Rory Sutherland: it's not logical

Rational thinking is not the best path to creativity, according to Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland. So try discarding logic and start asking more stupid questions

Rory Sutherland: it's not logical

Thanks to one of those hard-to-kick February illnesses, Rory Sutherland has recently been confined to his home. This would be an irritant for most people who enjoy their jobs, but for Ogilvy’s vice-chairman it has produced one of the unexpected consequences that his new book, Alchemy: The Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense (see extract below), is bursting with. It has allowed him to indulge in a passion shared by few: video conferencing.

"I’ve had about 24 video conferences this week," he says. "It’s fan-fucking-tastic. The extent to which you can do business with people really effectively once you make it socially acceptable to use this technology is, I think, genuinely the most exciting thing." On one day, he says, he started with a call to Australia and finished the day with one to Peru.

"You realise how slow and ineffective email is," he points out. "If you went round the average office, there would be 20 people emailing for every one on a video conference, and that has to be a productivity disaster." And yet, video calling is still used rarely – which, for Sutherland, illustrates two of his central points.

"There are these huge behavioural things and they are clearly 100% psychological," he argues. Beyond the more obvious benefits of a first social meeting between business associates, "there patently is no economic reason why people aren’t video conferencing".

Second, practical solutions are useless if other forces stop people taking them up. "If someone says, what technology is exciting you, and I say video conferencing, I look like a total idiot," he says, "like I’ve been in a cupboard for the past 15 years." But while the technology has been around for a while, he argues it has only recently reached a "tipping point" that makes it an adequate alternative to physical meetings – which, in this case, is when participants across the world all have access to fast enough broadband for it to work seamlessly. "Technologists are obsessed with getting people to adopt the latest technologies, but as a marketer you might say, we’ve got this thing where there have been psychological obstacles to adopting it, but over the next three years this is much more important than, say, blockchain."

Sutherland’s book touches on many facets of life, but all come down to the importance of "psycho-logic", or non-rational factors, in how we make decisions and how problems can be solved – a point he says is fundamental to the creative marketing industries, because "every good creative idea has some element of apparent illogicality". Agencies play a vital role, he adds, because unlike most areas of business and government, they provide "a safe space in which dissident and dissonant thinking can emerge" and "where you can make stupid suggestions and still get promoted" (though certain cynics might suggest that this very much also applies to the top levels of government).

Because marketing is about looking at brands through the view of the consumer, Sutherland says, "you’re required to become quite trivial and frivolous". He gives an example from the book of pitching a campaign to British Airways that focused on its sandwiches at a time when the airline had just had to decide whether to invest a huge sum in either Boeing 787s or Airbus A350s. But, as he points out, air passengers often don’t know, let alone care, which model of plane they are on.

The ideas that led to the foundation of Ogilvy Change in 2012, and are now outlined in detail in Alchemy, began fermenting near the start of Sutherland’s career at OgilvyOne, when he worked on a direct response campaign for BT, and "the client, for some weird reason, didn’t want to offer postal response as an option." But after testing what impact that had, he discovered the response rate when they offered both phone and postal response, about 7%, was almost the sum of the rates for either phone (2%) or post (5%) alone.

He says: "If you’re an economist, that is extraordinarily weird, and nothing in economics would predict that. It would say what the product is and how much it costs are the principal reasons for whether someone wants it or not. Instead, the response method was the major determinant for whether people replied or not." This finding was the start of a "30-year fascination with what I used to call the thing that has no name – how totally bonkers and trivial things can have an enormous effect on human behaviour".

Sutherland says he hopes the impact of the book will be to encourage decision-makers to give more space to thinking that isn’t based on standard economic theory, and to grow the influence of marketing. "If you lose that," he warns, "all business looks at the world in exactly the same way, which means they become more alike, and engage in a race to the bottom."

He depicts a sort of cult of rationality, in which "logical people are going round unpoliced", never expected to explain their thinking, and where most people are more concerned with appearing rational than achieving the best outcome. It seems especially true in politics. Although Sutherland voted Remain, he argues that the "extraordinary mental homogeneity of the governing class" is a somewhat compelling reason to support Brexit; it’s perhaps the more sophisticated form of Michael Gove’s infamous line, "We’ve had enough of experts".

The solution can only be more creative thinkers in positions of influence. "If this book is successful, we’ll get Dave Trott a position at the Adam Smith Institute. That’s what we actually need. The people who define problems nowadays are drawn from the same 5-10% of people with the same mental strengths and weaknesses. They all look at the world in the same way and define problems in the same way."

In search of the 'real why'

An extract from Rory Sutherland's new book…

If you want to annoy your more rational colleagues, begin a meeting by asking a childish question to which the answer seems self-evident – the fact that sensible people never ask questions of this kind is exactly why you need to ask them. Remember the example I gave about asking why people hate standing on trains? When I asked that question, it seemed likely that no adult on the planet had asked that question for the past 10 years – it sounded like such a stupid thing to ask.

Perhaps advertising agencies are largely valuable simply because they create a culture in which it is acceptable to ask daft questions and make foolish suggestions. My friend and mentor Jeremy Bullmore recalls a heated debate in the 1960s at the ad agency J Walter Thompson about the reasons why people bought electric drills. "Well obviously you need to make a hole in something, to put up some shelves or something, and so you go out and buy a drill to perform the job," someone said, sensibly. Llewelyn Thomas, the copywriter son of the poet Dylan, was having none of this. "I don’t think it works like that at all. You see an electric drill in a shop and decide you want it. Then you take it home and wander around your house looking for excuses to drill holes in things." This discussion perfectly captures the divide between those who believe in rational explanation and those who believe in unconscious motivation; between logic and psycho-logic.*

You will never uncover unconscious motivations unless you create an atmosphere in which people can ask apparently fatuous questions without fear of shame. "Why do people hate waiting for an engineer’s appointment?" "Why do people not like it when their flight is delayed?" "Why do people hate standing on trains?" All of these questions seem facile  and because of this, our rationalising brains find it dangerously easy to come up with a plausible answer. But just because there is a rational answer to something, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a more interesting, irrational answer to be found in the unconscious.

"Why do people mostly buy ice-cream in the summer?" seems a pretty facile question. "Duh! To cool down on a hot day!" It certainly sounds plausible, but human behaviour tells a different story. For one thing, sunshine is a far better predictor of ice-cream sales than temperature. And to confuse things further, the three countries with the highest per-capita ice-cream sales in Europe? Finland, Sweden and Norway. One possible way of looking at the question might be to ask whether people need the excuse of a special occasion to justify eating ice-cream. Perhaps a sunny day in Sweden is rare enough to provide the necessary license?

Similarly, "Why do people go to the doctor?" seems like an idiotic question, until you realise that it isn’t. Is it because they are ill and want to get better? Sometimes, but there are many more motivations that lie beneath this apparently rational behaviour. Perhaps they are worried and crave reassurance? Some people just need a bit of paper to prove to their employer they were ill. A lot of people may go in search of someone to make a fuss of them. Perhaps, what people are mostly seeking is not treatment, but reassurance. The distinction matters – after all, not many people make unnecessary visits to the dentist.

If you want to solve the problem of unnecessary doctors’ visits or to set up a system to prioritise who gets seen by the doctor first, it is vital that you factor in unconscious motivations alongside post-rationalisations. Some problems might be solved over the phone, while other visits could be postponed until it was likely the person had recovered naturally. If there was a flu outbreak, you might even leave an answerphone message detailing the symptoms and telling people what to do if they were suffering. Once people know an illness is widespread they are less anxious about being ill, and correspondingly less eager to see a doctor for reassurance. "There’s a lot of it about" is reassurance in itself. (What you don’t want your doctor to say is: "This is an extraordinary case – I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole professional career.") **

The strange thing is that everyone is much happier pretending that the post-rationalised reason for visiting the doctor, to get better, is the only one that counts, but it is actually relatively rare. If you want to change people’s behaviour, listening to their rational explanation for their behaviour may be misleading, because it isn’t "the real why". This means that attempting to change behaviour through rational argument may be ineffective, and even counter- productive. There are many spheres of human action in which reason plays a very small part. Understanding the unconscious obstacle to a new behaviour and then removing it, or else creating a new context for a decision, will generally work much more effectively.

Whether we use logic or psychologic depends on whether we want to solve the problem or to simply to be seen to be trying to solve the problem. Saving the world indirectly may not make you look like a hero; talking about the plight of polar bears makes one feel a good deal worthier than promoting the redesign of recycling bins, but the latter may be more effective. The self-regarding delusions of people in high-status professions lie behind much of this denial of unconscious motivation. Would you prefer to think of yourself as a medical scientist pushing the frontiers of human knowledge, or as a kind of modern-day fortune teller, doling out soothing remedies to worried patients? A modern doctor is both of these things, though is probably employed more for the latter than the former. Even if no-one – patient or doctor – wants to believe this, it will be hard to understand and improve the provision of medical care unless we sometimes acknowledge it.

* I’m largely with Thomas – I don’t do much DIY, but I would acknowledge that my principal interest in cooking is not primarily the preparation of food: it’s an excuse to buy kitchen gadgetry.

** Think about what happens when you experience a power cut. Once you discover that all the lights on the street are out, you feel less anxious.

Alchemy: The Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense by Rory Sutherland is published in the UK in May 2019 by WH Allen, an imprint of Ebury Publishing