Rory Sutherland was born in Llandogo, Near Usk, Monmouthshire (a tiny village which evolutionary groupies will recognize as the birthplace of Alfred Russell Wallace). A copywriter by training, he is Vice-Chairman of the Ogilvy & Mather Group in London, and founder of Ogilvychange, a division of the agency which seeks to solve problems by finding and devising more illuminating insights into markets and human behavior to replace those seen through the grubby, distorted and monocular lens of standard economic theory.

John Spedan Lewis, the philanthropic founder of Britain’s highly successful retailer the John Lewis Partnership, was also a keen amateur biologist. He did not keep these two parts of his life wholly separate, however. As he once said, “I try to bring the mind of a naturalist to the management of business.”

Business today is in great need of “the minds of naturalists” and evolutionary thinkers of every kind, which is why TVOL is always a must-read for me. From a self-interested point of view, I find that the work of evolutionary theorists casts a great deal of light on the role of marketing and advertising – or costly signaling, as you would call it. More widely, we all need to draw from the evolutionary biologist’s instinctive understanding of complexity. They are also our best hope in freeing us from the pernicious influence of narrow economic thought.

Plenty has been written about the dangers of designing the world for homo economicus, a strange and self-interested creature whose brain has evolved to live in a world of perfect trust and perfect information – despite the fact that those conditions are almost never found on earth.

But I do not propose to add to this literature here.

Except to add one thing – specifically from an advertising and marketing standpoint.

As a very wise physicist once observed, standard economic theory is not only often wrong, it is also creatively very limiting. “Ask an economist for a solution to a human problem and, ultimately, it always boils down to bribing people.”  Standard economic theory does not allow any role for signaling–marketing, advertising, or even persuasion. Once you assume perfect information and perfect trust, there is no place in your model for these things. And yet nature has a very large advertising budget – a flower is essentially a weed with a marketing budget – and is rich in all forms of creativity (including, I should admit, quite a bit of deception).

The standard economic approach is creatively limiting in part by defining all problems in terms that allow for an economic solution. I believe that, with a better understanding of our evolved psychology, we can all find ourselves free to solve what once seemed to be impossible problems in new and more imaginative ways.

I was in a meeting the other day. “We need to drop the price of X so that people do X rather than Y,” was the standard response.

“Have you just tried asking them nicely?”

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Published On: December 29, 2016

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