Behavioural science: the perspective of a creative practitioner

Much has been written recently about marketing and advertising’s increased interest in behavioural science / behavioural economics / neuromarketing and the role of subconscious decision making. Some opinions have even shown degree of criticism proposing a sensationalised view of its power. In this post, Sam Tatam approaches from a creative practitioner’s viewpoint.

“Never stop testing and your advertising will never stop improving.” – David Ogilvy


Because it’s always important to have balance, I’m outlining a few key points from a creative practitioner’s perspective. Mainly because I’d argue that contemporary behavioural frameworks and an increased understanding of their neural underpinning provide a fresh lens for the creative process. Above all else, this helps us to better conceptualise and therefore more easily draw upon human biases and subconscious drivers in effective problem solving.

READ: Byron Sharp: Behavioural economics is not the biggest story in marketing »

READ: Peter Steidl: What every marketer needs to know about neuromarketing »

READ: Pascal Bourgeat: What every marketer really needs to know about neuromarketing »


What I believe to be particularly relevant is the value of this thinking in an environment increasingly challenged to live in ‘Beta’ – to fail fast, prototype more, always be ‘on’ and embrace an Angry Birds mentality of ‘ready, fire, aim’.

Using behavioural science, we’re finding more and more that it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference, that the smart and small can yield valuable returns. So, it’s particularly within this context that I see behavioural science as a valuable and cost effective tool for potent and objective insight generation, fuelling creative ideation – sometimes transformationally but rarely detrimentally – and importantly, as a tool for ongoing experimentation. After all, if we never stop testing, we will never stop improving.


Behavioural science isn’t new but how we use it can be

Due to the evolved and innate nature of most human behavioural biases, it should come as no surprise that, over time, marketing has also evolved to capitalise on these concepts, even if inadvertently. In fact, every retailer who’s ever posted a recommended retail price (RRP) with a big red line through it has utilised a powerful ‘anchoring bias’, a mental reference-point shown to influence decision making – even when arbitrarily set. ‘Closing down’ sales are another well-established technique benefiting a from a ‘scarcity’ bias, that is, when something becomes scarce we anticipate possible regret in not acquiring it, so we desire it even more.

In my opinion, there is an important distinction that needs to be made here. While several elements of what’s now regarded as behavioural science or behavioural economics are not necessarily new, the codification and categorisation of the theory and our increased understanding of its underlying physiology is; and, it’s only through this that we can hope to replicate and reappropriate the value of these human drivers in other contexts.

For example, the very same ‘anchoring bias’ that we’ve unwittingly utilised by slashing RRPs can also be harnessed to influence credit card debt repayments or even shape hand-washing behaviours.  Again, ‘anchoring’ is not new but how we can – and I believe we should – start to utilise concepts like this to influence behaviour, can be.


We all have a responsibility to move away from the laboratory and we’re already starting to see impressive results

A frequently cited critique of behavioural science is its over-reliance on laboratory experiments, tests conducted with student populations not proven in the real world at scale. I agree that our discipline needs to extend its focus from the laboratory to real business results, but what excites me is that we’re starting to see solid evidence of its effectiveness in yielding strong results.

For example, earlier this year our founding and sister agency #OgilvyChange UK conducted call centre training with staff at News UK aimed at increasing sales, customer retention and raising staff confidence. After only two days of training and 90 minutes of rehearsing four easy to apply behavioural principles, they recorded staggering results with robust statistical significance. On average, calls including at least one behavioural driver were 210% more likely to be successful in both sales and retention than those without.

I believe we can accomplish similar outcomes for a raft of different business challenges by applying the right principles and while doing so, work to validate, refine and improve behavioural theory through commercial and ‘real world’ application.  


Behavioural science is offering objective insight and different questions for creative problem solving

Creativity rarely operates in a vacuum. The most effective ideas are typically those that address a human insight or tension; something people might often feel but are rarely able to articulate, sometimes not even brave enough to admit.

The very nature of the insight provided by behavioural theory, bypassing conscious (post)rationalisation and tapping into parts of our brain typically opaque to introspection, behavioural science provides provocative and fruitful insights to spur the creative process. Integrated within our existing creative practice, we’re using behavioural science to inform simple questions such as, ‘How might we illustrate that other people have done this before?’ (we are herd creatures and because of this, ‘social norming’ is a powerful motivator) or even counterintuitive challenges like ‘How might we make it harder for people to interact with it?’ (increased effort can often enhance our perceived value of an output – this is commonly known as the ‘effort-reward’ heuristic).

In my mind, creativity is when two elements, thoughts or concepts meet to create something new. In the search for this ‘creative collision’, behavioural science offers fresh and objective insight, arming us with a range of different questions to stimulate and unlock solutions we otherwise might never have found.


Sometimes it’s the smallest ideas that make the biggest difference

Finally, and potentially most importantly, when considering the current marketing environment, we’re seeing that some of the most effective ideas born through behavioural science aren’t necessarily expensive. In fact, we’re finding more often than not, it’s the little things making a big difference.

For example, it might cost relatively little to introduce a decoy pricing option on an ecommerce website, while the impact of this in aiding human decision-making and therefore conversion can (and has been shown to be) extremely powerful.

Another often-cited yet beautifully simple example is changing the preselected or ‘default’ option from ‘opt in’ to ‘opt out’ – in the field of organ donation this small change alone has been found to dramatically increase donation rates. It has even been reported that shrewdly changing an insurance claim form – requiring people to sign at the beginning not at the end – can reduce levels of dishonesty, a subtle tweak making personal morality more salient, but one with the potential to save millions in false claims.

What I don’t think anyone in our industry can ever offer is complete certainty and predictability. Humans are extremely complex beings. However, what I believe behavioural science can provide us with is a powerful lens to be applied across a range of behavioural and business problems, aiding creative ideation (sometimes with transformational effects), but at the very least, objectively informing ongoing experimentation, ensuring that our output and effectiveness can, and will, keep improving.


Sam Tatam is behavioural science lead at #OgilvyChange Australia, a practice that combines the gravitas of leading research in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics with the creative expertise of the Ogilvy Group. Tweet him @s_tatam.