'How the hell have we allowed this to happen?' Rory Sutherland on creative devaluation

 Rory Sutherland says adland needs to stop creativity being seen as “some magic fairy dust” sprinkled on after the serious thinking has taken place
Rory Sutherland says adland needs to stop creativity being seen as “some magic fairy dust” sprinkled on after the serious thinking has taken place

Nudgestock 2021: Media agencies and tech firms have devalued creativity

Adland has “painted itself into a corner” because it has allowed creativity to be associated primarily with “verbal or visual artistry” rather than a tool to solve business problems, according to Rory Sutherland. 

In an interview for the Campaign podcast, Ogilvy’s vice-chair urges creative agencies to wake up and challenge clients' perceptions, often not helped by media agencies and tech firms, that they are just “a bunch of flaky bastards who wouldn’t know a spreadsheet if it mugged them”. 

He also believes adland needs to promote creativity more aggressively. He argues the industry should be a major rival to consultancy firms like McKinsey and Deloitte, offering creative problem-solving applied to a wide gamut of business problems. “It is shameful the extent to which the industry has allowed itself to get painted into an artistic corner, where you just colour in round the edges,” he says. 

Sutherland was speaking to Campaign ahead of Friday’s Nudgestock, Ogilvy’s ninth annual event covering behavioural science and creativity. This year’s line-up includes Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, Duke University professor Dan Ariely, actor, comedian and screenwriter John Cleese and comedian and mental health advocate Ruby Wax. 

The event comes over a year into the Covid pandemic, which has dramatically shifted people’s behaviour and led to an increased interest in the techniques of “nudging” people to behave in certain ways. 

Campaign caught up with Sutherland to discuss why adland needs to stop creativity being seen as “some magic fairy dust” sprinkled on after the serious thinking has taken place, his observations on how Covid has affected behaviours, and why future-thinking suffers from a consistent flaw – it assumes an increasingly urban existence for populations. 

How do you solve a problem like creativity?

The world works in strange ways. “So many problems are caused not because of a lack of intelligence, but because a lot of intelligent people are all looking at the wrong things,” Sutherland says. 

For example, he argues that governments tend to listen to lawyers and economists and so when trying to change behaviour, they start with compulsion by enforcing laws. If these fail, they move to economic incentives. Only in the event that those two approaches fail, they try persuasion.

“You don’t have to be a manic libertarian to realise that’s the wrong way to approach a problem. You should start by seeing what people are willing to do voluntarily. If that fails, try bribing them. If that fails then start compelling them,” he says. 

But this type of groupthink is the reason that creativity is such a valuable asset. Sutherland says the essence of creativity is the ability to either look at different things from everybody else, or to look at things in a different way. 

The ability to reframe a problem is a superpower in many ways. He notes the “glorious” Sainsbury’s planning example that took something seemingly impossible – trying to elicit a £1.3bn increase in sales – and made it more achievable by thinking differently. The growth was the equivalent of getting customers to buy one extra product per visit. The campaign, by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, won gold at the IPA Effectiveness Awards in 2008.

“That’s an example of supremely accomplished creativity, but it doesn’t involve words or pictures,” Sutherland says. 

And this is the industry’s thorny problem: “The marketing and the advertising industry have painted themselves into a corner. They've allowed people to see creativity as verbal or visual artistry and as a result, there’s no role for the application of creativity to business."

“There’s a wonderful story that [the managing director of marketing and digital at Direct Line Group] Mark Evans told me that highlights the issue. Someone was seconded to marketing from another part of the business and that person said on his first day, “I don’t know why they’ve sent me to marketing, I’m rubbish at drawing,” Sutherland recalls. 

Creatives need to wake up to what’s happening. As he explains: “The media agency says to a client, that’s a question for the creative agency. The creative agency loves it because they are being called creative so they act like spaniels being tickled saying ‘oh that’s lovely, we’re being called creative’. What the client might hear is that the creatives are a bunch of flaky bastards who wouldn't know a spreadsheet if it mugged them.”

He continues: “The media agencies, in connivance with the tech firms, have sold clients on the idea that creativity is the little bit of magic fairy dust which you add at the end, or worse still, it's just content. A dog shitting in a field is content. That takes the whole artistry of the creative, persuasive art and reduces it to a duration or a word count. How the hell have we allowed this to happen?

“Why did we allow media planning to be separated from creative? It didn’t make any sense to anybody even in 1990, it makes even less sense in the media environment we have now when the idea can come from anywhere."

How did we let this happen?

For a start, Sutherland believes the conflation of marketing and marcoms has been a disaster for marketing. “Properly defined, marketing involves a whole gamut of different business skills, like new product development or pricing, but it gets associated with marcoms simply because that’s the most expensive part. That was okay if you were a Unilever or P&G, when most of your board would have a marketing background. But if you look at ad spend now, packaged goods are less than 20% of overall spend,” he says.

So part of the reason for the gradual downgrading of the discipline is the shift in the type of brands employing agencies, Sutherland argues. The slack has been taken up by mobile phone networks, insurance comparison websites, broadband providers. Their ad spend is a much lower proportion of their outgoings, which Sutherland believes has led to marketing being downgraded to an ancillary function rather than a strategic function. 

Like many others, Sutherland argues another failure was allowing work to be paid by the hour rather than on commission. Being paid on commission incentivises agencies to either run as many ideas as possible or to find ideas that will run for a long time. Both of these are good. Sutherland calls this an “opportunity maximisation game”. In contrast, payment by hours is an “efficiency optimisation game”.

“It’s essentially, how can we perform this pre-ordained task at as low cost as possible?" Sutherland explains. "It’s completely the wrong mindset for what we should be doing, which is to work out how we can help clients grow into realms they never formerly anticipated.”

He also believes that staff resourcing in agencies is all wrong. “The ratio of creative people in any agency is far too small, because if there is one group of people you want doing nothing some of the time it’s creatives. It wouldn’t hurt planners either. Generally, you want account people to be busy. But if you remove any discretionary time from the equation, you maintain this ludicrous pretence that advertising is some sort of Henry Ford-esque sequential production line," he says. 

“You see this fetishisation of the division of labour as well, which is appropriate to the manufacturing of products, but it's not appropriate to the generation of ideas. Really interesting ideas actually come from the intersection of two things," he adds. 

He created Ogilvy’s behavioural science practice to escape from this straitjacket. 

Creativity’s Trojan Horse

What to do? First, move creativity upstream.“Behavioural economics is a Trojan Horse to get creative marketing thinking and the creative mindset upstream and more broadly applied in a wider range of business,” he says. 

One of the reasons Sutherland founded Ogilvy’s behavioural science practice was because he was “sick of just trying to work with the marcoms budget. There are tonnes of applications for business creativity even with clients without a marcoms budget.” 

For example, one client is Thames Valley Police, which asks his team to come up with ideas for useful phrases they can use in call centre scripts to induce certain behaviours in callers. Other questions include working out how to punish a non-violent first-time offender without sending them to prison, which destroys their future employment prospects and sends them to “university for criminals” but which still satisfies the victim’s appetite for justice. 

Another step is to get the creativity upfront. “The Taylorist way we run ad agencies means the creative department is the last to be engaged in the process. It's ridiculous,” he says.

“Howell Henry was right all along, it needs to work in parallel not in a series because you don’t know the direction of travel that a solution takes. There are far more good ideas out there that you can post-rationalise than pre-rationalise.”

Red Bull, Starbucks and Nespresso are ideas that would have initially been mocked, he contends. “If you had proposed to me in 1994, that there was a big market for people who want to spend £3.40 on a cup of coffee and walk around carrying it in a paper cup, I would have assumed you were nuts.” But these products are all examples of successfully applied creativity. 

“The lesson there," Sutherland continues. "Is that we need to experiment and imagine more. The real knack to creativity is just looking at things differently. If you reframe, recontextualise or reconceptualise, suddenly what looked like an intractable problem changes."

To that end, it's time for a new brief – free creativity from its outdated shackles.

The full interview will be available on the Campaign podcast, released this afternoon.

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