How to get ahead in the psychology of advertising

Ian Florance talks to Daniel Müllensiefen and Sarah Carter from advertising agency DDB

Psychology and the advertising industry have always had a close ‘personal’ relationship. Early psychologists were involved in the creation of pioneer US advertising agencies; psychology graduates often move into advertising, marketing and market research jobs. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a study of how people are persuaded to buy products or take on views, was voted one of the top business books by Fortune magazine; its author is Robert Cialdini, Emeritus Professor in Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. Economic and marketing psychology are growing areas of study.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Dr Daniel Müllensiefen, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, was appointed Scientist in Residence (SIR) last September at DDB UK, part of the largest integrated advertising and marketing network in the world.

The university of advertising
Daniel’s position as SIR is, in fact, a first in the industry. And as Sarah Carter, the agency’s strategy director comments: ‘We see DDB as taking a more intellectual and questioning approach to our work. We invented the role of advertising planner, which has a central responsibility for writing briefs and encouraging creativity, as well as using hard research to identify audiences and messages. We’ve had other experts working here – at one time we worked with ethnographers. We have been described over the years as the “university of advertising” and we want to practise a creativity which is disciplined by genuine knowledge. So, this is a perfect fit.’

I interviewed Daniel and Sarah at DDB’s Paddington offices. There were directions for potential graduate recruits on the front door, though I was disappointed not to be offered an interview! Inside, the workstations were piled with papers, crowned with technology, and people moved round quickly from meeting to meeting. We installed ourselves in a tiny office, scrounged some chairs, and I eyed my watch nervously. Daniel is in great demand, as his blog on the agency’s website suggests, and we only had limited time. So, is the role working out as Daniel expected?

My days are fully booked
‘In some ways exactly’ says Sarah. ‘We specced the job up front. It involves a number of workshops; access to master’s students to research specific issues; the ability to talk to specialists at Goldsmiths. What we didn’t know was whether people would consult with Daniel on a day-to-day basis. And that aspect is flying…’

‘I didn’t know if people would accept me,’ says Daniel. ‘But my days are fully booked. People want to try out ideas, ask me for a different approach or request some research background on anything from pets and their owners to attitudes to lager brands. I’m learning a lot on the basis of their questions.’ Are all your ideas used? ‘No. Perhaps 20 per cent find their way into pitches. But sometimes I’m just confirming an idea and acting as a sounding board.’

Sarah is very open about the issues in advertising practice DDB wants to address. ‘Advertising’s links with academia have been weak and we need to build bridges. Behavioural economics is having a huge effect on government policy, economic theory and the finance sector: why not on us? Increasingly there’s dissatisfaction with how the industry tests and creates particular adverts. It’s been clear for a while that certain adverts that don’t test well turn out to be highly effective and vice versa. In addition, we’re the uninvited guests in people’s living rooms. We’d better understand them well and create advertising which respects our peculiar status.’

Looking at the wrong thing?
Three MSc projects at Goldsmiths, which result from Daniel’s position, address these issues in detail. Sarah and Daniel describe them with huge enthusiasm.

The first looks at the role of music in advertising, which, as will become clear, is central to Daniel’s research interests. Sarah sees the second project as having huge implications. ‘As an industry we’re obsessed with the messages we place in an advert and how people receive them. We go to great lengths to test their effectiveness. You obviously can’t test an advertisement once enormous amounts of money have been spent in creating the real thing, so we put together an animated version for testing. Once we have this we show it to people and ask them to self-report their reactions. We hold focus groups – in fact DDB pioneered the use of focus groups in developing advertising ideas. These are now used, notoriously, by many different sectors, including political parties. Based on this (and, usually, quantitative data), we create an advert which, sometimes, doesn’t work as well as the testing would suggest. So, we’re looking again at the whole procedure. Can we measure people’s reactions to a test better using implicit measures rather than explicit reporting? Is it true that people are caught by our message or do the “incidentals” – the particular scene, the music – actually cause an advert to be successful or not? Are we, in fact, looking at the wrong thing? If I’m honest, a lot of us feel that many of the ways we pre-test nowadays have outstayed their welcome as genuinely helpful techniques. Advertising research is a multi-million dollar industry, so this is a fairly fundamental effort.’

The final MSc project addresses a contemporary issue: Why do some adverts achieve huge viral success? ‘What makes people talk about particular adverts, send them around the internet, visit them on websites? What creates a buzz about this advert rather than that one? If you could predict this you could spend much more money on creating superb adverts and much less on buying space in the media. The fact is, no one knows the answers to these questions. Social networking sites, the new breed of web communications are obviously important, but nobody really understands how they work. That’s what we’re going to try to do.’

Daniel and Sarah have convinced me that this is an extremely exciting development. What they’re addressing – the measurement of implicit judgements, the problems of self-report evidence, the effect of online environments – reflects research in other areas of psychology. UK businesses have traditionally been less eager than those in other European companies to fund their research and development in tertiary education. This seems to be an initially successful model. How, then, did it come about?

On serendipity and earworms
Sarah answers first. ‘Serendipity. I studied human sciences at Magdalen College. Last year I remet one of my contemporaries, Jane Powell, who is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths. As it happens she’s also Pro-Warden for Research and Enterprise. We fell to talking and realised there was an amazing cultural overlap. It developed from that.’

Daniel comments, ‘Jane had already come up with the idea of a link with an agency, and it quickly became apparent that there was a wonderful fit between DDB and Goldsmiths.’ And why does Daniel think he fits the role? ‘Well, I’ve had a very varied background. I studied systematic and historic musicology and journalism in Germany and Spain. My PhD was on memory for melodies. Currently I’m researching “earworms”, the structure of music pieces that stay in our heads. This has obvious applications in advertising and has resulted in some media coverage. I’m an expert in music copyright and have testified in a number of court cases. I worked in the computing department at Goldsmiths developing music-related software, and presently I’m course co-director on the Music, Mind and Brain master’s at Goldsmiths.’

Daniel believes this experience provides skills that particularly suit the role, and that any psychologist needs if they’re going to take up a similar position. ‘I have a range of areas where I have expert knowledge, but I’m not over-specialised in any one of them. I can research subjects quickly and have access to research databases. I’ve worked in the music industry for a number of years, so I’m used to the culture here – there are time pressures, financial implications to every decision and there’s a specialist language you have to learn and use. I’m here both as an individual and as a bridge between the agency and a wider academic community, so I need to talk to very different kinds of people. Sarah has outlined the benefits for DDB; for Goldsmiths the arrangement obviously provides ideas and funding for research and a wide range of opportunities for consultancy and applied research for other staff, as well as valuable industry exposure for students.’

Time had passed quickly and Daniel had another meeting to get to. I asked if there had been any resistance from colleagues to this initiative. Both of them shook their heads. Whereas in previous years, academics might have seen it as an ‘unholy alliance’ and advertisers might have wondered what a psychologist had to contribute, now there seems to be a real acceptance of the benefits the two sides can bring to each other.

As we finish the interview, I ask Sarah how long the position will last. ‘It’s a year contract but we’d like to extend it. It’s early days yet, but why don’t you come back in a year to report on how it’s going?’

When the original press release about Daniel’s appointment appeared in my in-tray, it seemed an unusual move. After just under an hour’s animated conversation it seems a test case for how applied psychology can influence a huge variety of human activities.


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