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Is advertising going to be the next victim of disruption?

 Cannes makes it painfully clear that the advertising industry shows all the symptoms of an industry that doesn’t have an answer to disruption, suggests Tom de Bruyne.

Every industry reacts to disruption in the same stereotypical way, as Clayton Christensen explains in The Innovator’s Dilemma. Disruption comes from new players who solve consumers’ problems in a new way. In most cases this is done through clever use of various, existing technologies.

But more interesting than disruption itself, is the stereotypical way market leaders react it. First they don’t take the disruptive player seriously; consequently they try to fight him. By the time it’s too late, they respond to disruption by adding more features, even though disrupters focus on making things easier and cheaper.



Looking at our industry in this way, we have to admit that we are the living proof of Christensen’s thesis. We are totally obsessed with originality and we invent endless variations of the same irrelevant innovations.

Who remembers the award-winning interactive billboard from British Airways? The billboard that could tell you which aeroplane flew overhead and what its destination was? Nice, cool, but British Airways doesn’t have an impact problem. It does have a hell of a problem with a business model that’s made totally obsolete by the disruption in their industry. It has no answer to the rise of low-cost airlines and price comparison websites.

KLM is another marvellous example. We, marketing people, reward this brand year after year for their creative digital campaigns. But in the real world, the company is balancing on the edge. I’m not saying KLM doesn’t make fun social media campaigns, but at the end of the day, I’d rather let myself be treated a little less creatively by EasyJet if this gets me a cheap ticket.


‘Conversion clods’

Another symptom I see in our sector is that we don’t take the origins of disruption seriously. Advertising people try their best to depict conversion specialists as ‘conversion clods’ who don’t have the slightest clue of creation and seduction, so imagine how bad they are at brands. Data specialists on the other hand believe that traditional advertising people trust too dogmatically that they are always right.

But this discussion between data-driven and brand-driven advertising people is completely irrelevant, because disruption never comes from within the sector itself. The hotel industry was first shaken by Booking.com, then by Airbnb and is now being hollowed out by TravelBird.

EasyJet and Ryanair disrupted the aviation industry by skipping the travel agencies as middlemen. The design agency called Apple has transformed the computing market, the music market as well as the telecoms market. Denying that similar events will take place the advertising sector would be very naive.



The biggest mistake ever would be to assume that the future of advertising lies in the creation of more innovative advertisements. In technology terms, this would be like the first cars, looking like a carriage with an engine underneath. For advertising to survive the disruption, we don’t need smarter or more original advertising. We will have to innovate more radically. And the inspiration for that is within reach.

If we want to understand how the interesting innovations in the influencing industry came about, we only need to zoom out a bit. Because the heart of our sector is not making advertising, advertising is just a possible instrument of persuasion.

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The persuasion industry

Our industry exists to creatively influence decision-making and buying behaviour. We are just a small part of the persuasion industry, which is part of marketing and applied economics. There has been an explosion of innovation within the persuasion industry in the past few years, which we seem to have ignored completely.

If you are trying to find impactful creative work with a tremendous return on investment, you only need to look at the innovations in the technology industry and the world of startups. Rei Inamoto, the ECD of AKQA, explained this a few years ago, during a presentation in Cannes:

Business ideas from the least expected angles and players will disrupt your business faster than advertising can save it.


Two innovations

In recent years, a large number of disruptive technology brands conquered existing and new markets. Their success is based on two innovations:

1) Process innovation: The Lean Startup. The Lean Startup describes a method to develop propositions through experiments rather than strategy. Startups try to find the right combination of strategy, creation, tactics and technology through creative, data-driven experiments. To discover how they can create profitable customers for the brand.

If you work according to The Lean Startup, you’ll go through a creative process in which data will tell you if strategy and creation are delivering what they should. However, Lean should not be confused with cheap. Lean literally means flexible. Startups are constantly finetuning and adapting their strategic and creative hypotheses.

2) Psychological innovation: Behavioural Design. Disruptive brands stand out from other brands since they build the brand in behaviour first. Communication follows.

Behind every successful service or app there’s an army of persuasion designers and behavioural psychologists who finetune every interaction you’re having with their brand to perfection. They see every email, every web page and every notification as a unique opportunity to keep you enthusiastic about the brand.


Interaction points

Booking.com will not win a prize in Cannes for their genius of taking away our doubts about booking an unknown hotel. Or for the smart email notifications which make us return to their website every single time.

And if you study Airbnb from a persuasion design perspective, you’ll begin to understand how the smallest design patterns and interaction details have helped Airbnb conquer the market at the expense of the other 50+ startups with exactly the same proposition. The brand Airbnb is not only popular because the business model is so smart, but because the brand looks and feels amazing in all its interaction points.



The simple reason for our collective addiction to our smartphones is that the best behavioural designers in the world are occupied fulltime with inventing hundreds of experiments to lure us back into their apps. The real innovation in the influence industry is not technological, but psychological. Politicians, populists, revolutionaries and corporations are also using these innovations on a large scale.

If you know anything about choice architecture and perverse incentives, you’ll know that the banking crisis simply was the predictable result of a poorly designed system that provoked risky behaviour. If you know anything about framing, you’ll know much more about the impasse around the financial situation of Greece. The EU and the IMF framed the Greece crisis as a ´grasshopper-and-the-ant-story´ and sold this story very well at home, making any compromise practically impossible.


Disruptive startups

What can we learn from these observations?

Firstly: There’s a lot of clever creativity outside our field, with a great impact on behaviour and growth. Disruptive startups aren’t successful because they’re data-driven, but because they’re very creative with the insights they get from data.

Secondly: Disruptive technology brands develop their brand in behaviour first. Communication follows.

Thirdly: We as an advertising industry completely missed the boat by not indulging ourselves in all the innovations that came from psychology. Like behavioural economics, framing, persuasion design, game theory, etc.


Economic discipline

If we want to live beyond the disruption, we need to redefine our industry. Let us define ourselves as an economic discipline rather than a creative one. It’s our duty to translate human behaviour insights into business advantages for our clients. So this is not a plea against creativity. On the contrary. This is a passionate plea for more creativity and smarter creativity that will have a great impact.

We are making fools of ourselves by rewarding creativity which has no relation to the business growth of our clients. Tom Goodwin of Havas expressed this very eloquently in a recent article in The Guardian:

“I know Cannes is not the Effies, but this doesn’t mean we should be happy looking like idiots.”


Beyond disruption

What will advertising look like after the disruption? I can imagine that the disruptive advertising agency will look like a design agency in which behavioural designers, interaction designers, copywriters, art directors and conversion specialists are engineering every point of contact and every little detail of the brand.

The idea is not so strange, considering that a large consulting firm, Accenture, bought a renowned design agency like Fjord last year.

There has been an explosion of innovation in the influence industry. If we want to see it at work, we only need to look past the boundaries of our field. Instead of losing ourselves in our obsession with original advertising ideas, we’ll have to work hard for true innovation. I can’t think of anything more appealing and fun.

PS. If you want to master the art of influence yourself, join the Behavioural Design Academy now.

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