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Render Positive Interviews Rory Sutherland

By Jon | 13th Nov 2014 | Posted in Positive Chats

Wow. By hook or by crook I managed to get Rory Sutherland, Vice Chair of Ogilvy UK, to take a couple of phone calls with me earlier in the year. I have a very short list of advertising idols and Rory is most certainly on that list. The end result of our calls was that he agreed to a video interview. It’s taken us some serious time to edit, but it’s finally ready – and it’s purely for your viewing pleasure (and maybe some insight).

I give you: Mr. Rory Sutherland


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Mostly because of Rory’s dazzling understanding of every inconsequential thing that affects our remit, his answers to the questions posed are often astounding – whilst generally simply being fun, engaging, and interesting. Surprisingly, I didn’t suck. I ‘uhm’ and ‘yep’ a tad too much, but this can be worked on for the next interviews (I promise). The questions are new and interesting, with some unexpected answers – and some downright hilarious responses. This is the first of many in a series we are calling “Positive Chats”.

Our next guest is lined up and oh boy… do I have my work cut out for me. We have agreed this guest is not to prepare at all while I am to prepare vigorously. You’ll see why… Anyway, enjoy this video and send us any feedback, concerns, complaints, poetry, sonnets, or outright ego bait. The latter will be appreciated the most.

Transcript of Interview

Jon: I’m here with Rory Sutherland from Ogilvy to ask an array of strange questions about digital marketing.  The first one is why does most advertising generally suck?  I’ve got my own theory about this.  Most creative people are writing songs, movies, books so we don’t get the top talent within our industry.

Rory: I don’t think that’s the case actually.  Don’t forget that the talent in advertising and particularly in digital advertising, there’s some pretty extraordinary people there.  In the early days of anything, you’ll always attract talent, partly because people are drawn towards fast growing fields quite intelligently and fast growing fields are more interesting by and large, particularly if you want to innovate.  They’re a much better place to be.  I think the real problem is a different one.  Don’t forget that the people who are writing poems or film scripts don’t have to deal with other people.  There’s a very big difference between writing a film script and getting one made and there’s a very big difference between writing poetry and making a large movie.  The constraints and compromises you need in order to get these things made are fundamentally different.

Where I think there’s a bigger problem is that unfortunately, nobody really understands how advertising works.  The assumption is it’s all about messaging and the provision of information or argument or rational persuasion.  The actual truth of the matter is advertising mostly works through the inference of the recipient, what inferences they draw from what you say, not what you yourself say explicitly.  And this distinction between proposition and takeout has overtaken and just become a dominant model in and among the people who judge advertising, the people who commission advertising and also the people who research advertising to an extent.  If you think about it, it’s all about does this single minded message that we have decided on in advance get absorbed and understood by the people who watch it.  The amount of attention paid to that in relation to the emotional effect that the communication has on people and the effect it has on people’s unconscious, the ratio of attention of those two things is completely out of whack and that’s really the problem.

Jon: Dave Trott said that we’re hit with around a thousand messages a day and whenever he asks an audience how many do you remember, only a few hands go up and how many do you remember positively, even less.

Rory: In fairness, we remember more than we remember, in defence of ineffective advertising which may seem a very strange thing to say.  Advertising which is not explicitly remembered still has an effect because it seems to be that we have an instinct for the familiar.  It’s occasionally called the mere recognition heuristic which is things that we have somehow heard about before, even without being aware of hearing about them are processed differently in the mind in some respects to things that are entirely unfamiliar.  So actually advertising that we don’t notice works it seems.  That sounds a very strange thing to say.

However, what you’re absolutely right about is the stuff that achieves real emotional cut through.  The Germans have a wonderful phrase, ‘ein stop effect,’ which is two English words treated as if they’re German.  The stuff that has stop effect is probably too low a proportion.  It can never be everything.  The amount we’re exposed to means that for us to pay the same level of attention to every single advertisement we see that we pay to book or whatever is probably not going to happen realistically.  Equally, I also have a quibble which is the assumptions about how advertising works has also, particularly offline, destroyed a kind of high engagement advertising which was long copy advertising.  Direct mail still uses it, the Web still uses lots of copy.   Anybody who sells on eBay uses a lot of copy and the effect of that copy may not be to message but to reassure.  The emotional effect is that the person who is writing this knows what they’re talking about and has put a lot of thought and effort into this communication.  The effortfulness of a communication which might include a degree of creativity but quite literally the amount of work put into creating it seems to have some effect on  how seriously we take it.

Jon: Do you think the advent of social media and if you create something genuinely innovative, provocative or entertaining … have you seen the  Dollar Shave  [What is Dollar Shave  For a dollar a month, we send high quality razors right to your door.  Are the blades any good?  No.  Our blades are fucking great!]  People voluntarily shared that because it was very well written but you could never imagine Gillette putting that out on TV because there’s various references in there that are a bit too provocative.  It seems when something genuinely great is created, there’s an effect where they get much larger reach because of it.  Do you think that will change advertising at all provocatively?

Rory: That was interesting too because it was kind of funny in a way that viral videos don’t normally attempt to be funny in many respects.  It wasn’t just purely zany, it wasn’t about skateboarding cats, it was actually genuinely great writing and importantly of course delivered by the guy who actually runs the company, which I think is highly significant, not by a spokesman.  That raises the bar for everyone.  There is obviously for any market challenger that game theoretic question of what can we do as a challenger brand that the incumbent can’t and that’s what they did there.  First of all, they had less money.  Secondly, they had more creative freedom and they took both those things and ran with it.

The only danger we have to be careful of here is we as creative people always admire those brands with extraordinary freedom to do that.  There is a fact which is it’s obviously rational for someone who’s an upstart competitor to adopt that, which is gain a large amount of saliency with a small niche of people.  The only thing you’ve got to be careful of is that approach can trap you in a niche.  We always think an ecological niche is a cosy place to be.  It actually is a brilliant strategy for avoiding direct head to head competition but it is a constraint as well.

Jon: What do you think of companies, you must come up against this, where you have these brand documents that have so many rules.  I’ll give you an example, I won’t mention the client’s name but I always mention it because I find it hilarious, where we created a comic strip to introduce a very technical IT service.  They came back to me after it had gone through their brand guidelines and PR guidelines and said, “John, we like the comic strip but can you remove the humour and make it more realistic?”  How often do you have to deal with brand guidelines that are that strict it makes it very difficult for you to create good advertising?

Rory: One of the things it shows is that branding guidelines are … it’s a bit like any kind of legislation, which is it’s often very bad at dealing with the unexpected, just as libel and defamation legislation is very bad at coping with Twitter.  That attempt to codify everything, perfectly understandable, is a natural instinct.  There are brands where in some ways the entire game is consistency, that’s what the consumer effectively buys.  They buy into the fact that there are no surprises.  On the other hand, you can make the case that attempting to codify something as complex as communication is a dangerous game to play.

This is why Ogilvy talks about the big ideal, which is that we need a meta-definition – what is this brand for, what role does it fulfil, why does it do what it does – which is more useful in aligning all of your communications than attempting to write legislation for an uncertain future.  I think that is an important one.  Start with why, as Simon Sinek says, you do need some sort of overarching idea of what a brand’s for before you can really write those guidelines.  Those guidelines should be based on the overarching purpose, not so much on the style manual approach.

Jon: I’ve seen a lot of very good brand guideline documents but do you ever see some of them where you can tell this is of no value at all, it’s just fluff?  You see that a lot in fashion and a lot of brands like that.

Rory: If the ratio of abstract nouns becomes over 40%, you’ve got a problem, particularly if they’re meaningless wishlist abstract nouns.  We only really take seriously information that involves a mental trade off.  Reassuringly expensive is interesting, we like that because there’s a little bit of a trade off there and we can believe it.  It’s expensive but it’s worth paying for, that’s reassuring.  Fresh cream cakes, naughty but nice which was written by Salmon Rushdie when he worked here, bizarrely.  That also is honest about what the trade off is and we tend to absorb that information, and Robert Cialdini has done work on this, much more contentedly than we pay attention to information that’s purely all positive puffery.  Yet so many guidelines and propositions are written as if we must obviously only talk about the good things that I think there’s a psychological disconnect there.

We tend to mentally depreciate information which isn’t costly to say.  If you want to get into this whole thing, there’s a whole area in evolutionary biology, [Unintelligible name 10:23] costly signalling theory.  But generally we take seriously a piece of communication in proportion to what it costs, not only in money but in effort, the sender to actually say it. Therefore merely meaningless boasting has very little traction, and yet most propositions are written as though that’s all we can possibly do.  So the freedom to allow your corporate Twitter voice to actually engage in a bit of self deprecation or the occasional negative is essential to being taken seriously.

Jon: Warren Buffet always starts his presentations with bad news because everything else you say has more credibility.

Rory: I seem to remember one year his annual talk started with, “You would all have been better off if I’d stayed in bed today.”  Disarming candour, you could call it.  Robert Cialdini’s talked about the fact that one of the almost universal techniques of salesmanship is to provide the negative, naughty but nice, on the grounds that if you don’t provide the negative, the actual consumer will imagine lots of negatives of their own.  So trade offs, pick your own strawberries, we get that.  Basically I do a bit of work, I get cheaper strawberries in return for picking them myself, we’re all comfortable with that, it obeys the rules of karma.  Cheap strawberries, those two words tend to arouse a bit of suspicion because if my strawberries were any good, I’d charge full price for them.  These strawberries must be a bit shit in some way I don’t fully understand.

Jon: I like your example of Ryan Air and EasyJet saying all of the services they don’t offer.

Rory: That’s an interesting thing because we always look at marketing as if its job is to justify a price premium.  But another role of marketing is decontaminating a low price because if Ryan Air and particularly  EasyJet hadn’t made all that noise … it’s very rational what they were doing.  They were making a noise in PR saying you don’t get a meal, you don’t get to check in luggage without paying for it, you don’t get a pre-allocated seat.  They would make all this noise about what you didn’t get, what on earth were they doing?  But the argument is if you don’t do that, if you say we’re just as good as British Airways but we’re cheaper, people go you’re obviously saving money in some area I don’t understand, it means you don’t bother to service your engines and your pilots are a bit crap.  So the vital thing there was to provide the negative.

IKEA is very explicit, you have to assemble it yourself.  The shopping experience has an element of pain, discomfort and inconvenience in it and that’s important because you go, “I get it, this furniture can be high quality and inexpensive because the trade off I’m making isn’t in quality.  I’m not making a quality trade off to achieve that low price, I’m making a kind of hassle trade off.”  And we’re all cool with that, pick your own strawberries is the same thing.

Jon: I want to move on to the topic I completely agree with you, that people with spreadsheets, the financial directors have so much control over how budget is spent.  In my industry, digital marketing, everyone wants to track all forms of digital marketing like paid search – which is great because you can see exactly what key words have led to how many conversions, what time of day they convert.  But that can’t applied to social media.  I know that you’ve put it as ‘we try and track things in a Newtonian way.’  I’ve heard you speak about it quite a lot.  Have you had any success with changing things?

Rory: Here’s the way to look at it.  Optimisation is good up to a point but it’s vitally important to remember you can over optimise.  Things like the shareholder value movement, the whole approach to driving efficiency in organisations without the slight caveat that if you look at Nature, it generally places quite a high premium on efficiency but it also places quite a high premium on what you might call not even resilience [Unintelligible 14:53] call it anti fragility.  So we actually have two kidneys even though we can function with one, there is quite a bit of redundancy there in the system.

If you look at bees, when a bee comes back and does the waggle dance and explains the direction and distance of a bountiful patch of pollen, most of the bees follow that instruction and do what they’re told and head off to that patch and gather a bit more pollen, hugely important bit of social intelligence.  But it’s vitally important to note, and it varies depending where the hive is in relation to the equator and probably species of bee as well, that quite a few bees don’t.  They ignore it and go off doing their own thing.  You’d think this was pretty inefficient.  They mathematically modelled it and discovered that without those rogue bees, the hive would get trapped at a local maximum and starve to death.  You do need a degree of inefficiency to cope with the fact that the environment in which you operate is not stable or in equilibrium.

I think the Daniel Kahneman suggestion has applications to media as well.  His suggestion is what you might call a barbell strategy which is go to the two extremes.  Put 80% of your money in stuff that you know works.  Optimise that real efficient stuff where the payback is pretty damn certain.  Put 20% of your money in stuff that will probably fail but where the cost is finite, where failure is quickly knowable and where the potential upside is as with the rogue bees.  Their chance of failure on their mission is much higher than for the other bees but it’s those bees who also discover a massive new pollen patch that’s just sprung up somewhere to the north east.

That mixture, understanding risk properly and how to respond to it, is better than understanding efficiency.  Anybody who’s in a job for two years is just going to pursue efficiency.  You can say look what I did, I got it from X to X point.  Really smart people are realising that in complex systems, there’s more going on than this.  Nature seems to have checks and balances to prevent over-optimisation and that you need a degree of experimentation.  So the best algorithms now are kind of Darwinian, which is they put a large amount of the money where logic would tell you to put it based on experience.  But they continue to test the hypothesis.  So they will continue to place albeit a smaller amount of investment in places where ads didn’t work in the past, to keep a weather eye on the fact that maybe the situations just change.

Neo classical economics has this idea of stable equilibrium where all things return to this equilibrium state, whereas it’s obvious that in Nature and in business, the marketplace is changing all the time and you’re not in control of it.  One of the things that’s widely known in marketing is that a brand can just be depositioned, in that the shape of the market changes so someone who was previously a number two becomes a number three or falls out of consideration.  Rim, you might say, I think it can revive itself cleverly but that’s another mater.

But there are cases where nothing you do may be able to help, that what your competitors do just so ends up creating a choice architecture in which you’re a massive loser.  The problem is if you purely optimise your own stuff and don’t pay attention to changing environments, you can end up wrong footed.  Really good software is engaged in continual learning processes where it will go that didn’t work last year but I’ll put a tiny percentage of my budget continually seeing whether … because shit happens, stuff changes.  The kind of people who buy your brand may change quite a bit.

Jon: One of the things we’re doing which I believe we do very well, it’s quite new, especially for online clients, is what you call the branded utility.  I call it content stunts or big content, where you create something genuinely of use or interesting to your customer base and it has many benefits.  So it’ll get digital PR coverage in places probably you wouldn’t get coverage normally, those links help you rank higher in Google and also the added benefit of people … it’s very easy to sneer at advertising especially online anonymously.  It’s very difficult to sneer at something you’re created in Useful Calculator or Infographic.  But proving that to a client, that you’re improving positive sentiment towards your brand, how people think about your brand when they go to make a purchase, that’s a very hard thing to track and to prove.  I don’t think it’s a non-important variable.

Rory: I think the answer is I always have an instinct to look for branded utility before I look for branded entertainment.  First of all, brands by existing in the real world have an opportunity to be useful in ways that are relevant to what the brand itself offers.  If you’re not careful with branded content, you end up doing that strange thing, that craze just before the Internet.  In the early Nineties, there was a massive craze for every single organisation producing its own company magazine.  It was then called Cell Net.  I got a magazine from Cell Net because I had a mobile phone where Cell Net was telling me how to grow my own herb garden.  That’s slightly outside of your remit, if you’re telling me how to use a mobile phone, I buy that but herb gardening?  No.

Jon: It has to be relevant.

Rory: I think the way in which we use mobile devices, we all sit on planes and watch Hollywood blockbusters.  What we forget about Hollywood blockbusters is that the failure rate is enormous.  Secondly, it is spectacularly unpredictable.  The way the Hollywood business model works is that you fail lots of times and your blockbusters pay for the rest.  It’s like the drugs industry, the pharmaceutical industry, everything fails.  And just to give you an idea of how uncertain it is and how nobody knows in film, two lovely stories.

My brother in law met someone who was on the set of ‘Star Wars’.  You look back on that, one of the ten or 15 greatest films in the last 50 years.  Obviously it was going to succeed, everybody on the set thought this is just mad, I’m just here for the money, I’m just indulging George Lucas’s delusional fantasies.  And they were sitting there reading the call sheets or the scripts while George wasn’t listening basically taking the piss going, “Look at this, CP3O and R2D2 are walking across desert sand dunes. R2D2 is beeping chirpily.  What sort of shit is this?”  And the people all making the film thought this is completely bonkers.  When ‘Avatar’ came out, the studio which I think was Fox was so uncertain and so convinced that ‘Avatar’ may bomb that in order to ensure their continued survival, they needed a sure-fire hit, for the moment where if ‘Avatar’ failed, they’d at least recoup some money somewhere else.  Which is why they timed ‘Alvin & the Chipmunks – the Squeakquel’ as their backup plan for the failure of ‘Avatar.’

No-one knows shit and the other thing that nobody knows anything is basically true.  The problem with content is utility is a lot more predictable and our clients often want predictability.  Secondly if you look at the way particularly on mobile devices we do a lot of snacking, which is content as a solution to a job that needs to be done.  If you can fulfil that job, first of all you can be used repeatedly whereas great content … I can only think of about 15 or 20 films of all the films I’ve ever seen that I enjoy watching more than once.  Think about those films where you come home and it’s o n TV and you’ve got a pitch the next morning and it’s 1 a.m. and you still watch it through to the end, even though you’ve got the DVD.  ‘Good Fellows,’ ‘Casablanca,’ ‘The Third Man,’ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ weirdly.

Jon: Fantastic film, he’s a hero of mine.

Rory: John Houston was an advertising man before he went into film making.  When he worked in advertising, he invented for Gillette the credit card test which was whether your razor was doing a good job, you dragged a credit card along your chin and if it made a rough noise, then you hadn’t got a good enough razor.  That was John before he decided to squander his talent making films!  ‘Deliverance,’ but there are only about 20 of these bloody things.  I don’t even like watching ‘Citizen Kane.’  What you can do is repeated utility is a lot easier than repeating [Unintelligible 24:19] and also as you said, it’s a brilliant shield to people who complain about advertising.  Here is something which would be good for the consumer but is difficult to monetise.  We will get the brands to do it and we’ll gain a bit of kudos.  That’s exactly what sponsorship is in its origins, that’s why Roman emperors paid for naval engagement.  It’s a perfectly reasonable way in which you buy yourself a degree of appreciation.

Jon: Journalists and bloggers like this branded utility because it’s an easy new story for them.  If you make something that’s visually appealing, immediately you’ve got a whole realm of tech publications that will speak about you so there’s a benefit there as well.

Rory: I also think people are weirdly bad at it.  I’m a huge devotee of taxi apps and a huge devotee of parking apps.  I don’t know if anybody’s done these things where you park your car and put in the four digit number, choose the time and hit Go, credit card’s debited.  The great thing then is if you’re a mile away from your car, you can then extend the parking without going back to your car and putting a new little sticky in the windscreen.  Quite often I turn up at a car park and they say how long do you want to park for and I don’t know, I’ve only just arrived, anything could happen.  Those things are also interesting because unlike content which we tend to consume once and then forget, those weirdly become more and more useful in some ways.  It’s a bit like have Sky TV or a card or whatever, once you’ve done it, you can’t do without it.  They’re closer to addiction whereas with content, the problem we’ve solved is, “I am bored, show me something new.”

Jon: I take more account of them because of Hailo and sometimes Uber.  Hailo’s probably my favourite app as far as being useful and me being lazy.  You made statements that say the next revolution will not be technological, it will be psychological.  Apps like Uber and Hailo and there are others, surely that’s technological?

Rory: Well, no.  In a sense the technology was pre-existing for five years before Hailo existed.  Probably there were other factors.  Two things, not enough black cab drivers had Smartphones in the early days so the second part of the thing might not work.  The second problem might’ve been that the threat of Addison Lee was partly what galvanised London cabbies into accepting it.  Thirdly, Hailo was created partly by three cab drivers which meant the degree of acceptance and their degree of the understanding of the details of being a cabbie, they were just much better at that than anybody else could be.  There’s probably a fourth factor which possibly people didn’t realise.  A relatively small number of people take a remarkably high number of all cabs so if you could create a habit among that small group of heavy cab users, you’ve won a surprising amount of business with a surprisingly small number of people.

The actual technology existed.  What we didn’t understand well enough is that psychological thing of why we hate ringing for taxis is the uncertainty.  You ring for one and then you go, “Where is he, why hasn’t he arrived?  Maybe he’s got the wrong address.  Let’s go and stand out in the rain to check he isn’t there.”  Whereas in Hailo, you just pop your phone on the pub table.  Addison Lee has a perfectly good app that does the same thing as well, there’s also Get Taxi and Uber.  But what you then do is you watch on the map as the thing approaches.  That’s a completely different emotional thing.  You go, “Oh no, he’s stuck at those traffic lights, I’ll go and get myself another pint.”  The fact that what we really hate is being in a state of uncertainty is a psychological insight.  It’s a hugely important insight for technologists because technology can now solve this problem. Dot matrix display boards on the Tube.  Addison’s doing some interesting work.

I’ve got a little flat in Deal in Kent and you order an Amazon parcel there, you can watch the parcel approaching and it will say, “Bobby,” who’s the guy who does the Amazon DPD deliveries in Deal, “You are delivery number 27 of 64, Bobby is now making delivery number 23.”  So you nip out of the café, go back to your house, I actually did this.  Ten seconds before I got back to the house, Bobby turns up, signs the parcel, slings it through the door.  I had to open my own door because obviously he can’t just hand the parcel to someone on the street, to give evidence I actually live there, sign for it and close the door again.  That sort of stuff is really interesting.

Choice architecture, one of our discussions is talking to fast food companies and drinks companies about the extraordinary effect that choice architecture … part of that is we like the feeling that comes from the certainty that we’ve made a good choice.  If the range is messy or the choice is presented in a way that’s befuddling, we experience feelings of discomfiture which we don’t experience if choice is designed in a good … you all know this, Chinese restaurants, you always feel you should’ve ordered something else because the menus are too big.  Among the Chinese community, the set menu is regarded as the idiot gwiro option, this is for the fool who can’t make up his mind!  We often order a set menu in a Chinese restaurant just to remove the sheer mental befuddlement that comes from looking at 190 dishes.  Also I would argue that the huge list of different dishes in a Chinese restaurant causes us to infer the food quality is worse than it is because we go, you can’t make all this shit that way.  Are you really saying you’ve got fresh abalone that you keep just on the one in 100 chance that somebody orders abalone with black bean sauce?  The design of choice and how we frame it, there’s a huge amount of economic value being destroyed by presenting good products in a bad context.

Jon: I liked your comment on getting more people to buy BP Premium that BP launched.

Rory: BP Super Premium, that needs to be a super premium fuel.

Jon: I wanted to ask you about the quarterly stock report and people not being as loyal in jobs any more other than my staff obviously.  Is that problematic when you want to do a sustained content campaign where you’re creating good branded utility useless stuff on a regular basis but the big results from that take a long time to be seen.  You’re working with clients but they have bosses that are putting pressure on them so it’s hard to do long term campaigns like that because of the short term pressures.

Rory: The thing that terrifies me is the staple of TV advertising.  These are the ones we remember.  The staple of TV advertising from the 1970s and 80s was the long running campaign.  If you’re asked to think of instances of a long running campaign in the UK, you have to struggle a bit.  A few retailers do it, the grocery multiples, a couple of them do it.   BT just about does it.  I guess the Meerkat is another example, Giovanni Compario is reasonably long running but there’s not much of it.  If I asked you for a long running beer campaign, you’re going to struggle.  That’s partly because where ad spend resides now is different to where it resided.  Beer and FMCG packaged goods went from being about two-thirds of all ads spent to under a third in a space of about 15 to 20 years so that’s partly the effect of it.

And that’s partly why we enjoy advertising less than we did which is the amount of ad spend which is for those what you might call jolly items like crisps and beer and cigars which is bought out of the fun part of everybody’s budget, the discretionary income of people’s budgets. That stuff tends to be more fun than advertising for stuff which is something you need like an energy company.

I don’t quite understand the resentment of energy prices because my argument is it looks like a pretty good deal to me, energy.  I pay £100 a month for energy, I get to live in the 21st Century not the 19th.  I’ll take that deal. But because we have no proper mental idea of value, let’s face it your electricity goes off for two hours, it’s like being lobotomised, isn’t it?  It’s pretty awful.  I don’t really grudge the money I pay for electricity in that sense.  If you look at it from an economist’s viewpoint rather than the standard emotional reaction which is because we have no choice but to pay it, we resent it.  That creates a very weird psychological thing, which is the things that are really useful we resent paying for whereas things that are useless like a pair of designer sunglasses at £150, because we don’t have to buy them, we don’t resent paying for them.  That creates a peculiar psychological effect, that we hate paying for things that are really useful but are really happy paying for twatty things like fashion.  “Oh no, I’m not paying my bloody electricity bill, all that does is keep me warm and entertained.”

There are some fundamental problems.  If you look at the quarterly reporting problem, the companies are responding to analysts but analysts are obsessed with justifying their decision.  And the tools they use for justifying their decision are disproportionate and tend to be financial information and the financial information is of course the rear view mirror.  It is like driving by looking in the rear view mirror to some extent.  But if you look at the way that people in companies are often incentivised … that also creates some problems because it encourages companies to treat people as disposable resource.  In other words, there’s no bond of loyalty between employer and employee because employees have cottoned onto the fact that if it’s expedient to do so, I’m toast.  I’m only as good as my last quarter, which doesn’t allow for the spirit of mutual … it’s one of the reasons why certain salaries have gone up as well because people will accept lower pay in return for what they see as some sort of security of tenure.  In other words, your employer’s interest in you goes beyond a time horizon of a week.

Having said that, there’s a lot to be gained.  There’s a lot of arguments for optimising the short term stuff in many ways.  There’s no point in doing a fancy brand campaign until your search engine optimisation is working pretty well because what’s the point of advertising something really effectively only to find that when people search for it, they find your competitor.  So we have to be alert to this, there is a necessary and healthy focus on the short term because by and large, the way to make a long term profit is often [as serious? 36:29]  That is true but not the whole truth.

Jon: I’m very happy for you to say that search engine optimisation should come before the branding campaign just for my own selfish needs!

Rory: I think you should optimise outwards from the transaction, there seems to be a certain amount of logic in that.  The advertising conversation tends to start a long way from purchase and move in.  The direct marketing conversation always understood start with the coupon and that does seem to make more sense to me at some level.  Until you’ve perfected the areas like the last mile, as you might call it, the on shelf presence, don’t do any advertising.  When you’ve perfected that stuff, then advertise.  I’m sure there are brilliant ad campaigns that fail not because they’re bad advertising, they’re excellent but because something else in the complex system that is the marketplace is dodgy.

Jon: I’ve got a few light-hearted questions.  If you had to pick a favourite brand or advertising campaign of all time, which would you pick?

Rory: At the moment, the Dove sketches campaign is probably the one.  The reason I’m slightly delaying is I don’t like to appear self interested and it’s an Ogilvy campaign but I admire that immensely.  If you go back historically, the De Beers campaign of how else can a month’s salary last a lifetime, the brilliant anchoring effect in that is genius.  De Beers is probably one of the most extraordinary cases of value creation.  Of recent work, the Dove identikit work is absolutely extraordinary.  That does create a wow moment, an epiphany.  It’s difficult to do, advertising always tries to do an epiphany and it’s not all that easy but that is close to an epiphany.  Regardless of how beautiful the intellectual argument is, the intellectual argument stacks up, if you look at the emotional reaction to people when watching that, it is extraordinary.  It includes things like tears, the whole panoply of human emotion is aroused by that.

[Advertisement is shown]

‘Tell me about your hair.’

‘I didn’t know what he was doing but then I could tell after several questions that he was drawing me.’

‘Once I get a sketch, I say thank you very much and then they leave.  I don’t see them.’

‘All I had been told before the sketch was to get friendly with this other woman, Chloe.’

‘Today I’m going to ask you some questions about a person you met earlier and I’m going to ask you some general questions about their face.’

‘She was thin so you could see her cheekbones and her chin, it was a nice thin chin.’

‘This is the sketch that you helped me create and that’s a sketch that somebody described of you.’

‘I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices and friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children.  It impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.’

‘Do you think you’re more beautiful than you say?’

‘Yeah.  Yeah.’

Jon: You don’t have to answer this one but what is the most embarrassing advert you’ve seen or just terrible work?  Have you seen something so shocking that … ?

Rory: I have to say, and I won’t be alone in this and I don’t like doing this because if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.  Dorothy Parker actually said if you can’t say anything good about people, come over and sit right next to me!  But there are pieces of activity and there’s one bank campaign at the moment which just seems to make no sense at all, where what’s driving the activity is fundamentally wrong.  I would argue that a lot of advertising is misdirected because if you look at the people who do tons of it which are the insurance comparison websites, money supermarket etc., whether or not you like the work they understand that first of all you’re advertising to a moving parade and as David Ogilvy says, you need to keep doing it because new people are entering the marketplace all the time.  The second thing is they seem to recognise that saliency at some level really counts.

Jon: Thank you very much for your time.

Rory: Absolute pleasure.

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4 Responses to “Render Positive Interviews Rory Sutherland”

  1. JE says:

    Is there any way to download the audio so we can listen on ipod? ?

    • Han says:

      Hi! We’re working on converting this to a podcast now, should be available in the next few days 🙂

    • Han says:

      Hi JE!

      Sorry this took such a long time. We’ve added this now to all our Positive Chats posts. Here’s a link to the mp3 for this one! You should be able to go to File > Save Page As… in your browser to download it to your computer if you’re not prompted to automatically. We’ve got video and audio-only podcasts set up on the itunes store too, if that’s easier.

  2. […] we interview the most talented people in advertising and marketing. Our first interview was with Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chair of Ogilvy. He is a marketing idol of mine, and a man who’s always in high demand. It further goes to show, […]

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