Ogilvy's Christopher Graves on the benefits of behavioural economics

Ogilvy PR's global CEO is so convinced of the benefits of behavioural economics that he has spent five years studying it. He explains why to Jonathan Tilley.

Cross the minefield: Graves on neuroscience and behavioural economics
Cross the minefield: Graves on neuroscience and behavioural economics

After a long and distinguished career in journalism, Christopher Graves embarked on his career in the PR world with some trepidation.

'At first I though maybe I would do penance for all my sins, having treated PR people so badly as a journalist,' he says. 'I was a real dark horse - I didn't come up from within, or even from within the industry - but the people at Ogilvy were nothing but gracious from day one.'

Ogilvy's global CEO took the plunge into PR in 2005 as the agency's Asia Pacific CEO, leaving behind him a career in business news spanning 23 years and crossing three continents.

'I was head of network news for CNBC Europe and CNBC Asia in really volatile times. It was during the mid-90s, when Indonesia came apart at the seams and the dictator Suharto was falling, and it came during the entire financial meltdown of Asia, which started in 1997.

'Then I went over to Europe thinking that'd be a little quieter, and of course it was during the introduction of the euro and the whole dotcom collapse. It was just thrilling. It was an incredible time to be in international news.'

Wall Street Journal assistant managing editor John Bussey says Graves' journalism career proved his entrepreneurial flair, pointing to his role in building WSJ TV, which is now a major part of the Dow Jones portfolio.

'Chris is always good for an intelligent and insightful take on the world,' Bussey says. 'I think if you saw him leading a conference from the stage and working the audience, you'd think he was a daytime television show host - his delivery is so entertaining and provocative.'

The shift to PR has seen Graves, 54, lose none of his enthusiasm.

He speaks quickly and animatedly about the direction the company is heading in, particularly with regard to the fields of neuroscience and behavioural economics, in which he sees great potential.

Both in advertising and PR, he argues, they represent a whole area that is missing in the approaches taken by agencies.

'Imagine there's a minefield,' he explains. 'At one end there are those of us in advertising and PR and at the other end is the client's goal. What we tend to do as an industry is line up a bunch of us and run through the minefield, blow our legs off and see if anybody makes it to the other side. What if I could give you a map and a mine detector? Wouldn't that work a lot better?'

It is something he has taken seriously, spending the past five years studying more than 800 pieces of primary research exploring such meaty issues as how consumers decide, how to change someone's mind and how to restore trust.

He argues that having the dedication to undertake this careful study and understand the science is necessary to make it work in practice, and agencies lacking someone as 'maniacal' and 'obsessed' as him would find it harder to take this on board. 'I didn't just read a popular book and say let's do this,' he says.

Dismissing so-called neuromarketers as 'charlatans', he stresses he is a 'student of neuroscience' and he is well aware of the challenge of translating it into practical tools without undermining the science: 'You could instantly scale it up but that would be bullshit.'

However, he sees immense practical possibilities for PR. 'It never replaces the creativity, and it's not some sort of fad where you say stop doing this and do this,' he explains. 'It adds a layer of planning and effectiveness, and it helps you figure out what will not work.'

In terms of Ogilvy PR's strategy, the second point Graves emphasises is the importance of integration with the other marketing disciplines in the Ogilvy & Mather Group. He maintains Ogilvy PR can only benefit from being integrated back into this sophisticated, multi-faceted group.

The whole industry is rushing toward figuring out what a PR agency of the future should look like, he says, arguing Ogilvy PR is well placed in this respect because of its integration across all disciplines.

'I see standalone PR agencies as having no migration pattern to the future,' he says, arguing that standalone agencies have only two options. 'Your best approach is either "we will buy other companies to supplement us", or "we will play nicely with others". If you check through the quotes of all the other agency heads, it's one of those two things.'

Agencies who thought integration was a bad idea are now copying it by buying companies, he maintains, and he is not convinced by the approach of 'playing nicely'.

He uses the metaphor of a university only employing physics professors and saying it can source academics from other disciplines when they need them: 'You wouldn't go there unless you wanted to do physics.'

It was over lunch with Ogilvy & Mather worldwide chairman and CEO Miles Young that Graves agreed to leave journalism.

Graves acknowledges that bringing in a journalist at CEO level was high risk, and he could have failed miserably: 'What worked for me was that in between being a journalist and coming to Ogilvy I had moved to the publishing and business side of news, which meant my job really was wooing advertisers and growing the company. That taught me a lot of humility. Journalists aren't used to being told off by people other than their editor.'

One senses Graves, with his appetite for science and integration, has not had too many tellings-off from clients either.

CV

2009 Global CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

2005 President and CEO, Asia Pacific, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

2002 Managing director, Dow Jones Far Eastern Economic Review

2000 Managing director, Europe and Asia, Dow Jones Consumer Electronic Publishing

1998 Vice-president, CNBC Europe

1997 Vice-president, CNBC Asia

1993 Vice-president/managing editor, Asia Business News

1987 Executive producer, Wall Street Journal TV

1986 Producer, CNN

1985 Senior producer, Today's Business

1982 Producer/executive producer, Business Times

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

When I was first hired into a TV news programme, when I got to run a news programme and when I got to run a TV news network. Then when I was first hired by Ogilvy. But each involved risks.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I've had at least two. First was a decent man who died young who trusted me with running a TV news programme when I was just 27. The second is Ogilvy & Mather chairman and CEO Miles Young.

What advice would you give to people climbing the ladder?

It is not a ladder. Take risks and don't be afraid to move horizontally. Wonder one thing every day then chase down the answer. Never believe you will be promoted for complaining your job is below you. Just do it better than anyone has. Be decent to others.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Risk-taking, disparate interests, industriousness, self-awareness, decency and aggressive curiosity.

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