Rory Sutherland – Advertising 2020

Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director; Vice-Chairman, OgilvyOne; Ogilvy Group UK

I think it is quite easy to see what the advertising agency of 2020 might look like. The trick is to take dead people whose thinking has been shown to be far, far ahead of its time and then imagine what they would do if they were to start an agency today.

Let’s say Buckminster Fuller, Howard Luck Gossage and Thorstein Veblen, perhaps.

Already you have quite a good name for the agency.

This entity would be able to recruit most of the Gen-Y talent from advertising colleges because it would be principally motivated not by self-enrichment but by a sense of higher social purpose. It would devote most of its energies to using advertising techniques, behavioural science and Darwinian theory to solve social problems – housing, welfare, economic and environmental challenges. This would create considerable fame for the agency, which they could then parlay into a source of revenue through public speaking and consultancy work for selected private-sector clients at a very high daily rate, though Veblen would obviously refuse to work on luxury goods accounts.

Their output would embrace design, architecture, NPD, advertising, PR, digital and behavioural design. However (remember Fuller’s mantra “I always start with the universe”) their influences would be drawn from complexity theory, evolutionary theory, network theory and cybernetics. All of their work would eschew conventional notions of rational persuasion and focus on designing environments and choice architecture which lead to socially desirable outcomes through unconscious influence.

It would be written into the agency’s founding charter that it could never grow beyond the Dunbar number. All profits would be spent on R&D or distributed to the staff in the proper anarcho-syndicalist manner.

This seems like a recipe for business disaster. I completely disagree. It is an old-world idea that you get profitable first and then make yourself famous. Today it works the other way round. Hence the high-profile, socially valuable work of the agency would be a loss-leader for highly paid public speaking and consulting roles.

The agency’s offices would be in Singapore, London, Santa Barbara and Vail.. People would only work two weeks out of three, according to the new Dymaxion method.

What do we need to do now for this future?

This is quite simple. Advertising and marketing  still have no reputable model of human decision-making. Both have a great deal to learn from Behavioural Economics and other fields of psychology before they can regain a seat in the boardroom.