Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland on ad blocking: ‘It could turn into a hideous arms race’

This is “View from the Top,” the latest in a Digiday series featuring creative leaders talking about their career paths and leadership perspectives. Read previous interviews here.

Ogilvy vice chairman Rory Sutherland, a digital evangelizer and advocate of behavioral psychology, is pitching to school kids.

As part of BIMA’s (British Interactive Media Association) Digital Day, Sutherland spoke to 10,000 London students via Google Cardboard VR headsets and technology by production studio Visualise. Afterwards, he sat down with Digiday to talk about the need for diverse skill sets in the industry, the psychology behind recruitment and ad blocking.

There’s a lot of debate about there being talent gap in the ad industry…
We have to be careful there. There’s a tendency to define skills very narrowly and then say there’s a gap in them. Business thrives on variety and complementarity rather than narrowly defined skills. The most influential guy in tech, Steve Jobs, attributes a large part of his success to a single one-hour lecture on calligraphy.

This idea that we want to create a lot of people who are this ideal individual is bullshit; this does not show any understanding of business. More influence needs to be wielded by biologists, or evolutionary thinkers, or game theorists. The valuable thing about those people is that they use a different map.

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Rory Sutherland holding court at Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School, London

How do you recruit these types of people?
Your recruitment should have an element of randomness in it. You recruit better if you recruit people in groups rather than one at a time. This is because we automatically increase the variants when we’re choosing four people, whereas when you have four people choosing one person, all of them are very close to the risk-averse norm of who you should hire. This suggests you can solve the problem of diversity in recruitment just by changing the choice architecture of how people are hired.

The only reason I got my job as a graduate trainee at Ogilvy One was because they had four jobs going, three taken, and they couldn’t decide on the fourth. Basically, three people said let’s take a punt on the weirdo. That strikes me as quite an important finding when it comes to recruitment. A business is a concatenation of people with different strengths who over time each find a niche or create a niche of their own.

If diversity and the talent gap aren’t the industry’s biggest challenge, then what is?
There will always be a place for what advertising does, and I mean in combining behavioral insight, creativity and measurement. Where the ad industry has a problem is that only about 5 percent of problems we could solve are ones we’re asked to solve. Historically the ad industry made money from commission. People assume you can only talk to an ad agency when you have a media budget. We can help solve or at least shine a light on far more problems that exist in the world. But we’re only asked to solve the ones that have media budget attached to their solution.

What are your concerns around ad blocking?
This is a question about efficiency, not effectiveness. There’s a lot of evidence that a big TV ad is more effective than spending the same money on “targeted digital communications.” The psychological implications for that are interesting. It might be that advertising partly works because we perceive it’s expensive to do. The perceived cost of the transmission of information contributes to the efficacy of the information. Creativity makes an ad look more costly; by ‘costly,’ I mean through time, effort, talent and ability, not necessarily in monetary terms.

There’s the question of effectiveness as well. Notionally, if you think that reach is all that matters, then this is a nice way of getting metrics, but whether this moves the metrics that really matter, i.e., human behavior, that’s another question. It could turn into a hideous arms race.

I think it already has. Where do you think the answer lies?
There’s an oblique solution to this problem that we’ve not found yet. If someone had invented a decent micropayment system, maybe a lot of this would have gone away. We’ve had 10 years to solve this problem of micropayments, and still we haven’t. There are a lot of things that could sell for just 10 pence. But then the second we actually have payment linked to the readership of specific pieces of content, it’s death to intelligent journalism because every signal article will be about cats. It’s a bit of a mess really.


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