which appears to be presented in a rational highly scientific way is, through cognitive bias, misinterpreted by real people in the real world.

Take APR as a measure of interest in financial services. The problem is that 1) a significant percentage of the population don’t really understand percentages and 2) most of us are not mentally equipped to understand things which are non linear, such as compound interest. The net effect is that people underestimate the cost of borrowing – and similarly underestimate the returns of saving.

If you were allowed to sell savings products some other way – for instance “Double your money in nine years” – would more people save?

For more on this see Gerd Gigerenzer’s excellent book Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You.

Calculated Risks

TH: What did you most enjoy about being President of the IPA?

RS: We’re back to “the inventor’s paradox” here. It was the opportunity to look at the business from an industry perspective rather than an agency perspective. Most of the problems which agencies gripe about are common to the whole industry – and can only be solved collectively, if at all. In particular the excessive dominance of over-rational, mechanistic models of human behavior at the top of large client organisations, which has caused the marketing function to lose status and influence.

There was also the joy of working with a wonderful organization with extraordinarily good people; at times it felt like being a government minister in the Macmillan era – in a good way. The IPA still operates a kind of Rolls Royce civil service around the President, which was extraordinarily good.

Rory Sutherland’s 2011 IPA President’s Reception speech

TH: Advertising was once full of big personalities, now, apart from yourself, who else is there?

RS: There are plenty, though mostly over 45 years of age. I have been fortunate to have known or at least met some of the greatest of them, including Drayton Bird, Steve Henry, Jeremy Bullmore, Dave Trott and even, fleetingly, David Ogilvy. Quite a lot of the younger “personality capital” of the advertising industry has moved its efforts online, where we certainly tweet above our weight.


Drayton Bird, Steve Henry, Jeremy Bullmore, Dave Trott, David Ogilvy

   Drayton Bird        Steve Henry   Jeremy Bullmore   Dave Trott       David Ogilvy


But I do worry that both our remuneration and the new puritanism in Anglo-Saxon business culture, especially in publicly owned companies, have made our industry a bit too worthy and deferential. “Accountability” is the new watchword. What a completely boring, unambitious aspiration. What about “fabulousness” or “magnificence”? BBH used to call themselves a “fame factory”; they probably don’t say this so much any more, as it may be seen as self-indulgent, but it is scientifically perfectly valid.

I was, by the way, very wrong about this in the early days, in that I believed marketing was all about pinpoint targeting and efficiency, whereas Darwinian psychology shows (the egregious Robin Wight was the first to spot this) consumers attach a huge significance to brand-bling, display, confidence and even conspicuous waste – using the perfectly efficient heuristic that companies with money to spare and with expensive, fragile reputations rarely produce bad products. Tim Ambler even co-authored a paper entitled “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works”.


The Waste in Advertising Is the Part That Works


I think the rot started in advertising when we started rewarding people with money rather than flash cars. Money, being invisible, only motivates the recipient, whereas flash cars motivate everyone. And money you can only spend on luxuries is far more emotionally motivating than money you can spend on paying household bills. Creative people, I think are more like rap stars than accountants, in that they would rather look rich than be rich. At least that’s what I always tell my shorty.


Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy & Mather UK with Tom Holmes, creativebrief

Rory discusses The Wiki Man with Tom Holmes.

TH: How do you think the quality of UK advertising compares globally?

RS: We are supremely good at global advertising – a product of London’s location, culture and a readiness to absorb and adopt people from elsewhere. This is economically valuable, and has a massive impact on the fortunes of business. Unfortunately it is also difficult and time-consuming to do. This sometimes depresses us. You can spend a year working on something, only to find it comes to nothing. Mind you, it could be worse. I once mentioned this problem to a pharma client – who laughed. He explained that most of his company’s scientists spend their entire working lives never seeing any drug they have helped develop make it to the market.


Ogilvy awards

Ogilvy Awards Cabinet 

I wonder whether the centralization of global advertising in networks has gone too far. For clients such as IBM or American Express, who are communicating to global tribes, it certainly makes sense. But for snack bars and beers and so forth it seems more motivated by efficiency than effectiveness. You certainly pay a price in local relevance. It is harder to find cultural hooks which work across many cultures, so the danger is that people fall back on the same few familiar tropes.


American Express logo, IBM logo

TH: Do you think marketing’s contribution is really valued across industry and government?

RS: No. In the golden era of US advertising it was universally recognized that psychological insight was a huge source of potential competitive advantage. A variety of factors too numerous to mention (but including neo-classical economic models taught at business schools, the new power of finance and even the invention of the spreadsheet) has caused business to abandon that approach and supplant it with a series of Newtonian, mechanistic models which are psychologically blind.

The way for us to win back this lost ground is obliquely, via a flanking move – by using academic research and the new fashionability of behavioural economics to change business thinking. We should not try to win the battle head on. But nor should we cravenly surrender to the beancounters. Behavioural economics is a great confidence boost for us: it shows that often we were instinctively right and the number-men are rationally wrong. (It is possible to be rationally wrong, by the way).

Even the most basic assumptions of these economic models (for instance that reducing price increases demand) are highly questionable in reality.

The other failing of marketing was that it was over-dependent on conventional market research as its sole source of wisdom about human behavior. It thus denied itself access to many valuable insights which come from understanding unvoiced, subconscious influences on decision making. As David Ogilvy once said, “The trouble with research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

TH: Of the leading marketers you know, who are the most impressive?

RS: Horrible to have to name names. But Alan Flack at IBM is another Dr Pepper character, who always gets great work.

Alan Flack IBM's Wimbledon Client and Programme Executive

Alan Flack IBM’s Wimbledon Client and Programme Executive

British Airways has also impressed me recently for appointing a very senior figure exclusively in charge of customer experience; a little like the Director of Detail I once proposed at TED. In truth most of our clients are, individually, good to great. What really makes the difference is the way the company makes decisions – a really convoluted or disjointed approval process, or internal politics, can result in many great people all buggering up great work.


Rory Sutherland at TED: Life lessons from an ad man


Rory Sutherland at TED: Sweat the small stuff


Often the best clients are slightly bipolar. They either love work or hate it. And that’s fine. The thing that makes the difference is decisiveness. Nobody is right or wrong more than 70% of the time. And, to be honest, rejecting work is absolutely fine and good – so long as it’s done quickly and unambiguously. There is always more than one good answer to a communications problem, and, when you reject work outright, the next campaign you get may well be better. Killing bad ideas is fine. Killing good ideas isn’t all that bad, either. What’s a disaster (creatively and financially) is keeping an idea barely alive on a life-support machine while it suffers multiple, well-intentioned surgical interventions from a whole mix of different people until it is no longer recognisable.


Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy & Mather UK with Tom Holmes, creativebrief

Rory shows Tom around The Ogilvy Digital Innovation Lab in Canary Wharf which is part of a global network of Labs that showcases the agency’s range of digital activities. Designed to educate and inspire – it shows how different digital services can combine across multiple media to deliver uniquely creative campaigns. Particularly relevant to the digital signage industry – the Lab shows digital out-of-home as a key building block around which other digital channels, mobile and interactivity all work to enhance media value.

TH: What successful advertising campaigns have you done, make you particularly proud?

RS: A three-stage direct-mail campaign in the 90s – where we sent senior retailers three books in an effort to persuade them to accept the American Express Card. First they received a hardback copy of Pride & Prejudice (a dainty bookmark listed a few reasons they might have for being biased against acceptance), followed two days later by Sense & Sensibility (here a bookmark listed reasons to change their mind) and then by Persuasion (with reasons for meeting a sales representative).

I liked it because it showed that you can do something fabulous in any medium.

One other thing I loved did never saw the light of day. We effectively invented Groupon seven years ago in response to a client brief. It never went anywhere.

But in about 2002 I decided to stop trying to be proud of my own work and to start getting proud of other people’s. The best moments now are when I see other people standing in front of clients and saying things like “your website choice-architecture is flawed” or “how can we better exploit the endowment effect?” – without prompting.

It has to be without prompting. Jerry Della Femina said “You can either be indispensable or you can be immortal – not both”.

TH: What do you most admire about Howard Luck Gossage?

RS: See Dr Pepper, above.


The Book of Gossage, “The Socrates of San Francisco”

The Book of Gossage, “The Socrates of San Francisco”

TH: What’s so unique about Ogilvy’s 360 Degree Branding approach?

RS: I refer the honourable gentleman to my reference to the inventor’s paradox, above.

TH: Around the world, what other agencies do you rate?

RS: All of them and none of them. We are constantly looking for hero agencies, like DDB in the 60s or HHCL in the 90s. But one statistical possibility is that their like will never be seen again – just as no band in the future will ever be as big as The Beatles – the eco-system is just different now. Instead we should stop looking for Jesus-agencies and make sure 1) That none of our work is bad 2) That all of it is pretty good and 3) that some of it is brilliant.

Some of the best work in recent years – including digital work – has come out of Grey. McCann does excellent work. We should try to resist this trend where we pigeonhole agencies, or look to a couple of Midas-touch shops for our inspiration and direction – and start to look elsewhere. The best marketing idea I have seen in the last ten years came from a creative team (though they wouldn’t call themselves that) at the University of Chicago called Shlomo Benartzi and Richard Thaler. This was the “Save More Tomorrow Mortgage”.

Save More Tomorrow: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving by Richard H. Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi

TH: What new brands have recently caught your attention?

RS: and, two network lending sites (the latter charitable, the former avaricious) impress me mightily. I rather like the choice architecture site too.

Offline I have been talking to someone called Henrietta Lovell who runs The Rare Tea Company. Any business with a mission or purpose – other than its immediate self-enrichment – seems to enjoy a extra level of brand resonance. There’s a wonderful TED talk by someone called Simon Sinek – who used to work at Ogilvy New York – on this very issue.


The Rare Tea Company and Henrietta Lovell

The Rare Tea Company and Henrietta Lovell

TH: What established brands, do you feel, most require a makeover?

RS: Royal Mail is a superb product which is routinely underappreciated. But, God, would we miss it if it went. And I have always had an affection for the Jaguar brand which I feel is not always felt is shared by my countrymen. This may be because the user-imagery which bedevils the brand “curmudgeonly, red-faced, right-wing, portly, Telegraph-reading, middle-aged, male” I view as being positive accomplishments – something to aspire to, in fact.

TH: When choosing an agency what top three things should a client consider?

RS: 1) Their understanding of behavioural economics. 2) Their cultural fit. 3) Their ability to do two extremely different things: for instance, can it produce a blockbuster 120” TV spectacular AND improve the conversion-rate of a website?

TH: What do you think of pitching, is there a more efficient way to select an agency?

RS: I love pitches. The problem is that they are beset by a kind of arms-race mentality. So that every stage of the pitch process has been escalated as a result of inter agency competition – like a bull Elk’s antlers. So a chemistry session is not a chemistry session but a strategy presentation. The “tissue session” now sees the presentation of finished artwork. Which means the final presentation resembles the opening ceremony for the Coliseum. If you don’t have at least two Nubian slave girls wrestling a live bear, it’s considered a bit lacklustre.

The other thing I don’t like about pitches is that the narrative structure of a pitch constrains what you can present. Often, nowadays, an agency can create a lot of value by improving a lot of little things just a bit. But the narrative arc of a pitch requires a single “Ta-Da” inflection point, a Eureka moment, to fit the storyline. I am not sure this is always helpful.


Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy & Mather UK with Tom Holmes, creativebrief

Wearing his trademark ensemble of blazer and cravat, Rory discusses the benefits of tweed with Tom, who wears a Donegal tweed ‘Magee’ jacket from Kevin & Howlin, Dublin.

TH: Which is the better tweed, Harris or Donegal?

RS: Tweed is like sex. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. But when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

Tweed is also an experience good – and its qualities depend on the climatic conditions in which it is worn. So in order to answer your question, I shall follow the practice of 1970s Procter & Gamble advertising: I shall construct a coat 50% cut from Donegal Tweed and the other 50% from Harris Tweed. At the end of the year I should have an answer to your question.


Rory Sutherland; The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man


TH: What did you enjoy most about writing The Wiki Man?

RS: The fact that I did it 500 words at a time. As a copywriter, my ability to write to lengths over about 750 words is completely hopeless.

TH: What will your next book be about?

RS: A theory of everything. It’s due out in 2065.

TH: Thanks Rory


The Wiki Man

Introduction by Paul O'Donnell

From being described as the worst graduate trainee that Ogilvy & Mather had ever hired, Rory took a while to find his calling in life. From unlikely beginnings as a classics teacher to his current job as Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group, Rory’s rise through the ranks is as unconventional as his dress sense.
One of marketing’s most original thinkers and influential speakers, Rory is a leading light in the advertising industry and as outspoken as he is creative. A champion of behavioural economics and an early adopter of new technologies, his collection of his cravats is as legendary as his appetite for chicken jalfrezi.
This book attempts to give an insight into Rory’s unique character and personality, through a winding journey of blog posts, interviews, tweets and reference materials, to give a rich and engaging introduction to Rory’s mind.
Introduction to “The Wiki Man” by Paul O’Donnell.
David Ogilvy once urged people to cultivate their eccentricities early in life. He would have been proud of Rory!
Rory joined Ogilvy & Mather Direct in 1988 as part of our first crop of graduate trainees. He was perhaps a touch more youthful and, to be fair, a little slimmer, but other than that he would be instantly recognisable as the Rory Sutherland of today.
It seems he was born in his mid-forties. Even in the hottest summers he wore a thick tweed jacket and purple shorts, all of which he had almost certainly slept in.
He smoked a pipe and cigarettes and, usually, both at the same time. But it wasn’t his eclectic fashion sense that made you first aware of Rory; he had a pompous, booming, stentorian voice that made you want to slap him.
That is, until you actually met him, when of course, you became captivated.
Ogilvy was looking for trainee account people and I can honestly say that in all my time in the business he was without doubt the worst graduate trainee we ever hired. For example, in one of Rory’s first client meetings, the tea was placed on a tray in front of the senior agency person, the client, and Rory.
On these occasions it is always the job of the most junior person in the room to serve the tea. As nothing happened, the account lead prompted Rory. “Tea Rory!” he said, nodding towards the tray. Rory replied, “Thanks, I’d love one.” Rory’s career in account management was short-lived.
Luckily for Rory, Ogilvy had just launched a new discipline called ‘Planning’ and it was felt that perhaps he would be better suited to this more cerebral function.
Our big mistake was to allow Rory to operate a new-fangled piece of technology that we had installed. (He was actually the only person who understood how to use it, so we had little or no choice) The machine was an early on-line information system called MAID. Somehow, you asked it questions and the answers then came spewing out on a continuous-feed of computer paper.
I’m sure Rory did do some planning during this period, but his major contribution to the department seemed to be to sit behind an ever increasing mountain of computer print-outs, typing in random questions, reading sheet after sheet, puffing on his pipe or cigarette or, as I said, sometimes both, muttering “fascinating, fascinating”. I’m afraid his planning career also came to an abrupt end and he was fired.
This led to a near revolution across the agency, and it was decided to give Rory one last chance — in the creative department. He never looked back, and within 5 years he was the Executive Creative Director. At last, he’d found his métier.
The rest is pretty much history. A highly awarded creative career evolved into a very unusual ‘creative role’, as a technology visionary, an iconoclast, an industry spokesman, a leading behavioral economist, and on many occasions a stand-up comedian!
We felt that this was an appropriate moment to bring together ‘The best of Rory so far’. In particular, to celebrate the remarkably successful completion of his Presidency of his beloved IPA.
And, as the title of the book suggests, this isn’t the sum total of Rory’s career, it’s the story so far. His age has at last caught up with his dress sense, and technology with his smoking habit. So with electric cigarette in hand and a new set of tweeds from eBay, he still plays a significant part in the management of Ogilvy.
This foreword, of course, is just a taster of the real Rory. And that’s exactly what you will find in this teaser booklet, an entrée not the main course. So please enjoy the starter. The full ‘menu dégustation’ in book form.

Rory's profile

Rory Sutherland read Classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, before joining Ogilvy as a Graduate Trainee in 1988. After 18 months spent as the world's worst account handler (as a desperate remedial measure he was once booked onto a time management course, but got the date wrong) Rory became a copywriter in June 1990.
He has worked on Amex, BT, Compaq, Microsoft, IBM, BUPA, easyJet, Unilever, winning a few awards along the way. He was appointed Creative Director of OgilvyOne in 1997 and ECD in 1998. In 2005 he was appointed Vice Chairman on the Ogilvy Group in the UK in recognition of his improved timekeeping.
By an amazing stroke of luck (his brother is an academic) Rory first used the Internet in 1987. Hence he had the advantage in 1994 of knowing what it was and what it might do a few years ahead of many colleagues. Most people would have combined this knowledge of marketing and technology to make a fortune; not Rory. Instead he became the first Briton to have his credit card details stolen online, thereby losing £22.45.
In his spare time, Rory collects self-aggrandising job titles. He was President of the Direct Jury at Cannes in 2007, and was elected President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in 2009. He is also the Technology Correspondent of the Spectator, the world's oldest English language magazine.

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About the Marketing Academy

The Marketing Academy is a non-profit organisation which provides a unique forum for industry leaders, marketing guru’s, entrepreneurs and inspirational people volunteer their time to inspire, develop and coach the next generation of future leaders. The Marketing Academy gift a maximum of 30 ‘Scholarships’ each year to the fastest rising stars in the marketing, advertising and communications industries. A team of high profile mentors and coaches develop these stars through a process of mentoring, coaching, networking and personalised learning. 86 mentors, 30 Coaches, 20 Judges, 36 companies and an owl called Merlin all provide their time, resources and knowledge to assist in shaping the minds of our future leaders. Furthermore as a vital part of their curriculum all Scholars volunteer at least one day per year through our Donate28 initiative to work with charities who need bright young marketing minds.

Rory's profile

Rory Sutherland was born in Usk, Monmouthshire, in 1965 and educated at the local Haberdashers’ school and at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At this point, promising early parallels with the life of Sir Martin Sorrell begin to break down.
He joined OgilvyOne as a graduate trainee in September of that year. After six months cross training, and thirteen months spent as the world’s worst account man (in a last remedial effort he was booked on a time management course, but got the date wrong) he was moved to the Planning Department.Soon afterwards he confessed an interest in copywriting to his line manager, who was (glad to see the back of him) thought this was a very good idea.
At this point things improved. Working for the legendary Steve Harrison, Rory was promoted to Head of Copy in 1995 and Creative Director in 1997. He won some awards. It didn’t hurt that his brother was an academic, which meant Rory had first used the internet in 1986 – and so was an early advocate of new media. Most people would have used this combined knowledge of new media and marketing to make a fortune - instead Rory managed to lose £29.50 by being the first person in the UK to have their credit card details stolen online. All the same, he has been rewarded by watching OgilvyInteractive grow into by far the most formidable digital arm of any traditional agency group – and by OgilvyOne’s capture of Campaign’s Agency of the Year title in 2007.
He is married with twin daughters, Hetty and Millie, and lives in Brasted in Kent. He remains an advocate of advertising which does different things, rather than just saying things differently.
In 2005 Rory was made vice-Chairman of the Ogilvy Group in the UK in recognition of his improved timekeeping.

About the Marketing Society

The Marketing Society is a not-for-profit organisation owned by its members, with over 2600 senior marketers. Over the past 50 years it has emerged as one of the most influential drivers of marketing in the UK business community. The Society challenges its members to think differently and to be bolder marketing leaders by supporting the development of leading-edge thinking, and promoting the evidence of effective marketing.

'We've cut people we didn't want to lose'

By James Silver The Guardian, Monday 16 February 2009

The ad agency creative director on the negative - and positive - impact of the recession, which agencies may be at risk of closure - and why he believes staff like to see their bosses having a great time.
For someone once named the worst-dressed person in UK advertising by Campaign magazine, Rory Sutherland looks surprisingly dapper as he strides into the glass-walled meeting room at OgilvyOne's Canary Wharf HQ. His trademark ensemble of blazer, cravat and sensible shoes - which might be described as "country-club casual" - has been jettisoned in favour of a well-cut dark tweed suit. "I've always been fascinated by things, like tweed, which are underrated," smiles the fashion refusenik, who has the headache-inducing job title "executive creative director and vice-chairman OgilvyOne, London, and vice-chairman Ogilvy Group UK".
"I go on holiday to the island of Madeira, which has a terrible image for being full of old people, but is actually fantastic because it's sunny in January and the people are charming. I drink things like sherry, because it's far better than its reputation. And another thing that's underrated is tweed. It's a tremendous cloth," he says, stroking his jacket. "Everyone else needs to wear a coat, I've got this tweed suit on and I can go outside and walk around in the cold without any ill-effects at all."
One minute it's tweed, the next it's obscure German monarchs or the joys of Swedish furniture. Whatever the topic, Sutherland - an instantly likeable, fogeyish, 43-year-old - has an opinion or three to spare, making interviewing him a tall order. Some questions prompt meandering 12-minute responses, with only the opening few seconds actually addressing the subject in hand. "Rory is as flamboyant in conversation as he is in his appearance," declares a friendly rival executive. "He's a bit like a sea shanty when he gets going - you find yourself tapping along even though it's against your better musical judgment."

Marketing budgets

However, while he may sound, at times, as if he has stumbled out of a 1930s comedy, Sutherland also possesses one of adland's keenest intellects and is one of its most heavyweight ambassadors. His job takes him around the world - the agency has a presence in 125 countries - while his extracurricular media activities include writing a blog for Campaign's Brand Republic site, a column on technology for the Spectator entitled The Wiki Man, and near-obsessive Twitter and Facebook status updates. In April, he will take over from Moray MacLennan of M&C Saatchi as president of the advertising trade body, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).
His stint won't be easy. As the recession bites and marketing budgets are slashed, the ad industry is bound to be hit hard. Indeed, the IPA's latest quarterly Bellwether survey of the UK advertising market reported that 2009 is "not a place for the faint hearted", with 45% of companies cutting their marketing budgets, year on year. Meanwhile, media buying agency sources told that TV advertising revenues in April may be down as much as 20%, year on year. So how rattled is Sutherland - whose firm's clients include Motorola, Ford and IBM?
"I'm short-term concerned," he replies. "We've had to lose people at the beginning of the year. And it has not just been natural wastage. You can always lose a few people and you're losing dead wood, but at this point you're cutting people you didn't want to lose."
While Sutherland refuses to give the number of job losses, a separate line of inquiry reveals that around 65 staffers, from Ogilvy's UK portfolio of companies that employ 1,300, have gone. Sutherland says: "There's also a worry that if you end up with three years with no graduate recruitment, and no hiring from art colleges of new creative people, then you get a kind of lost generation, which has happened to the industry once or twice in the past. Arguably, this is exactly the time you should be hiring graduate talent."
Perhaps worried about sounding too gloomy, he launches into a complex, and somewhat breathless, analysis of why recessions can also be good for businesses, including advertising agencies. "In periods of sustained growth, companies tend to do more of what they were already doing and more of what everyone else is doing," he declares. "But crashes force people to take a more imaginative approach. Advertising is a business which thrives on periods of self-doubt. Our temperament is to question the status quo. Now, we can start asking the big questions again ... " Suddenly, he grinds to a halt. "I don't want to sound like a shit. One mustn't forget that while recessions can be a good thing in a philosophical sense, the pain falls disproportionately on a group of the population who can least afford to suffer it."
Some industry observers have warned that a handful of well-known advertising agencies could disappear altogether this year. Is this a realistic fear? The question makes him uncomfortable. "It's a brutal thing to say, and I really don't like saying this, but the London advertising market is over-supplied," he replies, cautiously. "Part of the reason is that the UK is often a regional hub, so there are a large number of international agencies alongside a large number of local agencies here. So I don't think anyone could look at the London advertising scene without saying there are probably too many agencies for the market to sustain."
Sounds like a "yes" to me, although Sutherland won't be lured into naming potential casualties. However, he does say "those agencies which are insanely dependent on one client, particularly if the client is in financial services" could find themselves in serious trouble. He adds a caveat: "Disappearance in the advertising world often takes the form of consolidation. Tens of agencies disappear every year but quite a lot of them are merged or absorbed into another agency. You could say that advertising is good at eating its own children." The frantic belt-tightening may also be having an impact on the viability of costly pitches for new business, says Sutherland. "Interestingly, last week we declined to pitch for something and it was quite a useful bit of business," he reveals. "You might argue that in a period of desperation for new business, surely everyone will pitch for everything? I'm not sure that's so now. Finally, agencies are getting to ask the question: 'Do we actually want to be a bit smaller?'
"Advertisers tend to have a gung-ho approach, driven by senseless optimism, which means you pitch for everything in the naive belief you will always win. Simple statistics show that you win, depending on how good you are and how lucky you are, between half the time and an eighth of the time. Pitching can be expensive.
"In advertising, pitching - particularly if you agree to pitch fully finished creative work - has become an arms race, tying up your best talent for weeks on end. So, if it's not a piece of business you know you want, are you willing to put your time and resources into that pitch rather than into making your existing clients happier and more valuable to you?" He answers his own question: "In the coming year, I think you'll see that fewer agencies will agree to pitch for things. It might even be interesting for the industry to take some sort of stance on this."
One thing agency bosses won't need to take a stance on, it transpires, is costly client lunches and other infamous industry excesses. According to Sutherland, extravagant expense accounts went out years ago. "When you see a row of chauffeured cars outside a central London venue it's more likely to be the BBC than advertising people," says the adman, a staunch libertarian Tory who can never resist poking fun at the BBC. "There's a massive perception lag. The really wasteful stuff and what you might call the legendary lunch stuff hasn't happened to any meaningful extent for at least 10 years. If you go to an IPA event today, most people go home in a black cab, others by tube."
What Sutherland says next will have adland's bean-counters rolling their eyes. It's even arguable, he continues, that the industry has grown "too austere, too dull". "Not everyone will agree with me," he concedes, "and a lot of boring people will say it is important that we give our clients the impression that we act responsibly etc, but frankly this is a business which depends on the appearance of confidence for its success.
"I don't think it necessarily does any harm in any organisation for staff to see the people at the top having a great time. Look at the vast profits made by the financial services sector over the past 10 years. I find the dullness of the Goldman Sachs building frankly horrifying. At least when an advertising guy makes a few million you get a modern art gallery out of it." He roars with laughter: "I mean, if I was making that much money I'd want ice-sculptures of swans in the lobby!"
It's unlikely that the top brass would sign off on ice-sculptures of swans in the current climate. However, spend some time with Sutherland and you can't help feeling that if anyone could talk them into it, it would be him.

Rory Sutherland - Curriculum vitae


Haberdashers' Monmouth school, Monmouthshire, and Christ's College, Cambridge


1988 joins Ogilvy & Mather Direct
1990 junior copywriter, Ogilvy & Mather Direct
1996 head of copy, Ogilvy & Mather Direct,
1997 executive creative director, OgilvyOne
2002 vice chairman, OgilvyOne
2005 vice chairman, Ogilvy Group UK
2009 president, IPA

About the Editor

Tom Holmes heads up the ‘Market Leader Interview’ initiative, which has amassed over 7,000 views since launch. Tom Holmes outside Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, 10 Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 4QB Tom Holmes outside Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, 10 Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 4QB

As Founder & Chairman, Tom launched creativebrief in 2002 with the intention of revolutionising agency search and selection. For many companies, marketing success depends largely on the quality of agencies and media partners a brand engages. However, finding the right ones can prove difficult and time consuming, as the marketplace is complex and constantly changing.

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Tom is also Co-Founder of EIMF (Edinburgh International Marketing Festival) the newcomer to the City’s world famous festival calendar and is the first of its kind globally. The vision of the Festival is the celebration of the marketing industry, creativity and commercial value in all forms throughout our society, adding an entirely new focus to both the Edinburgh Festival calendar and to the development of the creative industry and cultural economy.

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Prior to creativebrief, Tom spent over 20 years working with some of the world’s leading agencies and brands in UK and internationally, including Account Management roles at WCRS and Saatchi & Saatchi, Board Director of The Lowe Group and Executive Vice President of Grey Worldwide.

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  1. Coo. I am resonating like a very chuffed tuning fork.

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