Q&A with Adam Ferrier: behaviour change, climate change and his new book

Adam Ferrier – psychologist, ad man, co-founder of Naked, Gruen panellist – has written a book, combining his career as a psychologist and career as a marketing communications strategist to reveal the psychological principles behind why (some) advertising works on consumer behaviour the way it does.

The book, titled The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour, is co-authored by Jennifer Fleming and contains contributions from a broad range of people who have to change behaviour every day, including a mother (Ferrier’s wife), a philosopher, a psychologist, and others.

Marketing paid Ferrier a visit at the offices of Cummins and Partners in St Kilda, where he’s chief strategy officer and partner, to chat about the story behind the book, changing consumer behaviour and why this knowledge is not just useful for advertising practitioners but the general public too.

Marketing: It seems like you wanted to put everything you know into a book. Is that what it started as?

Adam Ferrier: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s it. There’s two things, two main impetuses for it. Number one is that I know about psychology and I know a fair bit about advertising, but there haven’t been that many people who have put those two things together. So I wanted to try to put some of the psychological principles that lie behind some of the work and document why and how some advertising works and how it changes behaviour.

The second impetus was really, I was having a coffee at the time, a guy called Sean Hallahan at Don [KRC, a division of George Weston Foods]. We were talking about what the marketer’s role is and what the agency’s role is, and he said the marketer’s role is change management. The marketer has to, normally, take the idea or thought and try to change the entire organisation, and he was looking for agencies at the time that could help him do that. And that sparked in me a thought around if agencies are all about trying to change people’s behaviour, how do you do it, and what are the tools and processes that lie behind behavioural change. That was quite some years ago and that set me on the path to investigate behaviour change within an advertising context.

M: So that role of the marketer as change agent is mainly internal?

AF: He meant mainly internal, but also external as well. But he was saying the vast majority of his job is managing internal stakeholders and trying to change their behaviour to be more value led and less kind of ‘cost-cutting’ led… trying to create behaviours within organisations that build brands, not just sell product.

M: Being one of your book’s main points, you’re saying there’s no reason the workings of advertising can’t be applied in other areas?

AF: Yeah, one of the interesting things in advertising now is that I get asked to speak at various conferences that have nothing to do with advertising, in different industries, about how can we change behaviour and how can we get people to pay attention to this particular issue.

I think the classic one at the moment is climate change. We have all the information, but people are continuing to ignore it and just carry on as if things aren’t changing, as if things aren’t bad. It feels like advertising knows some tricks about behaviour change that other industries don’t know, and other industries are starting to get a little bit hungry to find out what it is that makes advertising so effective.

M: What is it about climate change that makes it such an ideological war, where it almost feels like it’s futile to have an argument about it anymore?

AF: Yeah, that’s right, it’s very hard to change someone’s mind once their mind’s made up on something, and then if you present a counter rational argument it’s very very hard for someone to take that on board rationally where ideologically they disagree with it.

And so one of the things, which I suggest in the book, is that you wouldn’t try to argue with them rationally, but nor would you try to touch them emotionally. You would try to get them to interact with the proposition you want them to adopt.

As an example, in the book there’s a classic study done in the 90s where they wanted to demonstrate how to get people to conserve water and take shorter showers. In this study they said ask half the people to take shorter showers and this is why, and for the other half, don’t ask them to take shorter showers but get them to ask other people to take shorter showers. And so the people that asked other people to take shorter showers ended up taking shorter showers themselves, because they were engaged and taking action towards the proposition of taking shorter showers, so they couldn’t talk to others about it but not do it themselves, so they had to adjust their own behaviours [to avoid cognitive dissonance].

With that, and one of the premises of the book is that action changes attitude faster than attitude changes action. By that what I mean is in marketing we’ve used rational messaging and emotional messaging all along because in a passive communications landscape it’s all we had for 50 years. But now the whole marketing communications landscape has changed and we can get people to interact with a message, and as soon as they interact with a message then they’re more likely to change their thoughts and feelings to make sense of their actions, which that particular example demonstrates quite well.

M: What audiences did you have mind for the book?

AF: At the moment there’s a whole lot of crossover business books and mainstream books. They’re books with a business focus, like the Freakonomics series, and books on habits and behavioural economics that have a business focus yet non-businessy people can pick them up and learn from those as well. I kind of felt like, in my head, I wanted to make sure this was an advertising book for advertising practitioners first and foremost, but if other people wanted to pick it up that was great.

The reason I wanted to make it an advertising book, first and foremost, was because there haven’t been that many advertising books that have brought all the psychological principles behind why we do things into play, so I wanted to make sure I got that covered, then if anyone else bothers to pick it up then that’s great as well.

M: Right, it starts with a simple guide to the advertising industry, and you mention at the start of the book about using simple language, because it’s more trustworthy, so I was wondering if it was for a broader audience.

AF: I guess also, if anybody who wasn’t in advertising ever wanted to pick up the book and have a read, they would start to have a look at how advertising works and how their own brain works and how they are influenced by advertising, and I kind of feel like there’s not that many people educating people on how advertising works – you’ve got shows like Gruen that does a little bit and stuff like that.

I feel like it’s a nice opportunity to even up the ledger a little bit and show people: this is how advertising works. Advertisers have got as much right as any other corporation to profit and to ask you to consume and try to change your behaviour, but all of those advertisers together doing that all the time has a massive cumulative effect on you, dear person, so just be armed, at least, to make mindful consumption choices not mindless consumption choices.

M: But isn’t a whole lot of consumption mindless and isn’t that what the ad industry drives?

AF: Coming back to behavioural economics and system one and system two thinking, where most behaviour is system one, where you’re on autopilot, it’s very easy for marketers to take advantage of that. It’d be great if consumers were aware of that and able to make a few more mindful choices rather than not thinking about what they’re purchasing.

M: That makes it harder for you guys.

AF: It does make it harder, but [consider] the do-not-call register. Nobody gets into advertising wanting to piss people off, wanting to make things worse. I think ultimately most organisations would love to be rewarded for making people’s lives better in some way, so it’s OK to even up the ledger a little bit. They’re still going to want to consume, and we’re still going to create a market for them, it’s just hopefully we can do it in a way that’s a little bit more pro-social.

M: You touch on in your article about how lots of people say advertising doesn’t affect them, and I can’t remember where I heard it but someone made the argument that those people are more susceptible because their defences are down.

AF: They probably are. I’ve run a lot of focus groups in my time and the two things people always say are that ‘advertising doesn’t work on me’ and ‘I don’t watch TV’, which I find extraordinary.

You’re right, I’d guess the people who say advertising doesn’t work on them are probably the people who are more susceptible to how advertising does work on them. And again, if we can acknowledge to some degree that we’re all feeble minded, that we’re all susceptible to be at the influence of somebody else, then at least acknowledging that or embracing that about ourselves allows us to then try to take steps to counter that.

It’s hard, because you can read an entire book like Thinking Fast and Slow and really understand about system one and system two type thinking, but it’s in our nature to completely forget about it. Because it takes effort to be conscious about our decision making all the time, we want to operate on autopilot a lot more.

I just think, as a consumer, if I wasn’t in advertising, I’d be interested in reading this because I’d want to know how advertising works because I’d want to know the techniques they’re using to get me to consumer and what I could do about that. I may want to end up consuming that or not but at least I know the tricks.

M: You mentioned about being asked to speak at non-advertising events, and I notice your book contains breakouts from a range of people, many not in advertising – was this a deliberate move to bring in outside thought?

AF: The book’s subtitled ‘How to change behaviour’, and the emphasis really for me is about the behaviour change stuff, so I reached out to people who I think would have an interesting point of view on how to change behaviour of others, rather than people who are advertising practitioners or not. That’s why there’s a mother in there, my wife, who has to change behaviour all the time. There’s a good friend of mine who’s a psychologist. There’s a head of consumer psychology. There are a couple of advertisers in there as well.

If I had my time again I’d ask more people that question, and broader [types of people]. That’s the bit I probably enjoyed the most.

And now it’s time for: Questions From The Twittersphere!

Our first question comes from Melissa Kuttan, who asks:

M: Let’s take the last part of that, as the first parts might take current and future books to cover. So, the future of integrated agencies?

AF: The ultimate agency structure is one that can solve the incoming problem irrespective of what the shape of that solution might be, and their financial model is independent of the shape of the solution. I think that’s the ideal model.

If you can deliver on whatever the solution might be in a financially neutral way, then I think that’s what clients would like.

I also think the other thing clients are wanting is less complexity. As the world gets increasingly complex, there are a lot more things for everyone to do, so having less agencies rather than more, I think, is the right way to go about it because you have less duplication, smaller meetings, less to manage.

It gets unwieldy and very expensive [having many agencies]. Also, the budgets are getting smaller and the head hours start to account for more of the percentage of the budget, and that’s all money the consumer never sees.

The second question comes from Tom Donald:

AF:Good question. I think the three things I learned co-founding then leaving Naked, were: That culture eats strategy for breakfast. So if you can create a culture of creativity then that puts you in a very good place.

Number two is that you’re only as good as the people who are doing the work. Somebody said to me once that Ricky Ponting was a terrible captain of the Australian cricket team because under his leadership nobody flourished, no stars were born. If you can create a culture that fosters and brings out the best in people I think that’s very important. We’ve had a lot of people who have gone on to have very serious, big jobs now, or started up their own agencies and stuff like that, which I’m kind of proud of.

And the third thing would be is that it makes it easier to have a differentiated offer in the marketplace. Lots of agencies, at a rational level, don’t have a differentiated place in the market. Rationally they all do creative work, have account service, and have a few planners floating around, on the creative side. On the media side they all plan media and say they do a few other things as well. They don’t have differentiated business model, and I think that makes it harder, they go in there saying the same stuff and are not particularly good at building their own brands. It’s fairly ironic.

M: Adam, thanks a lot for your time.

AF: No problem.

The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour is out on 28 May 2014 through Oxford University Press.

Peter Roper
BY Peter Roper ON 23 May 2014
Editor of Marketing. Tweets as @pete_arrr.