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Rory Sutherland Marketing Behavioural Sciences

Are British agencies lagging behind on behavioural science?

By Mark Bell, strategy partner

February 16, 2017 | 5 min read

Today most of adland gets behavioural science. We make no bones about the fact that we’re creatures of instinct – and recognise the benefits of shaping marketing around our own irrationality. Yet, despite understanding its power, few British agencies have made behavioural science a key part of their offering. Almost eight years since Rory Sutherland first championed its use in advertising, American agencies are speeding ahead, while we Brits drag our heels.


Walk into any agency on Madison Avenue and you’ll see they operate differently. American agencies do a fabulous job of weaving behavioural economics into their upfront strategy. It’s evident in the clear distinction they make between behavioural planners and traditional comms planners. And it’s a smart approach too: the research comes first, so strategists can identify the behavioural theory that can inform the creative.

BBDO NY’s Basketball ad for Guinness is a classic example. The ad, tested with innovative, behaviour-led research agency BrainJuicer, really hits home because it pulls at viewers’ heartstrings. This was no accident: guided by the principle that emotions guide and simplify human decision-making, BBDO analysed the effects of various scripts before settling on the most poignant iteration. The result? Nearly eight million views within four weeks of launch.

Agencies in the UK are well-equipped to be putting out the same level of work – and we do. But we’re held back by our tendency to remain rooted in traditional agency structures. In fact, even though behavioural theory nestles quite seamlessly into the planning discipline, most agencies aren’t dedicating the resource to give it a proper go. Aside from the behavioural wing of Ogilvy & Mather UK, Ogilvy Change, and our own efforts at Oliver, there’s a sense that British agencies are too set in their ways to capitalise on how behavioural science could enhance their output.

Sometimes British agencies can get overwhelmed by the diversity of their offerings, trying to be all things to all men. This can create disjointed ambitions, when an agency’s focus really ought to be taking a holistic view of the customer experience and building their offering around that. When you take this approach, behavioural science can come to the forefront, in a way that can really service the consumer’s needs.

A study from our side of the pond, by the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team, provides an interesting parallel here. One project was to investigate how applying behavioural insights could reduce fraud, error and debt. A key insight is that tax compliance can be increased simply by telling people what others are doing, a principle known as social proof. It all hinges on how strongly influenced we are by those around us. So, when the slowpokes see that the vast majority are better at paying on time, they’re stimulated to get their act together.

In our work with a leading financial services company, OLIVER tested a similar, behaviourally-informed prompt. Though young professionals are interested in saving for the future, they often delay doing so. To solve this, we added a feature into the brand’s online platform to clearly show that contributions made now will add up to more than the same payments made further down the line. Again, this approach is simple but effective, because it appeals to the way our brains are hardwired. What’s more, it proved that the age of people taking out pensions can be lowered by as much as 10 years.

Ultimately, the UK has a strong tradition of applying behavioural science in genuinely practical ways. In addition to marketing agencies and the British government, we’re seeing innovative organisations like Do Something Different springing up. It offers a structured way to help people, companies and communities embark on personal-development projects.

It’s not just execution we excel at either; we probably have a more sophisticated understanding of behavioural science than the Americans too. Leading agencies in the US are generally bigger, so admittedly more capable of funnelling money into dedicated behavioural teams. But we’re very well-positioned to give behavioural science the attention it’s long overdue. Maybe it’s time that we gave ourselves a nudge in the right direction for once.

Mark Bell is chief experience officer at Oliver Group UK

Rory Sutherland Marketing Behavioural Sciences

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