First in our In The Wild series is Matthew Willcox, Executive Director of advertising agency Draftfcb’s Institute of Decision Making. As a part of his job at the IDM, his charge is to help the network deepen its understanding of human decision making. With a background in communications strategy, and previous role as Director of Strategic Planning of Draftfcb San Francisco, he helped companies such as Electronic Arts, Levi Strauss & Co, Del Monte, Hilton Hotel Corporation, AT&T and MTV make more interesting and effective connections with their audiences. He and his team’s work in this role has netted eight Effie awards in the last three years. Matthew is also a frequent speaker at marketing and communication events, including the Cannes Lions in 2011 and 2012.
Tell me about your work: how does decision-making psychology fit in it? I run a small group within the global advertising agency Draftfcb called the Institute of Decision Making. We set this group up about four years ago as we realized that the emerging understanding of human decision-making is an important strategic area — perhaps as significant as the emergence of digital or mobile — in terms of where the future of marketing is headed. But conventional marketing research has real shortcomings in terms of shedding light on intuitive or unconscious aspects of decision making so we went to the authorities in the understanding of how humans make choices (which is, after all, the heart of what marketing is): academics or scientists in the fields of cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, neuroeconomics and marketing. A large part of the Institute of Decision Making’s efforts goes into making ourselves familiar with the foundational and emerging work in these areas, and identifying and building relationships with the experts. We then apply this to practical marketing problems — for existing clients and new business prospects, in areas as diverse as energy efficiency, financial services, healthcare, public policy, luxury goods and entertainment.
How did you first become interested in decision-making psychology? About six years ago, a client asked me for a definition of marketing. The one I provided, borrowing heavily from Kotler I think, was that marketing is simply influencing consumer’s decisions in your favor. But as I thought about this I realized that, even though I had been involved in hundreds of pieces of commercial research about how people felt about specific brands and advertising ideas, I knew little or nothing – beyond conjecture – about the bigger picture of human decision making, so I decided to start learning. The first book I read on the subject was “The Paradox of Choice”, and I was then fortunate enough to interview Barry Schwartz for a project on online retailing when he was visiting Berkeley. He suggested the Society of Judgment and Decision Making conference as a great place to learn more, and I have been attending every year since. I am amazed that more practitioners don’t attend conferences like the SJDM, the SCP and the ACR. They are fantastic brain food.
What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? The work I find most exciting is often that which doesn’t appear to have direct application to marketing. I think this is because it enables me to make the connections to practice, which is of course personally very satisfying! But I think it is also because I believe that marketers tend to forget that consumers are humans before they are consumers, and understanding decision-making at a human level allows for broader rather than specific or tactical applications. I’m particularly interested in a number of topics at the moment – the effects of time and distance on decision-making, the effects of self-efficacy and the area of closure. I’m intrigued by the latter because one of the perpetual challenges to marketers is getting people to switch brands, and it seems that some way of creating a sense of closure with their old or existing choice could be a very interesting approach.
Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? The biggest challenge is moving from the lab to practice, and this is of course also the biggest opportunity. A lot of the recent public discourse about problems replicating priming, about embodied cognition and about biases revealed by IATs shows the importance to researchers of being able to point to real life examples where the findings and ideas of lab experiments have had an effect on behavior. Which brings me neatly onto the next question…
How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? There is a wonderful opportunity for symbiosis. Marketers can learn huge amounts from academia, and I honestly believe that many of the areas being researched in JDM related areas can and should lead marketers to modify some of their traditional marketing theories and conventions and practices. We are seeing this happen especially in public policy communication, where programs are being developed with behavioral principles as their inspiration. In the UK, the impact of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team (known as the “Nudge team”) is broadening, and their approach is often simply to take existing principles, have those guide the design and development of messages and experiences, and test and learn from the output. Other government bodies around the world have set the goal of translating insights from the social and behavioral sciences into improvements in policy and practice. While the public sector seems to be taking a more systemized approach, there are some good examples in the private sector. We see more and more use of behavioral principles in financial services, and in general marketing agencies. For instance, our agency has hired Applied Behavioral Economists and pretty much every day we are applying JDM learnings to more and more clients. If these developments continue and become more widespread, then there will be an abundance of market data and cases that can complement data from lab experiments. The truth is that all marketing activities should be considered experiments, because I have to tell you that in over 25 years in practice, I have never really known how a program or campaign will turn out.
And practical application has to be a good thing for academics. Beyond the satisfaction of seeing your ideas at work, I would love to see the debate shifting from whether ideas such as priming (to take a topical example) replicate in lab experiments, to how they fare in real life experiments.
What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Two things. One don’t be shy. If you are studying a topic — say for example the relationship between disfluency and luxury – reach out to people in that industry, people who manage luxury brands. They may be more receptive to your ideas, experiments and findings than you think. Second, develop a knack for explaining what you are doing in everyday language, or with relatable examples. Practice explaining things to lay people. It will help you if you start working with practitioners like me who know little about the science of things.
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