The Wiki ManIf you read The Spectator, you’ll be familiar with Rory Sutherland, who (along with my former colleague Dot Wordsworth) writes ones of the best bits of the magazine. His book, likewise, is a gem, full of the anecdotes about his life and ideas – and it provides an important lesson for the PR world.

The genius in Rory is that he works across disciplines. He’s an advertising man who learns about behavioural economics and psychology. The result, for example, is that he thinks about things that an advertising man normally wouldn’t. For example, he advocates a government body – a Ministry of Detail – to fix the tiny irritations that plague Britain. Elsewhere I’ve heard him suggest that companies ought to have Chief Detail Officers to do the same in the private sector. “Minor irritations are really worth focussing on because unlike things like health care,” he says, “they’re relatively cheap to solve and the difference they make to the quality of life may be enormous.”

His sort of multi-disciplinary thinking applies to marketing in two important ways.

Firstly, effective advertising is that which rings true. There is, for example, no point in promoting the comfort and convenience of a train journey if, to use his example, passengers get flustered trying to go through the ticket barrier with a bag in one hand a coffee in the other. Too often marketing doesn’t meet with reality.

Secondly, creativity exists at the collision of different disciplines, and as a result of wide general knowledge. I’ve written about this before, but public relations desperately needs a creative revolution. With some notable exceptions, public relations people often know little about other forms of marketing – and have a surprisingly small understanding of the public. The result is that much of the PR world is 50 years behind advertising, trying to bludgeon the media (old and new) with tedious press releases and pitches which deliver disappointing results.

Rory SutherlandSo why has this creative revolution – which, in advertising, was delivered by the likes of David Ogvily – not appeared in public relations? Well, I put it down to the fact that few people in PR world read books. Not many of them read newspapers, either. In workshops, I often mention Howard Gossage, one of the greatest PR masters of the post-war period. This remarkable advertising man created the most fantastic media storms on relatively small budgets. Yet none of the PR people know who he was.

Likewise, many good books about the founding fathers of PR – such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays – are out of print. There’s no demand for them. Yet I’d say that Ray Eldon Heibert’s 1966 biography of Lee is full of valuable gems about how to do crisis communications effectively. Say what you like about advertising people, but most of them have at least bought Ogilvy on Advertising and D&AD, the Copy Book - even if they haven’t read them.

Anyway, the result of Rory’s approach is that he gives different to answers to those trapped in a single discipline. For example, the engineer’s answer to slow trains is to spend billions making them fast. But to Rory, there are cheaper solutions, like employing attractive models to walk up the train giving out free wine. Then the passengers will ask for the trains to be slowed down. In fact, he says, “The USP to me is the table and what really annoys me is that they make faster trains – like the high-speed link through Kent for example – but there are very few tables on those trains. If I don’t have a table then I can’t use my laptop, I can’t have a cup of coffee, I can’t have a newspaper; the whole advantage of the train has been practically eradicated.”

Indeed, understanding how people really think is an increasingly important – and vital part – of marketing, whether that’s advertising, public relations or elsewhere. For example, I haven’t drunk Dr Pepper for months, maybe years, despite rather liking it. And Rory’s book gives an indication of why this is: “The first role of marketing is to make a decision easy to make… weirdly, I’ve never asked for Dr Pepper in a bar because you know they’re not going to have it and there’s that mild embarrassment about asking for something they haven’t got, and feeling like a bit of a twat. However, if you ask for Coke and they don’t have it, it’s their fault, not yours. The whole dynamic’s completely different.” Quite.

Anyway, you should go out and buy this book because it’s fun and full of anecdotes that make you think. Highly recommended.

as@alexsingleton.com