Taking out the guess work

Taking out the guess work
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Has anyone here heard of The Nudge Unit? Most of you, good.

Now here are two facts you may or may not know – the first is that it’s actually called the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). The second is a far more interesting piece of information. The American government has taken the British government’s lead and is setting up its own version of The Nudge Unit. It’s being headed up by Maya Shanker (new senior policy advisor in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House) and her job is to make policy decisions more accountable to behavioural science.

(Ok, I think I got rid of the pretenders – any creatives still reading?)

So Shanker is currently on a recruitment drive and is looking to place behavioural researchers into several government agencies.

This is the beginning of her ad looking for people: “A growing body of evidence suggests that insights from social and behavioural sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals.”

Why is this interesting? Well, firstly it means that for the first time policy decisions will be driven by science and real humanistic understanding (not hypothesis). Nudge learnings have contributed to getting people back to work quicker after injury, increased academic performance, getting people to pay more of their fines on time, and getting retirees to save more. Behavioural science is winning in the quest to deliver public policies that are more effective and more efficient.

The second reason it’s interesting is that it can so easily be applied to advertising and brand building. Currently, most communications strategies are developed in much the same way government policies are (pre-Nudge) – namely ‘I think this might be a good idea, and because it’s my thought I think it’s right, therefore I’ll find some evidence to support my thought, and make a story out of it. And that will be the strategy’. Sound familiar?

However, times are changing rapidly. The embracing of behavioural sciences means that strategies are now going to have to be somewhat more accountable, and in so doing they are more likely to be the right thing to do.

Some years ago I changed my title to the self-aggrandising ‘global head of behavioural science’ (or ‘global head of BS’ for short). Most people who work agency-side will believe that behavioural science still isn’t as sexy as being an ‘account planner’ or ‘head of strategy’.

However, the thing I dislike most about ‘head of strategy’ is that mostly it’s just about being an ‘intuitive planner’. Another word for intuition is ‘making stuff up’. Now, if you’re good, your intuition is good, and you’re probably a good planner. However, the difficulty is that there is not an easy way to replicate that or build a ‘planning discipline’ around that.

If, on the other hand, you embrace behavioural sciences and develop frameworks and structures that help get to the answers that help then perhaps there are building blocks to develop strategies within which the intuition can fall.

The UK, and now US, governments no longer rely solely on intuition to solve problems because we are now unearthing so much stuff about how bad our own thinking is, and how prone to thinking errors we actually are, so they are moving to behavioural economics (or behavioural sciences) for the answer. Or they are at least embracing those techniques so they have a better understanding of where the answer may be. So too will we see advertising and marketing companies embrace the behavioural sciences in a meaningful way. 

I know some of us are already starting to do this (Naked has been on this journey for years), but it’s happening sporadically and still is not the norm – especially for the larger ‘above the line’ agencies around town.

The reason for this is that advertising has until now been fiercely unscientific. Advertising has fundamentally rejected any science from entering its agencies. And here’s the reason why: the executive creative director.

The ECD is still the king of most agencies, and, truth be told, a) their job is hard enough already, and b) science hasn’t contributed much to date. Hence, if I were them I wouldn’t be in a mad rush to embrace it either.

However, I think the ECDs should consider themselves ministers of various government departments.

The government has mandated the Nudge Unit move-in, therefore the quicker you embrace it, the smoother the transition will be.

That transition is from ‘creativity is king’ to ‘creativity and science are king and queen’. If the ECD (king) embraces it then it’s up to the Queen (in this metaphor the queen is head of planning) to change their planning department and ensure it’s grounded in science and not intuition (making stuff up).

The upside of this new model (science and creativity working hand in hand) is that the industry will start to see more consistent evidence-based and results-driven solutions that we can learn from. That is, we’ll be able to build on what works and what doesn’t a bit like how social and behavioural sciences currently do.

So, Dear Mr Creative, please accept science into your agency, and Dear Ms Planner, bone up on this stuff – it’s only just the beginning.

Adam Ferrier is founder and global head of behavioural science at Naked Communications.

This article first appeared in B&T magazine. 

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