NOT MANY PEOPLE GET CALLED AN ADVERTISING GURU BY TED AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT . But then again, not many people have risen from “worst trainee ever” to industry household name either.
So who better than Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK, Rory Sutherland to share some thoughts on how to prosper in the creative industry.
“I worry that the pursuit of efficiency — or rather efficiency as defined by the finance function — sometimes goes too far. “
Q: You’ve described your path in advertising as one of a lot of luck , which, considering you were one of the worst trainees in Ogilvy history, must have been quite helpful. Would you still get the same amount of time and patience, entering the industry today, to find your footing?
Rory Sutherland: This is a very fair and pertinent question: the answer is “probably not” . In fact there is a wider point to be made here.
In any organisation, there is an optimal level of inefficiency, an optimal level of failure and an optimal level of waste. That rate is not high — but it is not zero either.
I worry that the pursuit of efficiency — or rather efficiency as defined by the finance function — sometimes goes too far.
I think it is to the ultimate benefit of everyone if people in agencies have a certain degree of discretionary time.
Similarly, I believe it is good for employers to tolerate a certain amount of early failure in order to allow employees to find their niche.
In his excellent recent book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer makes the point that “a system which does not make mistakes can not be regarded as intelligent.” If you optimise everything in a system, it is very difficult for that system to learn, to adapt or to innovate.
Q: How has the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, influenced your thinking and doing, in recent years ?
Rory Sutherland: Their work is more important than ever. It is a very valuable corrective to some very strange ideas about brands which are increasingly circulating in, for instance, social media circles — the suggestion that people want deep, intense emotional relationships with brands of the kind they may have with family and friends.
This is an increasingly pervasive idea: it is true that in some categories technology may change the nature of the way people interact with businesses — and this can be very important to their fortunes. But some of the metaphors used are very dangerous indeed.
Equally the Institute has also taught me something that most people are very reluctant to believe — that there are certain underlying mathematical inevitabilities in life — e.g. that the brand that has the most customers will also have a disproportionate share of the best customers.
My friend Paul Craven and I realised that there is something similar about public speaking: in order to get invited to speak at the best events, you have to do a lot of speaking at events which are less prestigious. We don’t know why this is so — it just seems to be an emergent property of the system.
Q: What are some of the risks and opportunities facing the creative industry in the next 5 years, in your opinion?
Rory Sutherland: The structure of advertising agencies has not changed much since we were effectively paid not by clients but by media owners. You still see quite a lot of media-first thinking.
My own contention is that the amount of time spent talking about “social media” or “engagement” or “content strategies” is too high and the amount of time spent talking about human psychology is far too low.
I also think that conventional agency models have been mostly derived from work done on packaged goods brands: these represent a much smaller share of ad-spend than they did twenty years ago.
And yet the way people choose an airline and the way people choose a shampoo may be quite different, and require altogether different interventions.
Q: New technology has amplified old and created new forms of behaviour. How do you decide what to invest time and money in to build skillsets around?
Behavioural science. Always behavioural science. BUT this does not mean one should ignore existing or new technology — for the very simple reason that technology has a very significant effect on how people decide and act; “The interface determines the behaviour”.
Also — back to Ehrenberg-Bass for a moment — “the strength of a brand depends on how readily it comes to mind in specific buying situations.”
If the situations in which people buy change, this means that your brand strength may be massively affected. Barnes and Noble is a megabrand on the high street but a challenger brand on the computer-screen.
Q: Should all people in the creative industry know how to code?
Creative people don’t necessarily need to know how to do everything, any more than an architect needs to know how to plumb a sink. They do however need to keep up to date about what is possible.
Having said that, it is always a good idea to know the basics: when young trainee architects joined Frank Lloyd Wright at his school at Taliesin West, the first task he set them was to build their own home.
The advertising industry is healthily artisanal in this respect. Almost everyone senior has risen through the ranks.
Q: Are the ranks divers enough that people who might be able to spot the ‘next big/best thing” can move up and help the industry lead instead of follow, or is that a more political process that suits, Account Managers best?
Rory Sutherland: The good news is that we do not have managers parachuted in who understand our business only as an abstraction — something which MBAs are rather prone to doing.
You are certainly right that this approach may mean that the management of an organisation may come from those parts of the business that were most significant in the past.
There is a time-lag and I do take your point. I would certainly expect many more people in senior management to have a digital background in five to ten years’ time.
However age and experience are not irrelevant — having spent a greater length of time in any business helps to give you a sense of proportion, and the ability to spot recurring patterns.
The question to ask of any business is not “is it perfect?” but “is it quickly evolving in the right direction?”.
The greater part of Ogilvy’s management now have experience in fields other than traditional advertising — something which would have been unimaginable when I joined.
And in any case, the best people, like the best businesses, constantly reinvent themselves in a Bowie-like fashion.
It’s often better that way — since you can carry the best things you have learned from one field into a new one.
Q: What should students and graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the industry, focus on, in terms of skills and knowledge topics?
“ I think you should learn to think like a biologist. Human behaviour is a complex affair — more like meteorology than simple engineering. Markets are complex systems. Hence you should try to develop an appreciation for systems-thinking — and learn to recognise common patterns. “
Q: If you were to test a candidate’s skills through a small project, what would you ask them to do?
Rory Sutherland: Take an interesting idea from one place and apply it somewhere else. Motown and McDonald’s both took ideas from the car industry and applied them to an entirely different field.
How would you apply the idea of stripy toothpaste to financial services — that was one brief I set recently.
Alternatively I would ask someone to solve a behavioural problem: how would you encourage people to adopt videoconferencing, say. Something where the solution does not necessarily involve conventional communication at all.
Q: _ In his essay on how to build brands in the digital age, Martin Weigel writes : _ “There is as much to unlearn as there is to relearn” . What are you unlearning and relearning?
Rory Sutherland: I am a bit of an amateur game-theorist by temperament. I always start every brief by asking the questions:
a) “What are the universal assumptions in this category?”
b) “What if they are wrong?”
Try and listen out for the dog that doesn’t bark in the night.
Noticing “The dog that doesn’t bark in the night” is one of my favourite examples of a brilliant insight, since it involves spotting the significance of something which didn’t happen.
In the original story (“The Silver Blaze”) Holmes asks why the dog did not bark in the nighttime when someone broke into the stables to steal a racehorse — something which suggests the crime was an inside job.
Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise a 20 year old Rory, if he asked where to work; start up, advertising agency, tech company, something else?
Rory Sutherland: __ I now understand what David Ogilvy meant when he recommended that everyone should spend some time working in direct marketing.
Do something where there is a feedback loop — where you can develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t — by repeated and regular exposure to success and failure.
Thank you Mr Sutherland
“Where the puck is going” is an interview series by GapJumpers . We ask people we like and find interesting to share their thoughts. Whenever we find someone willing to answer our questions, we’ll feature them. If you’d like to stay updated on more stories, please follow the collection.