A Conversation with Oliver Payne, Founder of the Hunting Dynasty

 

Bio: Oliver started out in digital marketing at the dawn of the internet-era. He went on to spend over a decade at Saatchi & Saatchi, and Ogilvy as a Creative Director up to board level on global advertising campaigns and innovative communications for some of the world’s best-known companies, including BP, P&G, Cisco, IBM, Castrol, Avis, Toyota, and Visa. He’s won over thirty of the world’s top global advertising awards, including Grand Prix and DMA, Cannes, D&AD, and sat on global judging panels for digital and integrated advertising.

 

He set up The Hunting Dynasty agency to mix his advertising experience with cognitive-behavioural theories–such as behavioural economics, behavioural decision theory, and environmental psychology – to create communications that really work.

 

He is the author of ‘Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change’ » available 17th April 2012 (in the UK, later in N. America and other territories) through Routledge/Earthscan which wrangles environmental psychology, behavioural economics, decision theory, and a good old dose of common sense together in a potent handbook for marketers and legislators to ask for and sell persistent, pervasive, and near-costless sustainable behaviour using our hidden quirks, judgmental biases, and apparent irrationalities.

 

Paul Skinner: Beginning with your extensive background in advertising, what would you say were the key insights that have most shaped your work, and how might they translate into tactics that our members could use?

 

Oliver Payne: Firstly I’d say that if other people are contributing to or buying your ‘thing’, then say so. We behave similarly to other people and are most influenced by what other “people like us” do.

 

Secondly, compare your ‘thing’ to a competitor (in your favour). For example by saying ‘100% of our donations go to the cause, unlike Y’, or comparing your ‘thing’ to something crazy (also in your favour), such as ‘You could donate to X or buy eight frappuccinos’. Here it is the context in which the choice is made that’s important. The alternatives don’t have to be similar things, they need to be other choices someone could make.

 

Thirdly, I’d say don’t be afraid to write CLEAR instructions about WHAT TO DO, RIGHT NOW, ON THIS SITE/PAGE/AD/etc. (For those interested in the psychology of this it is called “making the construal level proximal”.)

 

Paul: Some very valuable insights there into how people’s minds work and therefore how best to communicate to them. On that subject, you’ve recently set up an agency, The Hunting Dynasty focusing on behavioural economics. One of the exciting opportunities for our causes to come from the field of behavioural economics is the chance to make their communications much more effective without adding any extra cost – could you give some further practical examples of how this can be achieved? (oh and for anyone new to behavioural economics – do read OIiver’s “bluffer’s guide”)

 

Oliver: The important thing to grasp is simple but fundamental: there’s no way to present information (or choice, or options, or communication – however you want to describe it) without the presentation affecting the outcome. In many cases the presentation is the outcome.

 

The second most important thing to recognise is that while Behavioural Economics is interesting, and helpful up to a point for the marketer, one should look to the broader cognitive-behaviour theories to affect change (behavioural decision theory, psychology in general – and in the case of my book, environmental psychology).

 

For instance, temporal discounting (or hyperbolic discounting) is an important part of the behavioural economics canon that tells us how we vary our perception of the value of money over time relative to ourselves.

 

For instance, being offered £10 now or £11 tomorrow usually results in people taking £10 now, whereas being offered £10 in a year or £11 in a year and one day, usually results in taking the £11 option. We only change our answer relative to where we are in time compared to the cash. However, this does not give full dimension to construal, where the ‘level’ at which we construe something affects behaviour greatly. It happens in these dimensions: here/not here; me/not me; now/not now; clear/unclear.

 

Construal gives us interesting insight into decision-making: Trope, Liberman, and Wakslak examined how our opinions of main and peripheral aspects of a product change depending on when we think about the product more than what the aspects are: ‘participants thinking about the purchase [of a clock-radio] in the distant future expressed more satisfaction when the central feature was good and the peripheral one was poor (i.e., the sound quality was good and the clock poor)’. In the same experiment, participants thinking about the clock in the moment expressed satisfaction when either the central feature or the peripheral one was poor. They are both our decisions, but they beg the question; who are we? Which is our true decision?

 

So, it is clear how you present choice (your product, charity, desired action) will affect assessment of it. Knowing this, we can present choice in a way favourable to the seller. Or to the buyer. Or to some other third party.

 

Paul: So the way you express the choices you offer people greatly affects the options they are likely to choose. A lot of organizations are starting to take this kind of research far more into account when developing their communications and even their fundamental innovation. But as the concepts of behavioural economics become better known to the public, is there any evidence that people “see through it” or are less likely to be influenced by its practice?

 

Oliver: I get this question – or variations of it – quite a lot. More from government than business, and I get it in the form of ‘isn’t this just spin?’ To ask such a question is to fundamentally misunderstand the cognitive-behavioural approach. There is no such thing as an odourless, colourless, neutral presentation. There is no ‘see through’ it. It just is. Whether you know it or not, whether you believe in it or not, whether you recognise it or not, you twist peoples’ answers by the way you ask questions, and they twist yours. The world is a tangled spaghetti of quirks and biases unknown, unrecognised, and unavoidable.

 

For instance, Strack, Martin, and Schwartz conducted an experiment in 1988 where they asked only two questions. These were unrelated, and asked in the only two possible sequences.

 

If asked to rate ‘happiness with life-as-a-whole’ before ‘happiness with dating’, there was no real link. You could be happy or sad, dating or not, and it wouldn’t relate in any meaningful way – is the conclusion you’d draw.

 

But if the order was flipped and respondents were asked to rate ‘happiness with dating’ before ‘happiness with life-as-a-whole’ the link between dating and happiness was almost 3.5 times greater. Therefore, being in a relationship made you more likely to be happy – is the conclusion you’d draw.

 

The only truth is, that in cases such as this, the order is the outcome.

 

You ask if there is a reduction in influence over time, when if fact there’s never been an absence of influence for thousands of years. The really interesting question is why do we fall prey to cognitive-behavioural quirks.

 

An anthropological answer is needed – simply put we’re really good at living the short and brutal lives we’ve been living for the last 195,000 years, and we’re really poor at living the long and comfortable lives we’ve had for the last 160-or-so years. Since 1850 life expectancy has increased by – on average – six hours per day. Six hours per day! It’s no wonder that we’re poor at making decisions about pensions (or, even, making the decision to have one). The gap between our ancient selves and the modern world is where our behaviour becomes a ‘quirk’, where our behaviour becomes an ‘apparent irrationality’, where we become unfit for navigating the world around us.

 

That is the gap I work in.

 

Paul: Here at Pimp My Cause we love nothing more than a great sneak preview – what can you tell us about your
upcoming book, Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways to Ask for Change?

 

Oliver: I wrangle together insights from a wide range of psychological research to create a coherent guide to creating communications that create painless and permanent change. I think it’s both pragmatic and inspirational, and works well as a handbook for marketers and legislators to create sustainable behaviour.

 

I wrote it around a ‘how to ask’ structure that I had a lot of success with in presentations; ‘Just ask’, ‘Ask with the right words’, ‘Ask with the right images’, etc. is all pretty much business as usual – or so it seems, although simply asking a question can kill people (the mere measurement effect is at work here).

 

Then we go a little off-piste with sections about adding options and taking them away, about telling rather than asking, about asking for a commitment (but not now), and it’s all held together with stories about Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits on the West Cermak Road in Chicago, the Warring States period in China around 221 BC, a set of stairs in Lisbon, and Ignaz Semmelweis and his ‘cadaverous particles’.

 

It starts with Schrodinger’s cat, ends with Kaiser Wilhelm II, and never fails to tell you how to create sustainable behaviour.

 

Paul: Wow! It sounds like an encyclopedia of psychological insight for anyone wanting to create positive change in
the world!

 

Oilver, as you know at this point in our interviews we ask our guests to choose one or two of our member causes and develop some ideas for them. Which of our causes have you chosen and why?

 

Oliver: There’s two that stood out: Cancer Research UK; Out Of The Dark.

 

Paul: And what is your advice for them?

 

Oliver: Cancer Research is looking for volunteers to help raise money. I guess it’s a perennial challenge. They want digital banner ads, in paid-for media spaces.

 

Non-marketeers would probably try to find the solution in the facts: how much you could raise, where it goes, why it’s needed, why it’s vital. Always appealing to the rational with the truth. It doesn’t drive behaviour, however.

 

Marketeers generally will propose raising awareness (which will lead to interest, desire, and action, of course) by creating some emotional connection; perhaps dramatizing the plight of those who’re suffering, the lives made whole by those who survived, or how every penny raised makes a difference, in order to appeal to feelings with storytelling. It doesn’t drive behaviour, however.

 

A cognitive-behavioural communicator will tell you that we tend to behave similarly ‘to people like us’, and would go on to cite Cialdini et al.’s towel reuse experiment in Arizona where messages about saving the environment (although true) had no effect on behaviour, but messages that said ‘X% of people who stayed in this room recycled their towel’ saw recycling rates shoot up.

 

This ‘provincial norm’ is powerful, and cuts across age, sex, postcode, and politics. The cog-behavioural communicator will tell you to write the digital banner ads that they ask for saying ‘people who visited this page signed up to volunteer for Cancer Research’, and other hyper-local messages to evoke the provincial norm.

 

A cognitive-behavioural communicator will also tell you that incremental requests lead to much larger requests that would be denied if asked from a standing start. They could cite the election candidate window poster/all-weather lawn sign request experiments where respondents ended up with fixed hammered-in ‘keep off the grass’ type signs on their front lawn – or not –- depending on whether they were asked a smaller favour first. And they would suggest sequential ads that ask hypothetical incremental requests: ‘If someone had a spare 5mins should they volunteer to. . .’, ‘If you had a spare 5mins would you volunteer . . .’, ‘if I asked you to canvas for donations to Cancer Research, would you? . . and so on. They need work, but the principles are there. And there are more approaches.

 

I recommend they follow the advice described by the cognitive-behavioural communicator. (With recognition that it will need finessing over time, because these things are harder to get working than they look – a bit of honesty never hurt.)

 

Secondly, Out Of The Dark renovates old furniture to sell. At least, that’s one strand of their work: the renovators are drawn from backgrounds that don’t normally have access to this type of vocational training, or experience. Out Of The Dark wants to be financially self-sufficient.

 

There are many strands to the work they do, but the only real way to drive self-sufficiency is to sell, sell, sell, every table, chair, chest of draws and display cabinet they’ve got. Over, and over, again.

 

The first place many marketers will go is to draw people to the proposition, to define the Unique Selling Point, and leverage it – uniqueness is priceless, for instance – to create desire to own and to be seen to own these amazing objects from a kind-of ‘Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen’ of furniture. This will work, to some degree. As will smoothing out the e-commerce option, and a little bit of PR. All of these approaches can be refined by psychology.

 

But some of the most successful cognitive-behavioural solutions to retail problems have been decidedly left-field – none more so that the US company 1-800-Mattress who secured 80% of the New York mattress market by offering to take customers' old bedding away. The real barrier to purchasing a new mattress wasn’t the price, or the provenance, the technology, the finance plan, or its lifespan – it was the problem of what to do with the old one. This solution took into account that, despite the success or otherwise in getting people interested, when the moment comes to actually committing to buy, the problem of getting rid of the old furniture looms large enough to stop the sale. Understanding mindsets at key decision-points and removing the physical and psychological barriers to purchase is the central game of cognitive-behavioural drafted in service of consumer problems.

 

I recommend Out Of The dark offer to take the old sideboard away for free (which is a great new donation, too), or heavily promote it if they already offer that. Or indeed, to become that service. All the other marketing stuff will help too, but nothing will fire-up turnover like this.

 

Paul: Many thanks Oliver for all your insights and we wish you all the best for the launch of your book!

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