Close-Up: The best of Rory Sutherland's blogs from 2009

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 04 December 2009 12:00AM

The IPA president has covered all advertising bases, from prostitutes to Sherlock Holmes, in his campaignlive.co.uk blog.

1. Why creatives should wear ties occasionally. (20 April) Perhaps the best thing you can do when writing a good press ad is to abandon any attempt at being even remotely hip. Put on a suit and tie. Read the Daily Mail. Go fox- hunting. Visit Croydon. You can do almost anything in press. But it's hard to do cool. Remember, too, that when you fail to be cool you alienate everyone - the cool people who hate you for failing and the un-cool people who hate you for trying. Is it even sensible for most brands to try to be cool at all? People who are fashionable and experimental will try new things anyway. But strong mainstream brands radically change the behaviours of the millions of people who are temperamentally less adventurous. If we were true to our belief in brands, the dress code for the D&AD awards would stipulate M&S suits.

2. The day the copy died. (23 July) I still feel the full English breakfast of a press ad involves a big piccie at the top, a headline underneath, with two or three hundred words of intelligent, characterful chit-chat leading smoothly towards a logo or coupon at the end. What's odd about this approach isn't that it's rare - it's that it is virtually completely bloody dead. People have started to conflate creativity with brevity. This is absolutely wrong. Too much brevity can be as much of a discourtesy as too little. Research is also partly to blame, especially since all press ads are researched without body copy - an approach based on the moronic belief that you can research a proposition in the absence of a surrounding execution. The internet, rap music, talk radio - these booming media forms are all copy driven. Why does everyone love words more than we do?

3. On the appeal of prostitutes, consultants and Starbucks. (10 February) Some people may at times prefer ATMs to tellers, in part because they don't want to speak to tellers. I suspect, in fact, that a surprising amount of the success of large corporations is down to the fact that they offer the kind of perfunctory, impersonal transactions family owned firms simply can't match. I actually like Starbucks because I can sit around there for hours using the Wi-Fi on the strength of having bought one small coffee, yet without feeling a hint of emotional discomfort - something I can't do at my local family owned coffee shop. Anyone ever cancelled a Travelodge the night before you stay? You're hardly tortured by the pangs of guilt, are you?

And there's a lesson for anyone who thinks automated service is always a poor substitute for personal service. It may be a massive improvement.

4. The great unasked question of the age. (1 March) What in God's name is the point of all this brilliant innovation if it brings so little enduring joy?

Sixty years ago, under communism, a few million Russians were happy to die for the right to queue for a potato. Today, in a market economy, people who buy a microwave oven for £70 at two o'clock in the morning complain if they have a three-minute wait. The brutal question underlying all this is simple. For all the talk about "value not price", do people have any genuine appreciation of value at all? Or is our only conception of wealth not absolute but merely relative?

5. More kittens: Or how Sir Martin Sorrell can end the recession overnight. (28 January) One of the things that has long baffled me about the ad industry is that although we pay for most of the media, we make no active attempt to influence its output.

We have endlessly talked about the need to consolidate media buying power, and then all we do is use this power to drive down prices. What is the point in spending £10,000 to buy an advertisement in the Daily Mail that says "buy stuff" if it merely pays for three adjacent articles which tell readers "don't buy stuff"? Group M and the other large media buying houses should simply withhold all advertising money from British media until they learn to cheer the fuck up. That would sort the bastards out.

6. Oh hell, I've gone and solved the problem the wrong way. (9 March) There's a slight feeling that, if you brief someone to come up with a press campaign and they come back with a solution involving text message reminders, they are somehow cheating. It looks like a cop-out. If you think this issue is confined to the ad industry, remember the story of John Harrison and the £20,000 Longitude Prize. The great clock-maker was in his eighties before he was properly rewarded for his contribution because the board was expecting an astronomical solution to the navigation, not a horological one. One small way of addressing this syndrome is to ensure every brief contains at its heart a single sentence definition of the problem, agreed by everyone involved. If you can find a new way of defining the problem, you've gone most of the way to solving it. Just don't expect anyone to thank you for it. Or pay you.

7. The IPA, Oxbridge and lap dancers. (30 August) It simply isn't true to say there are too many Oxbridge graduates in advertising. There are hardly any - do a survey if you like - Cambridge graduates in agencies anywhere. There are, however, far too many Oxford graduates. It's an important distinction. After all, if you want to populate the agency of the future, do you want to fill it with people from a place where they split the atom, discover DNA and write Principia Mathematica, or do you want people who have spent three years poncing about in a linen suit while carrying a stuffed bear?

8. A few lessons from Elvis, Jacko and Johnny Cash. (1 July) What's interesting is that Elvis and Michael Jackson, two people both with personal physicians, died so young. In truth, most of the time people are better off being medically left alone, most of the time. Those creating advertising tend to assume that more research, more tissue sessions, more inputs, more opinions will make the outcome better. Yet, as with medicine, beyond a certain level they are more likely to be damaging than beneficial. The result of this tampering is that simplicity gets lost. Clarity gets muddied. Most likely of all, a certain charm gets killed off. For the hardest thing sometimes isn't to do something good. It's to leave well alone. To get it simple and have the courage to keep it simple.

9. Are you a capitalist or a creativist? (10 April) Research seems to show that people are overwhelmingly intentionalists, not consequentialists. In other words, once they suspect an individual's intentions are largely self-interested, it colours how they perceive the outcome. To anyone working in business, this seems an important - and worrying - finding. For it suggests the achievement of capitalist free markets in producing cheaper, better goods is often perceptually wasted, since most of us simply don't much respect the selfish motivation behind the achievement. To put it another way, the problem with all this naked greed isn't the greed, it's the nakedness. Or as Eddie Izzard put it: "I'm not a capitalist, I am a creativist. I want to make money so that I can create things. Suddenly, all these people have come along who want to create things so they can make money." It's an important distinction. Which are you?

10. Was Sherlock Holmes a planner or a creative? (17 January) An insight is a sudden and potentially valuable revelation concerning what is; an idea is a sudden and potentially valuable revelation concerning what might be.

Sherlock Holmes is the insightful planner par excellence - he sees what everyone else does, but extracts far more from the observation than anyone else. However, there is one famous instance where Holmes is, I think, truly ideaful rather than just insightful.

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," Sherlock Holmes remarked.

To spot something that isn't, rather than gaining a new view of what is, seems to me a creative act. A why not rather than a why. But, in detection as in advertising, both questions seem useful at different times.

Why would you ever confine yourself to just one approach?

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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