Matt Williams: Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy’s biggest idea – and it had nothing to do with ‘advertising’

First it was Dave Trott Now it’s another advertising legend that I’m going to spend a blog sucking up to.

Last week I went along to the Admap 50th Anniversary party, where Rory Sutherland was one of the guest speakers.

If you’ve even seen him talk before, then you probably know the speech. Rory has a certain formula he sticks to – and if you think that’s a criticism then I can assure you it’s not – not when the formula he’s created is so bloody brilliant.

Amongst various lessons on behavioural economics and joyous anecdotes about why wine in restaurants is the biggest con going, Sutherland (below) also revealed his ‘proudest moment’ during all his years at Ogilvy.

The most useful thing he’s ever done for a client, he said, was convincing British Airways to change their departure boards so that rather than just stating when a plane is delayed, it also gives you an estimated time as to how long it’s being delayed by.

It’s a pretty genius piece of advice when you think about it. Human behaviour tends to show that people get more irate about their journey when not knowing that a plane is delayed for 30 minutes, than they do when they know that their plane is delayed for an hour.

And even if that approximate time is rubbish, still the satisfaction of being given that little bit of extra information outweighs the frustration when you know your plane is delayed but aren’t given any guidance at all.

During a frustrating situation like travel delays, anything British Airways can do to stem some angst is most welcome. It’s a powerful business move.

So when all is said and done, one of the most respected men in advertising didn’t believe that an ad campaign was the most satisfying piece of work he’s ever done. Nor was it a website. Nor a DM pack. Nor mobile content.

No, this was a simple piece of business advice – some brand expertise given by someone in a position to provide it.

Because that’s the thing, marketers understand people. They understand behavioural economics, They understand what gets a response from consumers and what doesn’t. They understand messaging.

And these things are needed by clients in far more areas than just advertising campaigns. These messages, techniques and influences can be valuable in transforming various elements of a client’s business – big or small.

Again, the very best agencies and clients already understand this. And they build such strong relationships with each other that there’s a trust in place that goes beyond brand communications, and allows the experts from both sides to work in partnership to look at the bigger picture and identify truly transformative business strategies and ideas.

R/GA and Nike certainly have that relationship in the US. I bet on these shores John Lewis has it with adam&eveDDB too. Yet these occurrences are still few and far between.

Of course, that’s partly because this approach opens up a whole new can of worms. How do you go about charging for these ‘ideas’? How do you set targets and KPIs when you don’t know exactly what the problems are that you need to solve? Isn’t it just easier for us all to create campaigns that we can measure, that we can stick in a showreel and be done with?

I don’t know, for instance, where Sutherland’s British Airways idea would sit in the Cannes Lions judging. Yet it’s probably more business defining and important for that brand’s communications and positioning than most of the ideas and projects entered into advertising awards these past 12 months.

I’m sure we’d all love to see more agencies thinking like this. Let’s strive for and be proud of coming up with these type of solutions. Let’s think about the bigger picture. About those elements of a client’s brand that adversely affects a consumer’s view of the business, yet are usually overlooked.

Go beyond the usual advertising projects that clients ask for. Come up with those truly business changing ideas. Then maybe we’ll be in a position to have a more valid and productive debate about how to charge for it.

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