I hate being sold to. I ignore magazine campaigns, am repelled by my Google-wants, scoff at Tube ads made for fools. I buy everything on sale, and things in my basket without yellow stickers are plain fails. So on a sunny Sunday with an hour's less sleep, I hesitantly sat in a brimming Conway Hall to hear ad man Rory Sutherland deliver his sermon on Influence. I'm immune, I thought, singing along to Status Quo (Whatever you want, Whatever you like), it's nothing to do with me actually. I shall not be influenced.
Rory takes the stage – a sweetie mix-up of muted pastel suit separates, the trademark cravat poking out – and starts talking. His chat quickly surpasses his eccentric look. He's funny, and not at all manipulating. As vice chairman of Ogilvy group, and with 24 years in the trade, Rory has become one of advertising's most ingenious tastemakers. His undefinable viewpoint pours out into a column in The Spectator, and was recently published as 'The Wiki Man', a scrapbooked mash-up of interviews and letters, bound in fuchsia pink and indigo.
Rory is a fan of the arational. When wild ideas are 'policed' by rational means, this takes the fun and life out of brewing potentials before they get chance to breathe. Why should the rational have the bottom line? At what point does best influence sail into our lives? When things are explainable, set and grounded (read ‘boring’), or when things are playful, raw and wide-eyed? Luckily, Rory gets the best of both – "I can post-rationalise most of my ideas" he deadpans.
Influence has its roots in royalty and religion. Rory cites God as the first behavioural economist. Religion is able to persuade and compel by habits and rituals; feasts and fasts preceding modern 'diets'. Royal taste would affect the masses too, by making potatoes a wanted crop, or perhaps white bread seem better than brown. Rarity and exclusivity induce a certain panic, and ensure people discover a new desire. With a shift in relative value by perception alone, morals and money become intertwined, and behaviours change alongside.
But what replaces royalty and religion? Rory rolls the word 'heuristic' off his tongue like a mantra, a kind of 'punchcard', as he calls it, a sort of influence equation. Once a rule becomes formed, a now-rational thing conjured from previously irrational ideas, it becomes set, accepted, and 'imbedded' into our lives. A simple heuristic would be the mini- roundabout. We're shown a picture and yes they do seem silly. But the need we didn't know we had to calm traffic is now part of road vocabulary, and it just works.
Rory is no salesman. No undue force is being applied here. Theories and ideas pour out, global observations of daily life improved, but no tricks, no false seductions. His idealism pokes at our cynicism, our closed perceptions and ignorance, our wary eye letting us down. Perhaps it's simply a lack of post-rationalisation? Rory explains the instinctive heuristic found in sports players: their relationship with the ball is not as complicated as it looks, and is a simple rule of maintaining angle and distance. But is it still instinctive, if it can indeed be post-rationalised? It depends how you define instinct. Science would demonstrate the unconscious brain, and how it makes decisions before we're even aware of the choices at hand. Questions of ethics and free will later fly around during the Q&A, and it's clear we're a long way from advertising.
It seems I'd been stuck on the money rather than the morals – a mathematical, rather than hedonic value, as Rory put it. Cost and figures, rather than time and wellbeing, are the questions our culture tends to focus on. When Eurostar cut their journey times by 40 minutes at a cost of £6bn, they also dismissed the tangible potential for enjoyment. Why not spend the money on improving the hedonic experience so we want to stay longer, rather than shortening the time we have to endure the journey? Both are abstract measurements in larger terms. But which is more meaningful for existence?
Influence is not just marketing. It's about expanding the gaps between what already exists, to make changes. The Latin meaning behind 'advert' explains it plainly, 'turn to/toward', a readjustment to focus on what's next. We must train ourselves to take a fresh viewpoint, which is often just as impressive as inventing something from scratch. When we make new things familiar and familiar things new, Rory explains, a kind of poetry happens. And with that we munch on our re-invented Nice-r biscuits. After an hour with Rory, advertising looks a lot like art.
Zoe Langdell is a writer and manages the shop at The School of Life
Led in song by Aquilla Dunford Wood
Photography by Stephanie Wolff