The future of advertising is rooted in the behavioral sciences

Dissecting an interview with Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy UK’s Vice Chairman and founder of its behavioral psychology unit

Tim Brunelle
22 min readMay 29, 2018


Rory Sutherland

“Fame has a value in multiple dimensions.”

Years ago someone gave me a video of Rory Sutherland addressing the troops at Ogilvy New York—a true Englishman in New York moment, with the ascot and accent attending to the masses. This video was shot well before Rory’s celebrated TED Talk—in it, I saw Sutherland explore early themes and ideas he would continue to illuminate to great fanfare. I must have watched this a dozen times. For my money, Sutherland’s done much more than most to advance our understanding of marketing efficacy, as well as the evolution of how ideas are created, perceived, consumed, and measured.

So it’s a thrill to encounter the February 2018 Real Famous podcast featuring Sutherland (Apple, Stitcher or below). Paul McEnany, founder of Plein Air, guides Sutherland through a rich discussion, one worthy of dissection.


One of the most valuable exercises I encountered as a Jazz major at the University of Cincinnati was dissection. We’d pick a solo (i.e. Miles Davis’ improvisation on the tune “So What” or in this case, Sutherland and McEnany talking); listen to it over and over and over while transcribing the performer’s improvised notes; analyze what we’d transcribed, then perform it. The point being—rote learning help us discover patterns from which we can benefit. I used to follow the same process with print ads written by Howard Gossage, Mark Fenske and others, writing them out word by word to discern how they put their ideas together.

I wanted to better understand how Sutherland puts his thoughts together. So I hit the 15-second rewind button a zillion times to dissect the hour and 34 minute podcast. I learned an awful lot. (And you’re reading the “performance,” such as it is.)


Via Addis Ababa

The interview starts off with Sutherland’s CV. He was pursuing Classics and Math, and was about to climb the ivory tower when it occurred to him he’d end up spending his entire life in academia. So he turned to advertising, motivated in part by an overheard mention of a flight delay through Addis Ababa.

Following college, Sutherland moved from graduate recruit to account management through planning into creative, landing a role as Copywriter at Ogilvy Direct in London. Sutherland’s attracted to the mechanic psychology of advertising—that your idea can be placed before the public and your hunch can be measured. Discussing his early years in advertising, he said, “You were almost paid to conduct psychological experiments.” As a writer, he found the feedback inherent in direct marketing attractive. His future endeavors build from here—rooted in clarifying the investment value clients make in advertising. But, he notes, we still have a long way yet to go.

“One of the problems with advertising—it almost certainly gets undervalued when it is measured.”

The relatively crude methods of evaluating modern advertising’s efficacy leave much insight and value off the table. “If you’re the Chief Executive of a [famous] brand,” says Sutherland, “The proportion of your phone calls that get returned are, I imagine, in some cases an order of magnitude higher than if you’re a company nobody has ever heard of.” Trivial? Perhaps. Perhaps not to the CEO trying to make career-defining deals. Alas, Nielsen is yet to provide a CEO’s Phone Calls Returned as a Result of Brand measure. We measure advertising, “On a very narrow consumer level but we don’t measure the benefits of fame on a holistic level,” notes Sutherland.

For all the creativity in advertising, we’ve applied very little of it towards giving credit where credit is due. Easier said than done, of course. But Sutherland makes an important point. If the sole lens through which advertising’s value is measured is “narrow” and “consumer,” we will continue to undervalue the nature and role of Ideas.

Sutherland’s evolution is partly a search for a broader lens to evaluate efficacy—which he later comes to realize has a lot in common with the field of Behavioral Economics and the behavioral sciences.

“40% of the success [of a direct campaign] will be attributable to the targeting. Maybe 20% to the creative. (These are merely averages—a really clever creative insight can have a huge effect.) And there was always this 30% which was ‘something else,’ it wasn’t the targeting and it wasn’t the creative.”

That “something else” is human behavior, effected not so much by media or message. If a consumer’s action wasn’t motivated by a headline or visual, wasn’t motivated by personalization or timing of offer—what else might be the cause? Almost in parallel with Sutherland’s career, Behavioral Economics had percolated into the mainstream. Perhaps it holds a clue. Sutherland mentions a list of influential books.

Some light summer reading for you: Sutherland notes several books that influenced his understanding of Behavioral Economics and their application to ideas, advertising and marketing. To them I’ve added Kahneman and Stephens-Davidowitz.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler

Luxury Fever: Weighing the Cost of Excess by Robert Frank

The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg

Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist by Tyler Cowen

The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford

Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini Ph.D.

Later, Sutherland recommends:

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

Welcome, Behavioral Sciences

On the impetus forming Ogilvy Change, Sutherland says, “Look, we‘ve got a Media and Targeting Department, and we’ve got a Creative Department. Logically we should also have a Something Else Department. What Ogilvy Change is really for is to explore the 30–40% of ‘something else.’”

The Behavioral Sciences become Sutherland’s flag.

“If our clients know more about this than we do, we’re doomed.”

While psychology and cognitive measurement had been longstanding fields of study, it wasn’t until 2002, when psychologist Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty,” that the realm of Behavioral Science entered the spotlight. Its application to marketing is obvious—if we can make a decision easier or motivation more compelling, we can better influence consumer behavior.

But there are simpler reasons for embracing the science.

“By using the language of Economics rather than the language of Marketing, you can elevate your discussion and therefore take your expertise into areas where you had no permission to operate before.”

In short, it’s about an urgency to elevate the narrative of the work we do as Idea People. And yet, it’s also much more than mere window dressing—precisely because the ground has shifted dramatically beneath us. We’ve moved from a comfortable world where marketers (lead by consumer package goods) held much power and influence into a new realm that perceives much less value from marketing and its inhabitants. Our magic is no longer all that. Says Sutherland, “Our account people have been, for some extent, busy groveling to the wrong folk. We naturally assume [advertising] is important because of the people we historically dealt with…but it’s a very, very different game now.”

And yet the ad industry remains slow to change. Its focus on billable hours and worker utilization don’t allow its very value to flourish.

“My problem with the advertising industry is that the things that make money and the things that add value are very poorly aligned.”

Sutherland contrasts the merits and challenges of the previous 15% commission system versus current hourly-payment system. He believes, “A good ad agency should add twice as much value doing things that it hasn’t been asked to do, as it does doing things it has been asked to do.” But how do you encourage and justify ongoing efforts to bring value within systems that punish deliberate serendipity? “The problem of payment by the hour is that every hour you spend on the business should be doing what you’ve already been told to do. So the capacity to add value through ‘unasked for’ channels has gone,” he says. Sutherland doesn’t fully lay blame for this on account people since they are, after all, economically incentivized to diminish freewheeling discovery.

“They can’t help but judge the value of an activity by how much it contributes to agency revenue—rather than the actual economic value that’s created by doing it.”

Under the 15% era, unasked-for inquiry and exploration was tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, as a means to fuel client relationships (and sustain revenues). Much harder to account for, never mind celebrate, undocumented curiosity in an age accustomed to 15-minute incremental billing.

Creative Briefing

McEnany and Sutherland continue their discussion into the process of briefing, focusing on Ogilvy’s “DO” brief (i.e. What do you want the audience to do, as a result of this communication? Oh, and also, “David Ogilvy”). “It’s vital you set the objective in behavioral terms rather than attitudinal terms,” begins Sutherland, since (according to modern psychology [citation needed]), “Getting people to do something is the best way to change their attitudes.” In other words, we need much less make people feel good about our brand and much more reduce the friction prohibiting product trial. Because, maybe, they’ve already heard enough and could we just please get on with making their lives easier?

It’s really about the nature of communications, post Internet.

We’ve shifted from an era of “allegiance branding” (credit to my friend Dion Hughes) best typified by Nike’s Just Do It—where the expected outcome from viewing an ad is an attitudinal allegiance. Versus the era prior to that, which focused on defining and leveraging positioning, unique selling propositions and all that. Advertising has evolved to enable, more than coerce or provoke, which requires a different set of mental models and approach to Ideas, and thus, to briefing.

“If you set a brief in attitudinal terms, you’ve automatically restricted the solution set to essentially conventional display advertising.”

Setting a brief in behavioral terms (i.e. what do you want people to do), argues Sutherland, opens many more doors for solutions, and encourages a broader set of questioning and curiosity. How do we solve for the last mile? How do we overcome barriers within a checkout procedure? A focus on behavior permits Idea People to consider and address the fundamental problems, not just predetermined media outcomes—which is precisely what you want from an advertising agency in the first place.

“You should look at the purchase process [or outcome process] first, optimize that, and only when you’ve removed any bottlenecks or snags in that last mile should you proceed upstream to advertising.”

Then the conversation turns to an aside around decision making and economics. (It’s worth noting Rory Sutherland is the King of the Conversational Aside. This next section of the interview is rich in obiter dictum.) Sutherland examines the contrasts and confrontations of today’s marketplace—“To an economist, it’s a really easy decision. But to a consumer it’s baffling”—before McEnany asks, “You don’t want to turn every problem into a conversion problem [do you]?” Where’s the line between changing people’s minds about how they think about products versus getting them to take a specific action?

“Every problem is a conversion problem in a way, isn’t it?”

Creating allegiance, preference, “likes” or a general disposition towards a brand is a much more complex assignment, post-Internet. Those of us who consume simply know too much and have too much access and ability now. Which means, says Sutherland, “Until you’ve optimized the bottom of the funnel…” and reduced the paradox of choice, or enhanced confidence in decision-making, consumers become paralyzed. Sutherland brings up Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. “In a complex system [like modern marketing] — the thing that essentially restricts effectiveness of the system [in our case, an ability to change people’s minds with advertising] is its weakest link. Quite often, the weak link in the chain is, ‘You don’t advertising enough… Nobody’s confident enough in buying you because you’re not famous enough. Buying an unfamiliar brand involves a degree of mental anxiety and uncertainty which we don’t feel when we say, ‘Diet Coke, please.’”

Being an Ideas Person

Then McEnany shifts the conversation back to Sutherland’s journey from graduate recruit to copywriter in 1990, and his first exposure to the life of an Ideas Person.

“…And I found the whole process so spectacularly enjoyable—it was effectively like being paid to solve puzzles—and so from that moment on I was fairly much convinced that that was what I wanted to do.”

It’s a journey of luck, timing, politics, and “a remarkable agency culture.” Sutherland notes how Ogilvy Direct UK was, in that day, approximately 160 people. “For those of you interested in evolutionary psychology,” he says, “150 people is known as the Dunbar Number; it’s about the maximum size where you can not only work out how you get on with everybody else, but how everybody else gets on with everybody else.” Further elaborating on culture and efficacy, Sutherland observes, “In a group of 150 people you can’t hide.”

From there, Sutherland rose to Head of Copy in 1997 (“The job of Head of Copy is a fantastic job because it is to some extent power without responsibility.”) and Creative Director in 1999 (“I find [being a Creative Director] an unbelievably stressful job. It’s very frightening. Because you know that, in the next 20 minutes, someone’s going to knock on your door and it isn’t going to be good news.”). Then Ogilvy Direct moves offices to combine with Ogilvy Advertising, and Sutherland becomes Vice Chairman around 2003/4 (“The job of Vice Chairman is a brilliant job because you can kind of define it as you wish.”). McEnany asks Sutherland to explain his rapid rise from writing copy to managing copy to managing lots of people making advertising.

“By temperament…I’m not a non-control-freak, but I’d rather operate through influence or encouragement or stimulus rather than through direct control.”

It’s worth noting Sutherland’s evolution occurs concurrent with the rise of the Internet, and is suffuse with serendipity—through family connections, he hears about Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Which means Sutherland was an early adopter who, “first used the Internet in 1987.”

So it’s no surprise Sutherland, “Spent quite a lot of the late 90s really in the role of Creative Digital Evangelist,” contrasting with those in advertising who considered the arrival of computers anathema to the realm of ideas. Of course, if you consider Cannes today, dominated as it is by tech companies, says Sutherland, “The idea of having to evangelize digital advertising seems absolutely ridiculous. If anything, what’s needed is to dampen down the enthusiasm.”

Another key factor—at the time, Ogilvy UK’s client list was mostly service and finance brands more than packaged goods clients. Which means Sutherland was working at an agency with clients for whom, “The web is critical because it’s a customer service and customer experience tool as well as being an advertising tool.” Sutherland credits Ogilvy the company’s early “pro-Internet stance” as a fertile environment in which his career rise could take place.

Digital Marketing & Advertising’s Purpose

It’s at this point in the interview Sutherland pivots the discussion into obstacles of digital marketing, which mostly have to do with how we, as Idea People (as well as now Internet-savvy audiences), perceive the roles, attributes and importance of both conventional and digital medias. We are still rooted very much rooted in behavioral sciences.

“The attempts to re-create the effects you gain from conventional advertising, in a digital medium, may be completely wrongheaded. Though it’s not to say you can’t do really important things in digital.”

Sutherland goes on to clarify, “I think there are certain forms of advertising which digital does not do very well. Three of the things that conventional advertising, in particular outdoor and television do, which digital doesn’t do, are this…

1. [Conventional advertising] is known to be expensive. Digital is perceived to be efficient not expensive.

2. [Conventional advertising] is assumed to be addressed to a large audience. Digital is perceived to be individual, not collective.

3. In many cases, that audience sees the [conventional] message simultaneously, and is aware of the other audience [members having the same experience]. Digital is perceived to be one-message-at-a-time.”

The argument is very much one of the medium itself contributing to the message received. Our perceptions of digital and its contexts, versus our perceptions of conventional advertising, impact the qualities we attribute to the messages. The economics of creating and distributing the message impact how we behave in relation to it. After another aside built upon costly signaling theory, Sutherland makes a point which I took to be (and framed as) a sort of question:

“[Is there] some part of the human brain which essentially attributes conviction to a promise in proportion to the cost of making [the promise]?”

In other words, if there is a part of the brain calculating a message’s value by its cost of production and media, then digital will continue to suffer, since compared to the Super Bowl et al, “You can not [yet] replicate any of those effects in digital channels,” says Sutherland. While TV is becoming uniquely addressable, it retains an ability to signal costliness of a product through production values, celebrities, etc. as well as simultaneous communal viewing, above and beyond sheer media expense. He makes an intriguing proposition.

“I would argue a large part of creativity is, in fact, costly signaling.”

This reminds me of conversations in the late 90s during the early stages of interactive and an argument made by many fellow creatives. When given the chance to pursue creativity in a television ad versus creativity online, you’d likely pick the TV budget because it provides more gravitas for your thinking. But I wonder if it’s about something more, as well. For all we gain in digital via personalization of addressing, timeliness and message we lose through the perceived value of mass effect. We lose the bonfire somewhat. If I encounter something extraordinary online these days, I’m likely to share it with a handful of friends with similar tastes. Whereas, if we discuss advertising around the food truck (the modern water cool, I think) we tend to discuss campaigns that are addressed to all.

None of this is to disparage digital marketing. Far from it. Rather, by dissecting the intrinsic value—the strengths and weaknesses—of media and message, we are better positioned to evolve and capitalize upon them. Throughout the podcast it’s quite clear Sutherland is an ardent fan of the digital realm.

And so the conversation flows into another tangent: The very nature and purpose of advertising itself. Sutherland states:

“Advertising is a pain in the ass to do because in order to be advertising, it has to be a pain in the ass to do.”

By which I think he means it’s time consuming to make; it often necessitates working with opinionated artists; it doesn’t provide the kind of investment-clarity we might assume comes from bets on capital expenses. Which means advertising calls for a kind of iron stomach and blind enthusiasm because, as Sutherland notes, “If you didn’t have faith in the future popularity of your product you wouldn’t advertise it, right?” And while he acknowledges, “Advertising is a very reliable way of revealing, in cases of information asymmetry, the seller’s confidence in their own product,” there’s evidently much more to it than that.

“I don’t think advertising is an enhancement to a good product. I think it’s impossible for a good product to be convincingly perceived as ‘good’ unless it is promoted. Now that doesn’t mean—unless it’s advertised—but unless it is promoted in a way commensurate with being a great product.”

By way of example, Sutherland offers three perspectives on behavioral science as applied to branding and marketing:

First, from Melbourne, Australia in 2015 we have two comedians, Hamish and Andy, who attempt to lure passerby with a peep show experience featuring the real Ed Sheeran. The comedy, the tension, comes from our expectation. As Sutherland puts it, “No one is prepared to come in, because… If you had the real Ed Sheeran, you wouldn’t promote him by asking people $2 to come in and see him for 30 seconds.” In this case, the economic positioning undercuts the perceived (or perhaps desired) value we have of the Ed Sheeran brand.

Sutherland sees a second example in Nature. “I think bees basically go, ‘If you’re not investing in petals, you haven’t got very good nectar.’” This is 20 million years old, he argues. “It is necessary in evolutionary biology for a living organism—in order to reproduce or to flourish—to convince another organism of something. In order for the message to be convincing, it has to contain some sort of costly demonstration.” He further suggests, “That could be aposematic signaling [i.e. a brightly colored caterpillar communicates a reliable message. ‘You can reliably assume I’m not very nice to eat because I’m lit up like a f*#king Christmas tree.’].”

He goes on. “The peacock’s tail […its investment in dramatic coloration] is proof of fitness. The flower is proof of nectar. You’d only invest in a large display if you thought bees were going to visit you more than once.” Can Nature make the case for Advertising? Sutherland wonders.

“The extent to which you make yourself distinctive is somehow connected to the extent to which you can be trusted to deliver.”

Ed Sheeran. Nature. And a third example: the Philips Air Fryer. Sutherland puts the fryer in his category of tech products called, “If this thing broke, would I buy a replacement the very next day?” (The answer is “Yes.”)

Sutherland occasionally surveys the audience of his speaking engagements to indicate who, like he, is an Air Fryer fanatic. Typically, there might be just one hand raised. “You do need to buy one, because it’s brilliant,” Sutherland coaches McEnany, “But—nobody can believe it’s brilliant because no one’s done an expensive ad saying ‘this thing is brilliant.’” The signaling is all word of mouth, which, while valuable, only carries a brand so far.

“Our belief in the significance of a new product is directly proportionate to the amount of noise around its introduction.”

“It’s not a case that advertising adds bells and whistles to existing products, it’s that we don’t perceive the product as ‘good’ in the absence of the P.T. Barnum fanfare. It’s not added value, it’s extracted value.”

To that point, while McEnany admits he will buy an Air Fryer based upon Sutherland’s evangelism, McEnany also offers, “it’s hard to believe that it’s actually going to be good.” And so Sutherland makes an allegorical aside—suggesting how Ogilvy UK would have marketed the Air Fryer had existed in the 1970s. “It would be a double page spread in the Sunday Times Color Supplement… with a really big picture [of the Philips Air Fryer]. The headline would have contained a large promise and 250 lines of beautifully written, crafted, possibly witty copy by someone like Adrian Holmes.”

This is why I so appreciate Rory Sutherland. He’s willing to think out loud. He’s willing to, like the jazz musicians, riff on a theme. He’s willing to explore a narrative through conversation, and in so doing, dodge off into an aside and perhaps never really return to where you thought the central theme was heading. But you get somewhere potent, somewhere insightful, nonetheless. The tune carries on delightfully. You have to admire McEnany’s courage in holding the reins of the podcast.

Sutherland bemoans what’s become of the style of print advertising he grew up on. “They were little bloody masterpieces, they were little short stories.” They provided, “a fantastic school of advertising,” that, “doesn’t exist anymore.” He remains convinced that old approach could still succeed despite appearances. While we in the industry might pooh pooh a given style, who’s to say the structures of Ogilvy or Gossage can’t work today? After all, “Consumers aren’t interested in Ads Fashion, right? They’re interested in how to spend their money.”

“The ads that worked, that David Ogilvy did — that sort of ad — would still work today.”

Explaining Advertising to an Economist

McEnany steers the conversation to Sutherland’s first TED Talk in 2009, which features the idea that advertising can add value to a product by changing perception. We’ve returned to behavior as it intertwines with economics. Sutherland mentions his brother’s thesis about the two ways to add value to an automobile—either add leather seats or add cloth seats and persuade people they’re cooler. And yet, notes Sutherland… “We have this strange bias where adding leather seats [to a car] is seen to be a genuine source of value whereas adding value through psychology is seen to be cheating.”

Sutherland continues. “What advertising can do—and can do in far more fields than it’s usually asked to be involved in—is you can solve problems by changing perception rather than changing reality, with the additional bonus that actually changing perception is both less costly in many cases and almost by definition less environmentally damaging, than changing reality.”

“What I said [at TED]—it should be the bedrock assumption on which all advertising and marketing activity is based. In other words, in any organization the question is, ‘Do we innovate, in other words, do we improve the thing… Or, do we change the way the thing is perceived?’ And marketing should be seen as the sidekick of R&D.”

Thus advertising is seen not as a mere expense, but as a powerful means of creating value. “You either work out what people want and find out a clever way to make it, or you work out what you can make and find a clever way to make people want it,” says Sutherland. “In economic terms there’s no distinction between those two.”

I remember first seeing Sutherland’s TED Talk in mid 2010. The concept of intangible value, brought to life by the Diamond Shreddies campaign, appeared almost too good to be true. Could behavioral economics really bolster the case for advertising?

Case Study from Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto

TED gave Sutherland a platform from which to advocate on behalf of his chosen industry, to help non-marketers discover and appreciate the value creation inherent in changing perceptions.

“Marketing in general (I’m not confining this to advertising) does a terrible job of marketing marketing to people who aren’t in marketing.”

Sutherland returns to language and nomenclature as the means to clarify marketing’s struggles for generalized acceptance throughout client organizations. “The reason [marketing is] so bad is, it uses a vocabulary, which basically to anybody who isn’t a marketer, sounds like bulls*#t. (Possibly because it is, okay?)” And so, continues Sutherland, “What I’ve been doing ever since is [to] describe how marketing works without using any marketing language—I don’t even use the word ‘brand’ very much. I’ve been aided hugely in this by… the help of and the prior work of evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary biologists.”

“Economists, by and large, and finance people don’t understand marketing very well because they’re fixated on the idea that things have an intrinsic value which is independent of how they’re perceived.”

Culture, Luck, Timing

McEnany asks why Sutherland thinks behavioral economics and related psychology have met with enthusiasm inside Ogilvy. Sutherland credits the agency’s culture (“It tends to see new things as an opportunity rather than a threat”), and the firm’s ability to balance the work of advertising with efforts to innovate the field. It is about thinking in equal parts with doing. As Sutherland notes, “We don’t want to become an agency of chin-stroking intellectuals.” He clearly relishes the opportunity to juxtapose academic peregrination with the blast furnace of modern marketing. Listening, you get the sense Sutherland’s keenly aware of his good fortune in timing, place and contemporaries.

“Let’s be honest, we always attribute too much of our success to individual agency, and a huge amount of it is luck and timing.”

Post-Rationalization and the Future

An hour and 22 minutes in, the conversation leans into what’s next. Sutherland mentions working on a book, built in part upon intriguing contrasts—i.e. the volume of behavioral research behind Coke vs. Pepsi versus research behind behaviors like requesting a doctor’s appointment. He plugs The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.

“I think the opportunities in organizations where historically there’s been no marketing function are enormous.”

It’s really about expanding the practical application of marketing cum behavioral sciences. Bringing back the doctor’s visit just mentioned, Sutherland frames it in terms of user experience, “You believe people are going to the doctor in order to get well. My hunch would be — if you look at unconscious motivation — actual healing probably drives a minority of doctor’s visits. What you’re actually looking for is reassurance.” He continues, “Our subconscious motivation for going to the doctor is very different from our post-rationalized explanation of why we visited the doctor.”

“The second we do anything we see as important, we post-rationalize our behavior like crazy, then we believe the post-rationalization.”

With a few more asides through tooth paste, the case for flossing and Dr. Pepper, which according to Sutherland is, “the Chateau Lafite of carbonated drinks,” the conversation flits through mortgages and pensions before we arrive at this…

“My view is that unconscious processes play just as great a part in the house we buy or the mortgage we take out or whether we take out a pension or whether we go to the doctor as they do in whether you buy Coke or Pepsi. The only reason the advertising industry isn’t involved in those questions is because A) the people who answer those questions don’t have an advertising budget and B) they regard us as too trivial to make any contribution to solving those problems… I suppose that’s what my first TED Talk was about. This s*#t is fractal, it goes all the way from the smallest thing to the biggest thing.”

Sutherland is grateful for the “extraordinary receptiveness” he’s received from the behavioral science and evolutionary psychology communities in helping define and advance theories. “We can learn a huge amount from each other,” he says. Sutherland paraphrases Amos Tversky, the cognitive and mathematical psychologist and collaborator of Daniel Kahneman, “All Daniel and I do is we take the things that are instinctively known by car salesman and advertising executives, and we put them in a kind of codified and orderly form.”

And so we’re back to vision.

Sutherland’s journey from academia to direct marketing into behavioral economics is, in part, a quest to validate an industry’s innate skills that haven’t received proper due. “In many cases our [advertising] instincts went to waste because we haven’t got the vocabulary to back them up. I think behavioral science contributes to us a non-marketing vocabulary.”

“We can solve ten problems without a media spend for every one that requires it, and yet no one comes through our door unless they’ve got a million quid to give to Rupert Murdoch. That seems to limit the size, scale, scope and stature of what the advertising industry can be.”

It’s hard to imagine truer words for those of us working in advertising with intellectual rigor, curiosity and artistic passion. McEnany chimes in, seeking a pragmatic example. Referencing restaurant marketing, he poses a challenge: “So how do we make the operations part, sell?” To which Sutherland offers the communications value of chairs positioned outside a cafe. “The chairs are even more effective than a huge billboard with neon lights,” says Sutherland. The chairs say reliably that… ‘here’s a place where I can get something hot to drink, probably some food and it’s definitely worth walking there because it’s open.’ It’s like the dandelion, which closes its petals when it doesn’t have much nectar to give.”

It’s an apt application of how behavioral sciences can help reframe operations [i.e. the chairs] as a form of marketing. To which McEnany asks the rhetorical, “Why would you contain all of that knowledge on the advertising side alone, rather than apply that across the board?” And Sutherland concludes, “This is what drives me crazy. It’s entirely a product of the stupid way in which we’re funded. I also think there’s a kind of muscle memory in ad people, which is… ‘Well if I don’t make an ad, I can’t solve the problem.’ …Oh, yes you can!”

And we’re done.

The interview is over. The path forward is clear. While it’s in reference to a time long past, one of Sutherland’s final quotes suggests a potent future for blending advertising and the behavioral sciences…

“This is a fantastically liberating opportunity to solve problems which don’t come with a media budget attached. We can go into the McKinsey space, but with far greater creativity, far better instinctive understanding of human motivation and we can solve those problems brilliantly and economically...”

Thank you, Rory Sutherland and Paul McEnany. (BTW — Season Four of the Real Famous podcast is now live.)

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Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.