Beautiful Thinkers: Matthew Willcox, Author

Carolyn Hadlock
Sep 18, 2018 · 7 min read

Russ Klein, President of the AMA, was my first interview on Medium. He talked about irreverence and originality as the hallmarks of beautiful thinking. When I was looking for like-minded people, he suggested I interview Matthew Willcox, author of The Business of Choice, AMA Book of The Year 2016. In 2008, Matthew helped found and became Executive Director of the Institute of Decision Making for FCB. He now runs his own consultancy, The Business of Choice, and recently he’s been speaking and working with businesses in the NGO and commercial sector to help them understand human nature and how to tap into it for the greater good.

“As humans, we gravitate towards the easiest choice, even if a different choice seems better on the surface.”
AMA Book of The Year, 2016

You’re one of the pioneers when it comes to applying behavioral science to marketing. What led you to that?
Insights from behavioral science and the cultural marketing world live well together. I see advertising and marketing as artifacts of some of these behavioral principles. They are the real-world manifestations of these ideas at work. Sometimes advertising can seem a little trivial, but it’s really interesting when you think about what it can actually tell us about human nature. Many good creative people have known these things for a long, long time. What we’re now starting to understand is the science behind their wisdom and insight.

You’ve said before that the people who create and choose the work need to be aware of their biases. How exactly do we do that?
We tend to over-focus on personality as something which drives choices — and of course, it does — but we underestimate how context can affect how people choose. Only when you understand where someone is coming from can you understand what might be affecting their choices. In different contexts, you or I would make entirely different choices.
Also, intuitions can be misleading. We need to be wary of how biases might affect our own thinking. Sometimes clients make bad choices because their intuition is driven by fear. The prospect of buying something brave that might not go down well with their boss could influence their choice.

Why is understanding loss aversion so important?
Most of my career in marketing (and everyone else’s) has been focused on what people might gain in doing the things we need them to do and using the products we want them to use. I wish I’d learned earlier the importance of understanding what people might lose and how that affects their decision-making. The prospect of a loss has a much greater effect on behavior than the prospect of a gain.

Matthew was the Founder and Executive Director for the Institute of Decision Making in 2008

Linguistic nuance is important in your work. Can you give a few examples of where semantics matter?
Sometimes language gets in the way of understanding people’s behavior. For example, “decision-making” is very different than “reaching a decision.” “Decision-making” sounds like a very deliberative process. But then you dig into the research of the last couple of decades, or read great books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, and you realize we’re not as in charge of our decision-making as we might like to think. “Reaching a decision” more accurately describes how you get there. It’s almost like you’re a passenger on a train. You aren’t driving, but you still reach your destination.
Another example is the idea of “rational and irrational thinking.” Our decisions aren’t purely rational, but that doesn’t mean they are irrational. I prefer “non-conscious” and “pre-conscious.” For marketers, this distinction is important because a lot of our choices happen faster than the speed of consciousness. That has served us well over the history of human existence — if we had to wait for our consciousness to catch up, we would have had a hard time surviving as a species.

You do work with NGOs and the commercial sector. What do these organizations have in common with each other?
In both cases, the critical factor is getting people to focus on the choices they need people to make, whether it’s an airline maximizing revenue or an NGO trying to achieve their public health goal. Then we identify what might be stopping people from making those choices.

Matthew is currently working with Design for Wildlife, a collective that brings design thinkers, behavioral insights people and cultural anthropologists together to tackle issues that relate to wildlife.

So, how do you go about identifying those barriers and removing them?
It sounds obvious, but one of the first things we should think about in our business is how to make that path to purchase, or whatever behavior you want to encourage, just a little bit easier for people. How do we take the friction out? As humans, we gravitate towards the easiest choice, even if a different choice clearly seems to be a better one. We’re hardwired to conserve energy, especially mental energy. There’s a great quote from Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow: “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it but they’d prefer not to.”
Also, we are driven by short-term rewards rather than long-term gains. Often you see marketers push products that have long-term benefits. They want to talk about how happy you’ll be in retirement or the long-term impact on the environment. These appeals do not align with human nature.
Like customers, clients naturally gravitate to more short-term goals because they’re human. If you take the time to understand why those short-term goals are affecting their choices, you can help them make choices that yield long-term benefits. The behavioral economist Dan Ariely talks about getting people to do the right things for the wrong reasons. There’s lots of good examples from the public health and social development space where they’ve come up with ideas that relate to a short-term human motivation that also create long term sustainable change.

What’s a good example of a campaign that understood short-term motivation vs. long-term gains?
Crispin’s original Truth campaign is a good example of this. A maxim from behavioral science tells us that a smaller reward now beats a larger reward later. This is called Hyperbolic Discounting, because we “discount” future gains and losses. In the same way, a long-term problem or inconvenience or illness — something in the future — is something we discount the consequence of. That’s especially true if you’re 16 years old, and this thing is going to happen to you when you’re 48, which is nearly a lifetime away. They understood that they had to do something that related to the here and now, so they focused on how being manipulated by Big Tobacco was dissonant to most teenagers’ sense of self-concept.

What advice do you have for creatives when making and presenting the work?
Find the behavioral engine in the work. The best creatives have always understood the need to connect to human nature. The Coke commercial from 1972 — even if it is a little dated now — is a good example of this. Even work from 1920s, like the original advertising for Pepsodent, understood that.
A good question for creatives to ask themselves is: How is this going to affect people in the gut? Often, creatives have a great idea, but they don’t know–or find it hard to articulate–why it’s great. Recognizing heuristics or cognitive shortcuts is important. Helping people understand why that idea appeals to human nature takes the idea further. More importantly, it’s a great selling tool to clients. A great creative idea is not just a really interesting idea that makes you feel a certain way. It’s got this connection deep into human nature.

Clients and agencies always want to know if a campaign is working. What’s your take on measuring success with hard data?
Hard data is fine if it is behavioral data from well-designed experiments or from the market place. But if we are measuring things on traditional metrics like brand awareness and purchase intent or we’re doing copy testing where tricks can make one ad do better in copy-testing, we are doing ourselves a disservice. The same tools have been used for a very long time. It’s more difficult to tell how something is working in the marketplace so we test. These tests are based on normative measures that go back with a research company over 10 or 15 years. So it’s difficult to get people to do things in new ways. It’s human nature that when the going gets tough, we default to what’s worked in the past. Status quo bias gets in the way.

“We need to place a greater premium on creativity because it can connect directly with the preconscious or intuitive processes that drive so much of human decision making.” — Matthew Willcox

Has writing The Business of Choice changed your influence in the marketing world?
I was very fortunate to be asked to write a book about a subject that I’m passionate about. One of the perks is that a CEO will pick it up and think it might be helpful for other people to read. So, the book gets passed around with a level of endorsement. Getting to the CMO is important because I’m on a mission to convey to marketers the importance of understanding what drives choice. Marketers can become very fixed on brands. And brands are important. But at the end of the day you’ve got to understand how human nature drives choice.


Carolyn Hadlock

Written by

Principal, Executive Creative Director, Young & Laramore,



Eunoia is the shortest word in the English language that contains all five vowels. It means beautiful thinking. This blog is a collection of just that, beautiful thinking from the worlds of art, advertising and culture.

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