Rory Sutherland: Time to tone down the dehumanised language of finance

By Rory Sutherland, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 17 November 2011 08:00AM

Why are there never any pro-capitalist demonstrators?

Rory Sutherland is the vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather

Rory Sutherland is the vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather

And, if there were, what would they sing? To misquote Tom Lehrer: "We may have won all the battles - but they have all the good songs."

Getting people to like capitalism is never easy. In judging human activities, people are far more emotionally swayed by the motivation behind any behaviour than its ultimate outcome. Hence, any system that appears to celebrate the pursuit of self-interest will be judged more harshly than competing ideas that are well-intentioned but useless.

However, it has to be said that capitalism has done itself few favours recently. Programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragons' Den no more faithfully depict conventional business activity than 2 Girls 1 Cup depicts conventional sex. The Financial Times' How To Spend It supplement has done as much to harm the reputation of capitalism as Das Kapital.

But marketing and marketers have to take some of the blame here. Because by happily embracing concepts such as "accountability", we are allowing a financial-managerialist cabal - what Anthony Tasgal calls "The Arithmocracy" - to seize control of the whole show.

The dehumanised language of finance has come to dominate business to an unattractive extent. In the UK today, a financial vocabulary carries a similar advantage to speaking Norman French in 11th-century England - you don't have to speak it, but you won't get far if you don't.

Even the word "market" has been misappropriated. As John Kay remarks: "News 'from the markets' is not (news) of new products and services, but of the fluctuations of the FTSE ...

A semantic confusion leads us to use the word market to describe both the process which puts food on our table and the activity of gambling in credit default swaps. That confusion has enabled people to claim the virtues of the former for the latter."

Ultimately, this language has given to business a soulless, uninspiring and deterministic narrative that motivates no-one other than a few City analysts and their running-dog CEOs: how many people will ever take to the streets with the chant "What do we want?" "A 5 per cent increase in like-for-like EBITDA." "When do we want it?" "By the third quarter of 2012."

In the next few years, it will be the job of marketers to challenge the worst excesses of this autistic and barren business philosophy, which is deeply damaging to brands, trust and social capital. For, better than anyone else, marketers should understand that a really great business is guided not only by an invisible hand but an invisible handshake: the implicit understanding that it values its customers and employees for more than their contribution to the latest quarterly figures.

Rory Sutherland is the vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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