Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK: The Wilderness Years How I Made It

Rory Sutherland is one of the most influential advertising professionals in the world today. He is also one of the most fascinating, eccentric and witty people in the business.

Having narrowly escaped a career in teaching, he joined Ogilvy as a graduate trainee in the golden summer of ’88. 23 and a half years later, he is still there.

From his early forays into the world of account handling, Rory made the leap into the creative department and has never looked back. In ‘Part One’ of our extended interview with the cravat-wearing creative, we track his fascinating career from graduate trainee to Head of Copy at OgilvyOne in 1995…

Did you have any interest in the advertising industry when you were studying at the University of Cambridge?

I was always fascinated by advertising, really from about the age of seven. I sometimes envisaged a career in the industry and, funnily enough, I did one of those career assessment tests, which actually recommended advertising or law.

I don’t know whether or not that influenced me at all, but it’s proof that those things aren’t always completely useless.

I thought about teaching at university and actually spent a year doing a PGCE. I suddenly realised, however, that if I went straight from university into teaching, I’d effectively spend my entire life in educational establishments of one kind, and that gave me a burst of terror.

So, while I was doing the teacher training course, I applied to various advertising agencies for entry onto their graduate recruitment programmes. I was accepted by Ogilvy & Mather Direct, which is now called Ogilvy One, and I still work there 23 years later.

What was it about advertising that appealed to you?

At a very crude level, if you draw a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles and you write “interesting thing to do” on one circle and “can make tolerable amounts of money” on the other circle, actually, in the overlap between them, there isn’t actually that much.

The other thing which particularly appealed is that an awful lot of graduate jobs are a monoculture. If you think about it, they’re businesses where people all dress the same, speak the same and have exactly the same mental models. And, to give it its due, advertising, in its toleration for eccentricity and diversity, seemed to be a much more interesting place to work.

Admittedly, the industry does become a monoculture of its own sometimes. There’s a great joke: How do you find the creative department? Walk down the corridor and when you come to the place where everybody dresses the same, that’s it. But actually, it struck me as an industry with an interesting and exciting work culture.

I’m also quite interested in business, but, perhaps in a slightly dilettantish way, working with seven or ten different clients over the course of a few years seemed more appealing than just working in one industry.

Between 1988 and 1992, you caught the last of what everybody fondly remembers as the glory era of advertising, which was a period of both slight excess (although I didn’t earn enough to be excessive at the time), but also very interesting creative work, particularly in the UK.

The UK enjoyed a remarkable pre-eminence at the time. It still does, but not quite to the same degree. You can’t expect to keep these things forever. But it was an interesting time to join.

It was an appallingly ill-paid existence for the first few years. It’s not as bad, I should say, as businesses like publishing and architecture, but most interesting businesses are actually ill-paid at the beginning; something which is certainly worth warning young graduates.

Would you recommend the grad scheme route to aspiring ad men and women?

Advertising is a strangely hermetic business, in that, more or less, the same people rotate around. Its entry-level seems to consist of people who are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 25, and those people seem to be in it for life. There are people who get in later, but it’s not very permeable. I don’t know why. I don’t like it; I’d like to be in a business where someone actually switched from being an accountant to a copywriter at the age of 29.

And so my general advice would be: get in, in some form, in some way, however you can.

If you’re a graduate, the graduate route is an obvious one to take. It’s not the only route. There are also, I’m delighted to say, postgraduate routes into the creative careers, which would include the postgraduate courses at Watford, Falmouth, Bucks and the School of Communication Arts, for example.

I would prefer, in an ideal world, that people went to university and did what they wanted to do, and then did a vocational course to prepare them for a job in a creative department, rather than necessarily going to art college at the age of 18. If you’re any good as a copywriter or an art director, you’re going to be inquisitive. If you’re inquisitive, you’re going to enjoy doing a general subject at university, if that’s what you’re interested in.

The best people in advertising aren’t only interested in advertising. In fact, that’s probably what I’d regard as the industry’s principal selling point. One of the joys of the business and one of the things that attracted me to it is that it allows you to lead your life organically.

By which I mean: if you’re an actuary, an accountant or a banker, you don’t become better at your job by sitting in a café and watching people’s behaviour. You don’t become better at your job by reading a novel. You don’t become better at your job by watching a good film or going to a concert, whereas one of the delights of being in this business is that general, broad self-improvement is also career improvement.

There are no brownie points as an actuary in having gone to a play, whereas in this business you can actually expand yourself culturally and mentally, while, at the same time, justifying it on the grounds that it’s actually professionally improving.

When you first joined Ogilvy on the graduate scheme, you worked as an account handler. Was it always your intention to work on the creative side of advertising though?

Yes. It’s worth saying that making the switch from account handling to the creative department was difficult then; it would be more difficult, though not impossible, now. That’s a mistake and I think the best agencies will be doing things to try and counter-balance that.

To be absolutely honest, there was probably a degree of subterfuge, in that when I was working as an account executive I always had my heart set long-term on being a copywriter. My job now is, I suppose, a bit of a hybrid, in that it involves both creative and strategy. But I believe the two are inextricable anyway.

What kind of responsibilities did you have as a junior copywriter?

As a junior copywriter, you have to write the copy for direct mail, you have to write the copy for coupons. One copywriter friend of mine said the most demeaning job he’d had was to write the copy for a flyer which was to be attached to the outside of sacks of fertiliser.

However, one thing you should learn is that the effect you have and the value you create as a creative person isn’t necessarily proportionate to the grandeur of the job. One of the things we’re starting to understand about human behaviour is that human behaviour is contextual. We make decisions not based on absolute values, but based on the contexts and situations in which we find ourselves.

Actually, I’m very proud of having done the humble jobs. If you design an airport, there’s the grand job of actually designing the terminal. But equally important to navigating the terminal is the signage. Putting up signs saying ‘Departures’ and arranging where the television screens go is a much, much humbler job, but in terms of the actual consumer experience at the airport, I’d say that the second job is just as important as the first.

It’s important to remember that there’s actually importance in everything. You’ve just got to put yourself in your consumers’ shoes to realise it.

As you progressed as a copywriter, you were promoted and eventually became the Head of Copy. How did your working life change once you’d gained that new level of responsibility?

Never forget that everybody in business, largely for reasons of general greed, natural self-advancement, ambition and competitiveness will always seek promotion. But actually, in terms of sheer enjoyment it’s much worse. The best job in the world, to be absolutely honest, is being a reasonably senior copywriter with minimal managerial and administrative responsibility.

There’s a great saying, I think, of Montaigne: “In order to be free, it is not only necessary to avoid being a slave, it is also necessary to avoid becoming a master.” And there’s some truth in that.

Being a reasonably senior copywriter, or perhaps a group head within a larger agency, is as close as you can become to being self-employed, while being paid a regular salary. It’s a very, very varied job. Every job and every task is different. There’s always that creative anxiety; the tyranny of the blank sheet of paper, as someone called it, where you have to come up with something. But, in a funny kind of way, I’ve never enjoyed the business so much as when I was just writing copy.

It’s interesting though that there is virtually nobody at the top of the advertising industry who hasn’t started at the bottom, perhaps with the single exception of people who run holding companies, like Martin Sorrell, for example. To be the managing director of an agency, you’ll probably be a former account executive. Indeed, it’s necessary for a managing director to know what it’s like to produce contact reports and what it’s like to be the 24 year old who’s responsible for carrying the boards to a presentation in Munich at seven o’clock on a Monday morning.

Organisations like Burger King actually have that principle where even if you’re on the board of Burger King, you have to spend two days of the year working in a Burger King restaurant, because that’s what the business is all about. It’s a very healthy thing in the advertising industry that everybody who is at the top will once have been at the bottom. You don’t get that cult of managerialism, where someone’s moved from being the managing director of Everest Double Glazing to being the managing director of an ad agency.

It’s the same thing in architecture. The person who runs a great architectural practice is an architect, and it’s the same in advertising. You don’t have that managerialist cult where management skills are considered to be transferrable from double glazing to jet engines to publishing to television. Advertising is, in that sense, a craft-driven business. You are expected to have, to some degree, the junior skills before you can be expected to manage other people.

To be continued…

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