Don Draper’s Dead: Alexander Nix meets Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland


The dashing, despicable Don Draper didn’t die at the end of Mad Men, but is the end of the omnipotent creative director fast approaching? Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix sat down with Ogilvy’s Executive Creative Director, Rory Sutherland.
One has spent close to three decades at Ogilvy and Mather, working at various times in accounts, marketing, copywriting and planning, rising through the ranks to become one of the world’s best-known creative directors or “Mad Men”. The other is the CEO of a rapidly expanding digital marketing agency, known for its work in the US political space, where data scientists (“Math Men”) inform highly targeted creative output.
Rory Sutherland invited Alexander Nix to take part in his BBC Radio 4 series on the future of marketing, featuring the people behind some of the world’s most influential campaigns. After discussing CA’s work on the 2016 US presidential election, the conversation turned to the future of traditional agencies, and the role of data science in commercial advertising. 
Cambridge Analytica’s CEO has made no secret of his ambitions to disrupt the advertising industry. He regularly travels the world, giving talks on the rise of the “Math Men” and the need for “Mad Men” to listen to their insights and what data tells them or be left behind. “The advertising industry is in peril. There is a transformation, a metamorphosis that’s going on here. This is a multibillion-dollar industry that’s being fundamentally undermined and threatened and as far as I can see, those agencies that don’t start to embrace data will die,” he says. 
CA made its name in the political space, working on some of the world’s most high-profile campaigns, but its combination of hard and soft sciences, or data and behavioral science, is now being successfully rolled out in the commercial sector. Nix believes that by understanding audiences better and communicating with them on a personal level, individuals are able to “make the decision that’s best for them.”
Rory Sutherland might have been at Ogilvy since 1988, but he’s no Luddite. Recognizing that creative agencies were behind the curve when it came to leveraging insights from behavioral sciences, he founded Ogilvy Change in 2012. He acknowledges an “existential threat” to traditional advertising, but behavioral science is for him, further out in front than data science. “I put behavioral science first and data second. I think you need testable theories of human behavior. Only then will we be able to use the data well and know when not to use it.”
He acknowledges that using data to precisely target individuals or specific groups in elections is particularly effective, but questions whether data science works as well in the commercial space where products must appeal to mass audiences. 
“When you use mass media, there’s a constraint, which is you’re forced to make the same promise to everyone… To some extent, that’s what politicians should be doing. There’s a difference between a promise which is made to a mass audience and a promise that is made to an individual,” he says.
Nix disagrees and believes Cambridge Analytica’s methodology can be successfully applied to commercial campaigns. “Politics is no different to the consumer and brand space, the politicians set out their stall and they say so in a manifesto or through policy pledges. Our job is not to change that policy when we’re speaking to different audiences, our job is simply to amplify different features of that policy so that it becomes most relatable to the people the politician or party is trying to target,” he says.
Cambridge Analytica launched CA Commercial in 2016, offering commercial companies a bespoke service enabling them to build a personal relationship between customer and brand. Alexander Nix believes “to simply be a creative led brand agency is not sustainable in a world where both consumers and brands want accountability and you can only do that through data.”
Rory Sutherland is concerned that by speaking to individuals about facets of a certain product, there is a danger is that the product itself will be advertised as something it is not. Nix reassures him that data analytics and behavioral sciences “aren’t there to change the fundamental message, they’re there to change the argument - the presentation of that message.”
Using the example of cars, he says: “Whether you’re emphasizing the fact the car’s got incredible brakes, or you’re emphasizing the fact that it’s got a really big boot for putting luggage in, you’re not changing the product, you’re simply emphasizing the feature that will most appeal to a particular person.”
Understandably, Sutherland stops short of predicting his own demise but acknowledges that by successfully combining predictive analytics with behavioral science, CA offers something unique and - in his view - is a solitary success story. “I’m still baffled by - apart from your instance - how few really good anecdotes there are out in the marketplace.”
Despite his warnings of the dangers of data science leading the creative process, Rory Sutherland sees the possibility of peaceful coexistence: “I don’t think what we do goes away, I think the Mad Men talent complements the Math Men. If however you only see things through one lens, I would be similarly gloomy to you,” he says.