Last night we welcomed adman and author Rory Sutherland to Rivington Rooms to discuss the ideas behind his top reads.

“A flower is a weed with an advertising budget.” One of many memorable quotes from Rory Sutherland — adman, Spectator columnist and self-styled ‘worst dressed man in advertising’.

Rory first joined advertising, marketing and PR giant Ogilvy (then Ogilvy & Mather) in 1988. He has since established a behavioral science practice within the agency, and risen the ranks to become Vice Chairman in the UK.

As a copywriter and creative director of over 20 years , Rory has been awarded an honorary doctorate, become a Visiting Professor at the University for the Creative Arts, penned The Wiki Man and written a fortnightly column (of the same title) for The Spectator. He also contributes regularly as a columnist to Market Leader, Impact and Wired, and has delivered TED Talks such as 'Life lessons from an Ad Man' and 'Sweat the small stuff'. This year his second book, Alchemy, The Surprising Power of Ideas Which Don't Make Sense, will be released. 

Last night we gathered at our Rivington Rooms space for an evening of conversation around Rory’s reading list, behavioural economics, education, modern marketing and human complexity.

Here’s what we learned.

Before touching on his first book, The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rory described discovering the field of behavioural economics, an area of study which bridges the gap between “elegant economic theory” and the reality of how humans really think, feel and behave. In his years of advertising experience he has learnt that “advertising makes no sense from an economic perspective”, and that consumers often behave in unpredictable and seemingly irrational ways. Accepting this, he told us, changed the way he thinks about marketing. “It irritated me that so many decisions were made [by marketers] on the assumption that economic theory was true.” He has countless anecdotes full of examples of how consumers consistently make decisions that are economically unsound, which explains why raising prices can increase sales, or why the quality of an envelope can make people more likely to donate to charity.

Understanding human behaviour, believes Rory, is about seeing what is not there. What is not being said? What is not being done? And what do marketing and Sherlock Holmes have in common? “Detective novels teach us to notice details.” For Rory, Arthur Conan Doyle was “one of the greatest prose writers,” whose “clarity of communication” (compared to other Edwardian writers) means “there isn’t a single moment when you have to turn back three pages to figure out who the character is.” He quoted Conan Doyle, saying: “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” As with detective work, marketing requires you to “put yourself in the mind of somebody else” and “notice tiny deviations”. For Rory, it’s this focus on “the dog that didn’t bark in the night” – or rather, “noticing what didn’t happen”, that is a crucial part of uncovering the truth of a person or situation. A modern example of this might be “fake non news”: we’re familiar with the broadcasting, consumption and perpetuating of untruths, but there is also a media bias in terms of what isn’t reported. 

This line of thinking brought us on to Rory’s next compendium of hidden truths: The Times Big Book of Cryptic Crosswords. He was frank about his approach (“cheat”) and promised that “bit by bit you’ll need to cheat less and less.” The puzzles are an exercise in disregarding the obvious in order to discover meanings at a deeper level, in the same way that marketers must accept that there is “a real reason why people do things and then the official reason.” He asked us to consider, for example, if people brush their teeth because they are concerned about dental hygiene, or if it’s more about how other people would perceive them if they didn’t brush their teeth. Lots of our behaviours are shame-driven in this way: there is a logical reason for doing things like recycling or brushing our teeth, but Rory believes there is “always the undercurrent of strange human behaviour.”

This is one of Rory’s big passions. His remaining three books of choice were Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, by Robert Frank and The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller, which all informed the evening’s conversation. If advertising is about playing into the underlying fears and desires of consumers, it’s valuable to have an understanding of their behaviours. For example, “Darwinian soap ads” play on a person’s fear of being deemed unhygienic – and therefore unattractive. Rory’s examples of other modern “peacock tails” – those pointless, impractical and often encumbering traits or practices in which we engage to make ourselves more attractive to potential “mates” – included the exceedingly large human vocabulary, flashy cars and expensive, impractical clothes. Despite a “fetishizing of intelligence” in our culture (“people are obsessed with proving they are not unintelligent”) we spend more on fashion than on education. Data is growing at an exponential rate, “but the number of people who understand it isn’t.” 

The conversation took many different turns as Rory touched on the gender imbalance in science-based subjects  (“maths teaching is about 50 years behind the curve”), capitalism (“economics doesn’t understand fairness”), the overpopulation of London and how “we hugely underestimate the importance of luck in our lives”. As always, the books will be available in our library to borrow, and for more from Rory Sutherland you can catch him on Thought Cages, on BBC Radio 4. 

All photograpy by Sam Bush

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