Rory Sutherland, British advertising veteran and vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK, wears multiple hats—adman, TED speaker and a published writer. An old Ogilvy hand with more than two decades of experience in advertising, Sutherland was in Mumbai to promote his third book, Alchemy: The Surprising Power Of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, which blends behavioural science, brand stories and a touch of branding. “I’m not suggesting that my book will result in an upheaval in everything we know. I want brands and advertisers to find solutions in simple human truth than heavily relying on rationally argued statements,” he says. Sutherland, who joined the agency as a graduate trainee in 1988, co-founded Ogilvy’s behavioural science division. Under this, he works with psychology graduates who look for “unseen opportunities” in consumer behaviour and find long-lasting solutions for brands.
In an interview, he talks about how psychology can offer better brand solutions, India’s capability in creating global brands, and why the digital platform needs better-written ads. Edited excerpts:
You call yourself an “advertarian”. What does that mean?
An advertarian is actually a contrarian who believes far more problems can be solved if we were happy to adopt psychological-led advertising solutions. Whenever a firm has a significant problem it is often handed to an economist or a lawyer; then they look for solutions from their limited world-view. I believe these problems can be solved from a psychological perspective as well.
India and Britain, for instance, have a huge problem of overcrowded public transport like trains. While the logical solution would be to make longer and faster trains, I would suggest, why not redesign trains to create a comfortable space for commuters to stand and travel for short distances. If we can provide a slab with charging ports and coffee cup holders facing the train windows, commuters would choose to stand because of a better view and an option to work.
Any interesting examples on how brands may be using psychology to market their products better?
Well, Dyson’s vacuum cleaners are pretty good in terms of technology and efficiency, but a part of the magic is psychological, because the outer body is transparent. One can see the dirt while cleaning the carpet which fundamentally changes the psychological feeling of cleaning a floor. The consumer feels more satisfied when he/she could see the dirt while cleaning the floor.
I would argue that cab hailing app Uber is also a psychological innovation and not a technological one. It is a simple GPS-enabled app, but psychologically, it offers the convenience of being driven and not bother about parking, and people are willing to wait for a car to arrive which otherwise they wouldn’t have done. When a user sees a car approaching the pick-up location in the app the emotional pain and anxiety he/she experiences is inordinately less.
You have spoken a lot on the power of persuasion, but do you think it is going down with the emergence of social media and declining attention span?
I believe a considerable amount of persuasion happens below the level of conscious awareness. So, there is some evidence that shows there are things which we can’t remember, but they are still persuasive. We are very comfortable buying things which look familiar but we have never heard of. Weirdly, ads which we don’t remember have influence on our buying behaviour simply because they make a product seem less unfamiliar when we encounter it on the shelf.
The need to advertise will never diminish, what may change is the mechanisms. Advertising is very big in nature; a flower is actually a weed with advertising budgets. Video still remains powerful; radio is a medium which shouldn’t be skipped because one can listen to the medium while doing something. I don’t think television will diminish as well.
People have watched the Game Of Thrones television series, which is 70 hours of their time. Now, if somebody told me this in the 1960s, that people can binge watch a show for five hours straight, I would have said that you’re mad. So, we do see people engaging more when it suits them and less when it doesn’t. In retail, we have a concept of high-touch retail, where consumers can go around looking for products in a highly elaborate store. Then, we also have a low-touch perfunctory store like Amazon.
How do brands create more engagement online?
On digital, we have tried to reach the right people at the right moment, but there has been only 10% of the effort in the creative component of the message being delivered to them. Once media has reached a reasonable level of efficiency, the next level would come from better creative experimentation by making better ads. Creative agency doesn’t get the opportunity to write better ads, as most digital campaigns are written as an afterthought. Therefore, most online communication would be better if creative people are allowed more time and say over its content.
Do you think India can create global brands?
I’m convinced that India can create global brands. I think India can create powerful native brands in the area of luxury and premium goods, which can be exported. I think most people don’t realize how cool India is to others. Indianess is very cool, especially in the UK. I would like a recolonization of Indian goods in the UK in terms of clothing (laughs).
You have done it in food though, and very successfully. I would be interested to witness reverse cultural colonization.
India has many heritage brands which need to be sold to the West. Imagine if Flipkart enters the UK. In terms of Indian brands, I personally love the Oberoi Group. There’s a huge opportunity to cater to the Indian diaspora living abroad and they can be used as a cultural export channel.
To give you an example, when Coke entered the UK, there were many reasons for it to be unsuccessful. Because of the terrible weather, we mostly drink tea and alcohol. However, Coke decided to largely target American servicemen stationed in the UK and the brand eventually became a hit with the local population as well. Indian brands need to do something similar as well.
What is the biggest challenge faced by the advertising fraternity today?
We adopt technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to inform human decision-making, provided we have a sceptical human to comprehend it. I worry about AI not delivering information and insights but AI making decisions without human intervention. When already see insane pricing on Amazon algorithm where a book is priced at quarter of million dollars because competing algorithms have simply gone mad. So, what the technology is doing is perfectly normal, even though it is perfectly stupid for a watching human.
I think technologies such as AI are good as long as they have human intervention. To my mind, AI can generate interesting creative suggestions, which humans can contemplate. What frightens me is a tendency where AI will start taking decisions since it has a high level of certainty; because it only knows what it knows. Humans attach too much importance to conclusions that are arrived at using mathematical or technical means of decision-making. There’s far more big data than people are equipped enough to analyse it.
How often do you travel in a week?
One long and one short haul a month is the maximum travel I aim for. Anything more than that becomes a burden.
What do you do when you are offline and not tracking trends?
I love doing cryptic crosswords and puzzles. Americans don’t understand, but Indians do. I’m fond of reading and travelling. I’ve got twin girls of 17 years, who are also an endless source of fascination. Even trivial things in life, like going to the shop, taking a taxi or looking out of the window, are rewarding if one adopts the mind of a naturalist.
One of the great things about working in advertising is the power of observation. I feel sitting in a café looking at people can make you a better advertising resource. I try to enjoy as much of the ordinary life as I possibly can. I do the shopping online, I empty the dishwasher and, whenever I’m travelling, even for work, I book my own tickets. I want to know what these things feel like.