An ad man shares on the importance of the shallows of humanity

[At a drinks party] when you can’t smoke, if you stand and stare out of the window on your own, you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot. If [however] you stand and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking (sic) philosopher. — Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group

The power to reframe phenomena lies in the assertion that how humans view the phenomena matters more than what the phenomena in themselves are. This cannot be overemphasized. It is the power of perception. Ad man, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group Rory in his talk at TEDxAthens in 2011 shares on the role of perspective in our day to day lives, and how we can harness the value of psychological insight to answer human issues.

Sutherland takes a dig at a few real-life scenarios to show just how much perception is everything. His first is a look at the unemployed in England: Pensioners vs. Unemployed Youth. He compares the two population segments on the basis of disposable income and levels of happiness. Sutherland posits that pensioners are happier that the unemployed youth because they believe they have chosen to be pensioners where the young unemployed feel that it has been thrust upon them. In England, he says, youth unemployed has been rebranded by the upper middle class English people. How? Calling it ‘a year off.’ An unemployed youth is embarrassing if he is unemployed in Manchester and if he is unemployed in Thailand, then he is merely taking a year off.

Another scenario Sutherland gives is the Eurostar technical upgrade that led to a much shorter trip in terms of time, between London and Paris in 2003. He says that billions were spent to achieve this milestone, yet a tiny fraction of the total budget could have been spent to provide wireless internet in the train that could have otherwise made the trip enjoyable. He furthers on, saying that they could have even spent much less money paying the world’s top supermodels to parade up and down the train giving our free wine for the entire trip, and the trip would have been much enjoyable.

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman Ogilvy Group

Rory Sutherland Photo by Betsy Weber, courtesy of

According to Sutherland, Korea has the simplest example of psychological insight to everyday problems. At traffic lights in Korea,countdown timers were installed for red lights to ‘show’ the drivers just how much time they had left before the light would turn green. The result was a reduction in road rage incidents. The insight here is that by knowing, you ascertain a sense of control of a situation. China however adopted this model without knowing this, perhaps in a feat of proving technological prowess and installed the timers for the green lights. Drivers would floor their cars to beat light changes, leading to more accidents.

He talks about human perceptions towards multitasking, and he uses Google’s triumph over other search engines, and the victory of single use televisions and DVD players over combos. He says Google won because they were aware of the perception idea that a specialised search engine is more effective than one that doubles up as a news and weather portal, .i.e., Google vs. Yahoo! or MSN. With gadgets, Sutherland says that people’s perceptions of the TV and DVD combo unit were also based on the same idea, that humans trust a single function TV and a single function DVD, however more it costs.

Talking about the use of perception in marketing practices, Sutherland says that marketers think of value in two ways: the value in the product/ service and the value in changing the way people think. The current discrimination between the two sets of values is not right. He gives a quick scenario of a restaurant that serves Michelin star food but has human waste scattered generously on the floor. Sutherland says that the best thing to improve the value in such a scenario would be the clean the floors and not change the food. He also says that a consumer would not notice the great food at such an eater, however good it may be. About this, he says that our perception is leaky, as it is with branded analgesics versus unbranded ones, driving a dirty car versus a clean one. Sutherland says that it is important to accord fair attention to all perceptible variables.

So in essence, he posits the question: Why are we not afforded an opportunity as great as mechanics is, to employ psychological insight to solving human problems? There is an imbalance in the way creative ideas are treated over rational ‘spreadsheet’ type ideas. Any marketer would know this. The need for ration and numbers unfortunately trumps the possibilities that could arise from creative psychological solutions.

Quoting Warwick Business School Professor of Behavioural Science, Nick Chater’s statement that says, it is not the hidden depths of consumer motivation but the hidden shallows we should investigate, we need to recognise that unconventional insight has human answers. So affirming Rory Sutherland’s quest, the equal consideration of Psychology, Technology and Economics when solving problems should be fundamental. That way, we will be able to tailor human solutions, in the most human way possible, for human. Kind of like a FUBU – For Us (Humans), By Us (Humans).