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  • Rory Sutherland

STOCHASTIC TINKERING


Excerpt #2 from an interview with Rory Sutherland, published in Edge.org. Sutherland is Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman at OgilvyOne, a subset of 'madmen' Ogilvy & Mather, which in turn is a subset of WPP. OgilvyOne calls itself 'The Customer Agency', part advertising, part direct marketing, part of something else - 'The Thing for Which We Have No Name'.

'It is true of quite a lot of progress in human life that businesses, in their blundering way, sometimes discover things before academics do. This is true of the steam engine. People developed steam engines before anybody knew how they worked. It's true of the jet engine, true of aspirin... People discover through trial and error—what Nassim Taleb calls "stochastic tinkering."

'People make progress on their own without really understanding how it works. At that point, academics come along, explain how what works works and to some extent take the credit for it. "Teaching birds to fly" is the phrase that Taleb uses.

'...I was seduced by economic thinking and the elegance of it, but at the same time having worked in advertising for 15 years, I was also fairly conscious of the fact that this isn't really how people behave. We'd always known, in those fields of marketing, like direct marketing, where you actually got results—you sent out letters to 50,000 people and saw how many people replied—there was something going on that we didn't understand.

'In other words, occasionally you might do incredibly elaborate, complex, and expensive work and have more or less no effect on the uptake of some product. Then someone would redesign the application form and slightly change the order of the questions on the application form, and the number of people replying would double.

'We knew there was this mysterious kind of dark force at work in human behavior.'

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