Three lessons in advertising from Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy and Mather group, is one of the most admired intellects in advertising. He’s given three TED talks, is the author of The Wiki Man and also appeared on the latest episode of the VOOM Podcast. He was also once called “the worst graduate trainee ever hired”, and yet somehow still works at the very same firm that first employed him. All compelling reasons to learn from him, if you ask me.

What can you learn in this blog post?

  • How humans actually decode messages, as opposed to how we think we do
  • The potential of tiny interventions in business that have no cost
  • How to change somebody’s mind, the smart way

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Here are three things we can learn from Rory Sutherland...

1. How to get your messaging right

"We decode messages not just on what they inherently contain, but on the difficulty of generating them."

For example: let’s say you get two wedding invitations, and they're for the same weekend. One of them comes through the post, has a beautiful design, and is handwritten. The other comes through by email. Which one are you going to choose? The one that comes through the post - and it’s probably not even close.

Our brains haven't quite evolved to take communication literally, and that’s why we look at what sort of "skin in the game" the communicator has.

2. The power of tiny interventions 

"I’m fascinated with the potential of tiny interventions that cost nothing."

Think about the last time you were on a plane, landed, and then had to get on a bus instead of one of those air bridges. How did you feel? A bit miffed, probably - at the very least. But what would you think if the pilot, upon landing, said this:

"I've got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is we can’t get an air bridge. The good news is that we can get a bus, and the bus will take you directly to passport control."

Wouldn’t you feel differently about the bus? Wouldn’t you feel grateful that, instead of having to walk for ages with your bags and all those dreaded "other people", you got to go straight to passport control without any of that?

This is the best kind of "advertising" because it doesn’t change objective reality, but it does change the way we value objective reality.

Listen to more VOOM Podcasts 

3) How to change people's minds the right way

"If you want to change somebody’s mind, it’s no good just telling them the opposite of what they believe."

A more effective way of changing someone’s mind is to replay what they believe - to meet them where they're at - and then gently go about contradicting it.

One ad campaign Rory is particularly proud of is one where many businesses were reluctant to accept the American Express card. Here’s what Rory and team did to change their minds:

  1. They sent them a copy of Pride and Prejudice, the famous Jane Austen book, with a bookmark inside that detailed 10 reasons why they understood these businesses were reluctant to accept American Express cards.
  2. A few days later, they sent them a copy of Sense and Sensibility, also by Jane Austen, and inside was a bookmark detailing 10 reasons to reconsider their reluctance in accepting American Express cards.
  3. Finally, a few days after that, they sent them a copy of Persuasion, another Jane Austen book, and asked them to consider meeting with Rory and team.

That is... genius. It’s quite "cute", as Rory says, but it’s also brilliant because they weren’t trying to convince them as much as they were just trying to accept where they were, and to understand why they were reluctant.

How often do businesses just tell us that we should buy stuff from them, without first meeting us where we are? Does that ever work?

What else you can hear on the podcast:

  • The main mistakes brands make when communicating with audiences
  • Timothy Armoo, founder of Fanbytes and young advertising genius
  • The importance of behavioural economics and the law of reciprocity

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details. 


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