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Behavioral economists aren’t the future of adland, planners are

March 24, 2010

I am very late to this party, but apparently way back in August, Rory Sutherland issued a proclamation to the ad biz to start getting serious about understanding consumer behavior.

As you can see in the video below, Rory is an awesome presenter and makes a case for ad agencies to embrace behavioral economics.

It’s a world that’s currently sexy because it’s won economists Nobel Prizes and thanks to Freakonomics it also can be found in every airport bookstore, meaning clients probably know about it.

I have no problem with Rory’s aspirations for adland- they are right and well-meaning, we’ve got to extract ourselves from the bucket labeled “vendors and executors” and elevate ourselves higher up the food chain of business strategy.

His example of using insights to develop relevant product development for “twentysomethings” in financial services, shows how it could be possible for an agency to do something more than create an ad.

It’s not that agency’s are short of this aspiration, many do develop big product ideas for their clients or themselves, but most worry about never getting fairly paid for their efforts and therefore the loss of revenue and profitability weighs heavily on potential investments in this space.

The implication here is that we’ve got to become much better at selling ourselves. This is an industry problem, perhaps we should be creating communication as an industry that celebrates our innovation and idea generation beyond the TV ad, positioning us as more than just communication “vendors and executors”.

Finally, I don’t believe Behavioral Economics is the silver bullet, as Planners we’ve been developing and discovering relevant business insights for years and we aren’t done.

The problem has been the way in which historically Planners have been focused on extracting a single powerful insight for the sole purposes of communication. Stretch beyond this and get Planners to share and discover insights across the entire brand experience and you will find pots of gold.

It’s tempting to latch on to the latest business buzz in order to make yourself relevant to clients, but in reality Behavioral Economics means working with academics, which is never easy and forcing ourselves to accept much longer timelines for insight generation than we are currently used to or demand.

I believe the industry has the talent in-house with its Planners and their tools to make a meaningful difference to clients beyond their communication.

So agency heads who are thinking of picking up the phone to their local Behavioral Economist, talk to your Planners first.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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