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Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland argues that marketers should appeal less to logic and more to the instinctive part of the brain. (Dave West for The Globe and Mail/Dave West for The Globe and Mail)
Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland argues that marketers should appeal less to logic and more to the instinctive part of the brain. (Dave West for The Globe and Mail/Dave West for The Globe and Mail)

Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland makes a rational case for brain science Add to ...

It’s not purely in terms of what it enables us to do but in the vocabulary it gives us, as well. So that you can have a boardroom conversation about human behaviour that doesn’t make you sound like a whack job. At Ogilvy, there’s a guy called Nick Ford who’s the head of finance for Europe. He, as a finance guy, was interested in behavioural economics, and I thought, ‘This is important.’ Because this is a way of getting [finance]people who naturally don’t pay much attention to marketing, to see that understanding this better is a real source of advantage. If we start to understand heuristics as well, the advances you can make in terms of understanding how people make decisions … is just hugely important. … Quite a few of the very best advertising campaigns can be understood in behavioural economic terms.

For example?

“How else can a month’s salary last a lifetime?” from DeBeers is a brilliant example of framing. It sets an expectation of how much you should spend on an engagement ring – an anchor point, it might be called in behavioural economics. … There’s a case from Ogilvy Brazil. There’s been a very considerable effort to persuade people that Hellmann’s can be used as a recipe ingredient as well as just a conventional mayonnaise. One of the first rules that you learn from brain science is that we make decisions contextually. Our ideas of value and our appraisal of things varies, according to moment and context. So there’s a beautiful idea from Brazil, where if you bought Hellmann’s, let’s say you’ve also bought beef and onions, the software will take what you bought and it will print on your shopping receipt a recipe that involves beef, onions, and Hellmann’s. So it formulates a recipe from your shopping list. That’s the kind of moment-of-truth intervention which absolutely delights me.

You’ve spoken about some of Ogilvy’s work around the world – I’m talking to you the day after Ogilvy & Mather was awarded Network of the Year at the CLIO Awards.

The award was sensational. That’s the one we want, really. That’s the big one. Europe did well, London won, in quite a few things. I was absolutely overjoyed. In fact, I would have gone [to the awards ceremony]had I known! [The agency]still has an absolute bloodline from [founder and advertising guru]David [Ogilvy] … He would have been obsessed with behavioural economics were he still around. His interest in what makes people tick, but the twin interest in creativity and effectiveness, is a particular Ogilvy trait.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


He may not be a grammar school teacher any more, but Rory Sutherland assigns reading with as much gusto as ever. Here are a few books he thinks Globe readers ought to pick up:

- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: “We often design legislation in ways that are contrary to our instinctive nature. And it’s often an imposition of what seems rational on the [instinctual brain]that probably, actually, accounts for most of our happiness and well-being.”

- Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising by Robert Heath: “A very good book, which is precisely about this low-involvement processing effect. … We may decode, and process, and be affected by the advertisement far more on the unconscious level.”

- The Darwin Economy by Robert Frank: “A great book I’d recommend to all readers of The Globe and Mail. He’s a Cornell professor. A tremendous take on understanding Darwinism and consumption.”

- The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt: “I almost consider him the anti-Dawkins, in that Dawkins uses his very great ability and his great understanding of Darwinian evolution to launch an attack on religion. Haidt – who himself is a sort of lapsed Jewish atheist I think he described himself as – is nonetheless using his understanding of evolution to explain quite the opposite. Haidt’s book is utterly fantastic. It uses evolutionary science to explain how … what seemed previously just irrational about ideas like a Sabbath, or ideas like fasting, actually comes to make a lot more sense when you understand our evolutionary origins.”

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