A view from Rory Sutherland

Perspective: Getting advertising right isn't always as simple as we think

With animals and plants, it's sex. If you see any feature of some living organism that has become distorted or engorged beyond any sensible measure - the stag's antlers, the peacock's tail, the baboon's arse, the woman's handbag - you can be sure it plays some vital role in the battle to breed.

It doesn't matter how well adapted a creature may be to survival; if it doesn't reproduce, its DNA dies out. Hence the disproportionate resources this activity demands of most living things.

With agencies, it's pitches. You could be in all other respects the best agency in the world but, if you can't win pitches, you won't last a year. And so, as with the antlers and the plumage, it is the pitch-winning aspects of an agency that provide the dominant characteristics of the business. For instance, it is usually for their pitch-fitness that agency philosophies are chosen - rather than for their ongoing value to existing clients. Disruption, for instance, is a particularly effective philosophy, since it is specifically appealing to any client in the mood to hold a pitch.

Brutal Simplicity of Thought is another good idea that is also markedly pitch-friendly. The brevity of a pitch requires simplicity in any case. And the narrative arc of a pitch requires that somewhere between the strategy and the creative, you provide an inflection point, a moment of supreme condensation - a "ta-da": the revelation of the Brutally Simple Thought does that job.

In this way, the dramatic framework of a pitch has encouraged advertising agencies to perfect one of their most valuable talents - their spectacular knack of strategic synthesis and simplification. And it's often wonderful. So Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's idea for Sainsbury's - to get everyone to add one thing to their basket every visit, hence "Try something new today" - or the insight behind the recent motorcycle safety campaign contains the kind of "ta-da" moment of transformational thinking ad people live for. And a good thing, mostly.

Except ... it is dishonest to pretend that all problems can be solved through a single order solution. Unfortunately, every agency's approach to strategy - with its origins in pitch theatre - now means we must all pretend we can. Like big antlers or a baboon's red bum, the ability to create single-sentence strategies has become a kind of proxy for an agency's overall ability. This is a shame. Simply, there are many problems of human agency that may require multiple interventions, yet it has become impossible for us to say this, since anything short of a single-sentence solution is seen as a sign of failure. Yet consultants make more money than us by emphasising the complexity of their solutions. I am all in favour of Occam's razor, but not when we use it to cut our own throats.

- Rory Sutherland is the IPA president and vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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