Interviews

Rory Sutherland

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

Tom Holmes

Founder & Chairman

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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.

 

Creativebrief: What does the Rory Sutherland brand stand for?

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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.

 

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

 

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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”.

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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.”

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

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

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.

 
 

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

Rory Sutherland: 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”.

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

Rory Sutherland: See Dr Pepper, above.

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

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

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

Rory Sutherland: 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”.

Creativebrief: What new brands have recently caught your attention?

Rory Sutherland: Zopa.com and kiva.org, two network lending sites (the latter charitable, the former avaricious) impress me mightily. I rather like the choice architecture sitewww.justbuythisone.com 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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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?

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

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

Rory Sutherland: 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.

Creativebrief: What will your next book be about?

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