David Wethey: An interview by Bob Morris

Wethey, David 2After graduating in PPE from Jesus College, Oxford, David Wethey joined AC Nielsen in 1965, where he presented Marketing Research to leading marketing companies. However, the London agency world beckoned and in 1968 David joined Pritchard Wood (the birthplace of account planning). Subsequently he moved within Interpublic to Wasey Campbell-Ewald, and then McCann-Erickson, where he was appointed to various international management posts including MD in Portugal and then Malaysia.

In 1978 he returned to the UK as Deputy MD of Harrison McCann. A year later he left IPG to head Royds, then an independent UK agency with two offices (London and Manchester) in the top 20. In 1981 he set up Wethey Scott Pocock, which had grown to £18 million in billings by the time he sold the agency. In 1988 He set up Agency Assessments International, the first impartial agency search and relationship consultancy in the UK, which he has now run for 25 years.

A frequent lecturer and writer, David has most recently written Decide (Feb 2013), a book on all aspects of decision making — and how to do it better.

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Morris: Before discussing Decide, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Wethey: My history teacher at school, John Todd. He told me, “just because somebody has written a book, it doesn’t make it true.” That was the point (and I was 16) when I realised that my opinion and views were potentially worth as much as those of the “experts.” Now that I write myself, I know just how wise John Todd was!

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Wethey: My first boss at AC Nielsen, Jimmy Loughray, who taught me to respect data, but not to be controlled by it. He was an academic statistician turned business adviser. He gave me the courage to tell powerful clients unpalatable truths. He also showed me that there ways to do it, and not do it – and also times either to question data or question the interpretation of it.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Wethey: It was literally a car crash. I always planned to teach, and I was on my way to a final interview at a school called Shiplake College near Henley in Oxfordshire when my car skidded and hit a truck. By the time I recovered I had received the offer to compete for a graduate traineeship at Nielsen. That was my entry into the marketing world – and there I have stayed.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Wethey: Hugely. At school I studied classics (Latin and Greek, with a smattering of slightly more modern languages). This fuelled my desire to travel and communicate. I have been lucky enough to carry out projects and assignments in 40 countries. At Oxford University, I graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics – almost literally vocational training for a life in advertising!

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Wethey: How counterproductive most meetings are. When I came to write Decide I realised that meetings are hopeless as decision making forums, and many meetings are an almost complete waste of time. I am actively engaged today in a serious deconstruct / reconstruct on meetings.

Morris: From which books have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Wethey: I’ll name two: Hammer and Champy’s Re-Engineering the Corporation, and Russo and Schoemaker’s Decision Traps. I was very engaged in the 90’s on a big (and frustratingly unproductive) quest to persuade ad agencies to re-engineer. I think agency re-engineering is finally going to happen in this decade. From 2002 I embarked on a voyage of discovery in decision science, which has taken me to where I am today. I could not have found more inspiring books to get me going.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Wethey: Very appropriate as we move in advertising from the traditional post-military command and control model to what is politely known as ‘orchestrating consumer conversations’. It is heady stuff, but still scary for marketers, admen and humble consultants who grew up in the old world.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Wethey: I’m not sure Voltaire would say that today. In the eighteenth century when writing consisted largely of sitting at a desk and thinking, truth was a relative concept. It was difficult to prove it or disprove it. Now with Google, Wikipedia, and a billion other sources of information on the Web, there’s no barrier to discovering the truth – or what passes for it.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Wethey: So true. But I do worry about the narcissism in Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites. Wilde was a stand-out character in a world where most people never travelled more than a few miles from their birthplace, and were only known in a tiny milieu. In 2013 in big countries like the US and UK there are literally millions of “people brands” jockeying for prominence on the freeway, mass transit or airport check-in. ‘Be yourself’ is in danger of being redundant advice.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Wethey: That is a very subtle point. Strictly speaking we don’t create problems so much as self-diagnose them. Of course he’s right. Solving problems requires creative and often lateral thinking.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Wethey: I don’t remember if Drucker is credited with inventing the procurement function! But he might have been referring to it here. Of course I am being unfair, but advertising has always been, and will remain, a risk business. Marketing procurement is in danger of treating ideas and campaigns as commodities they can classify and value. It really doesn’t work like that.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Wethey: I’m not familiar with the authors, but I totally agree. I actually believe leadership is greatly overrated now almost everyone in an organisation has unlimited access to data, facts and figures. I’m also a big supporter of the ‘ask around’ philosophy. Sadly though the “Great Man” theory is assiduously maintained by journalists who are fascinated by the cult of personality in and about organisations. It makes much better copy to credit a CEO with success or damn him or her for failure, as opposed to recognising the unfortunate truth that a management team of clever people can effortlessly share either glory or ignominy.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Wethey: Again – how true. Babies only learn to stand up by falling over, and we never get off that iterative learning curve. We just have to hope that our mistakes and those of our bosses and colleagues are recoverable and not fatal.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Wethey: Three main reasons:

o Fear of being seen not to be in charge
o Fear that others might not be competent enough to be delegated to
o A primitive belief that the buck stops here

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Wethey: True of entrepreneurs. Not so true, I believe, of managers. In Saras Sarasvathy’s analysis (How Great Entrepreneurs Think) she calls entrepreneurs “effectuals,” and managers “causals.” Entrepreneurs tell stories – it is one of the defining characteristics. I’m not sure her causals are natural storytellers, but it doesn’t stop them from being good leaders.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Wethey: I suppose it is worth asking whether it is universally true that change is good? Often yes. Sometimes no. Comfort is probably a bad reason for opposing a change initiative, but adhering to custom may sometimes be both admirable and a good idea. Equally it can constitute a totally unacceptable degree of conservatism. Taking resisters out of their comfort zone is often essential, because they may be putting their selfish interests ahead of the common good. But is it always justifiable to tell people they have to change, when they want to maintain a status quo on the grounds that ‘we have always done it this way’? Maybe there is a good reason for that particular custom. Ethicists would argue that many values are timeless.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Wethey: I really regret not having done an MBA. I would have learned a great deal, and probably would have been far more successful – particularly financially, corporately and personally. Having said that, I guess I am biased in believing that MBA courses should spend more time on decision making than they do.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Wethey: I don’t think we have to wait 3-5 years. The challenge is there now. It’s called conflict between duty to the shareholders and a score of other pressures within and outside the organisation. I would go so far as to say that the duties and loyalties of a CEO have to be redefined. This is a huge subject. Not a day goes by without some unfortunate CEO being arraigned by the media for a decision that apparently endangers the environment, infringes the tax laws, breaches sustainability guidelines, or offends minority groups. Politicians have had to deal with trial by media for years. But they offered themselves for election, and knew that the public would be their judges. CEOs simply applied for a job and got promoted. Now they have to get used to kangaroo courts as well as scrutiny by non-executive directors, shareholders and analysts.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Decide. When and why did you decide to write it?

Wethey: Working for so long in Agency Assessments has given me half a lifetime of exposure to decision making teams as clients eventually choose the agency of their dreams. I became curious about why some senior individuals and teams are more effective than others. Did it have anything to do with personality profiles? With age? Gender? Nationality? One morning in 2001 I was on a flight to Manchester with a colleague at the time Professor Bob Shaw (then Visiting Professor of Marketing at Cranfield, now at the Cass Business School). We were working together on a project for Manchester United, helping them monetise the value of their worldwide fan base. He was answering my questions about the academic side of decision making. Something in this discussion triggered a determination to learn more. A year later, as I described in Decide, my younger daughter suffered a serious head injury, and family life was frozen as she struggled to survive. It was sitting at the end of her bed in the ICU that I decided that if Saffy recovered, I would pursue my interest in decision science. Happily she has, and I did. But it took me 11 years before Decide was published!

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Wethey: I learned so much doing the research, the reading and the interviews. I wasn’t aiming to find a Nudge or a Tipping Point. I wanted to share my interest in decision making with as many readers as possible, if possible excite them, and give them some practical help in becoming better at it. If I have to single out one revelation it has to be the primacy of gut feel over rationality. Like most formally educated people, I have great respect for logic and iterative process. In my early drafts I stressed the importance of reductive analysis. But once I had read Damasio’s Descartes Error, my thinking changed. Not only is emotion a huge influencer on decisions, even rationality depends to a certain extent on emotion. I was fascinated by neuroplasticity, and how we take everything on board. The concept of ‘autopilot’ determining well over 90% of everything we do, think and feel made a big impact on me. The evidence is all around us. The moment you hear anyone say, ‘I can do it without even thinking’, that is autopilot in action. An airline pilot interviewed on radio this morning said, ‘the moment the crisis struck, I automatically slowed down to think my way through it’. That’s autopilot.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Wethey: The influence of the interviews, I think. Before I started the interview programme (25 “Great Deciders”), I had a fairly robust structure for the book. But I never envisioned Chapter 1 being called “Dreams and Determination.” I simply had not realised the close correlation between determination and ambition and making good decisions. Nor had I even thought about the strong influence of childhood experiences. It is invidious to single out individuals from such an impressive body of people, but to take three, look at the stories of Paddy Eckersley (the heroic airline pilot whose destiny was formed by seeing the “Flying Doctor” arrive every two weeks in his small village in Natal), Barbara Cassani (who launched the airline Go and the London 2012 bid) and Colin Moynihan (Chairman of the British Olympic Association). Barbara told me her whole career has been influenced by having been the peacemaker in her family when she was a small child. Colin had to look after his mother and sister from the age of 10 after his half-brother inherited all the family’s money and property.

Morris: What are the most common “decision traps”?

Wethey: There are more than you would think. I mention more than twenty in the book. I believe the commonest serious traps are, first, “early decision” (being too decisive too soon. This is usually closely associated with “analysis bypass”). Secondly “frame blindness” (answering the wrong problem). Thirdly “anchoring” (being too swayed by the first fact or opinion we hear). Fourthly “group failure” (refusing to believe that a roomful of clever, qualified people can be wrong). Fifthly “undue optimism,” for which term no explanation is necessary!

Morris: How to avoid them?

Wethey: Avoidance differs for each trap. But it is like any risk assessment situation. Knowing the traps that await you, and why they are dangerous is the first step to escaping the dire consequences of falling into them.

Morris: Before attempting to answer an important question or solve a serious problem, how to ensure that focus is on the [begin italics] right [end italics] one?

Wethey: The answer is a bit like the previous one. Recognise that there is a problem. Analyse it and how serious it might be. Look at ways in which it might be solved. Then apply the gut feel test.

Morris: How best to determine which opportunities to pursue and which to ignore?

Wethey: I am so glad you stress the importance of opportunities. I’m convinced we are all in the grip of a universal obsession with problems. Before long there will be a Nobel Laureate in Problem Solving! For me problem solving is basically plumbing – clearing the decks so you can move on. Whereas the opportunity is the fountainhead of progress, innovation, growth, prosperity and happiness. Identifying potential opportunities (the stage before your question) is the first step, and ranking them is another task for reward/risk assessment. Then you decide which opportunity to pursue, and you can move forward to realise it.

Morris: In your opinion, which are the most important problem-solving techniques?

Wethey: I am a big fan of “Stepladder”- starting with just two people and only adding additional resource when you need them – and then only one at a time. On pages 90 and 91 of Decide I provide a reasonably comprehensive list of the most useful techniques, grouped in categories. Basic analytic approaches like SWOT and PMI (plus, minus and interesting) have a lot going for them, in that they encourage standing back and thinking, rather than rushing in and making it worse.

Morris: Please explain your reference to “The Holy Grail.” (Page 92)

Wethey: Nothing more profound than expressing my belief that Decision Making is probably the single most important life skill, and my “Smart Decision Making” approach is a humble attempt to make it easier for the reader to become good at it.

Morris: Please explain the emotional side of decision-making. Any especially important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Wethey: “Go with gut feel” is good advice. Anything we do – and that definitely includes decision making – is made easier by going along with what feels best. Our brain sends us reassuring signals for a reason. It is as formidable a computer as anything IBM has ever developed. All I would say is that process is important too. You know intuitively the best walking route from here to Piccadilly Circus, but don’t try and cross the road intuitively. Use your eyes and ears and wait for the green light.

Morris: You discuss an especially difficult decision, whether or not to resign, in Chapter Four (Pages 117-120). What do you recommend to those who are now struggling with that decision?

Wethey: I finished that piece by saying that resignation often presents a really difficult reward/risk dilemma, “the best upside is not that great, and all the options have potentially huge downsides.” Resignation can be a fairly straightforward decision, but normally only if you are fed up with where you are, and attracted by an attainable opportunity elsewhere. Yet people – good people – frequently leave jobs or positions they love without any obvious short-term opportunity. Why? All sorts of possible reasons:

o For the greater good – to make it easier for the organisation to recover, prosper, change, whatever
o To put distance between yourself and a disaster that may well not be of your making
o To acknowledge having made a mistake
o To clear one’s personal decks – so as to take on a new challenge, or even (and sometimes it is true!) to spend more time with the family

Resigning is never easy. It is often misinterpreted. But if ever there is a class of decision where you should listen to gut feel, it’s this one.

Morris: Of all that you learned from various interviews, what do you consider to be of greatest value to those who read the book? Please explain.

Wethey: The feedback I have had is has been very positive in three areas:

1. People have found the book easy to read and interesting. This is pleasing and probably down to the fact that I took a storytelling approach. There are vast numbers of brilliant books that are impenetrable and hard to read. Unfortunately they fall at the first hurdle. I was determined not to make that mistake.

2. I have tried to be practical and give a lot of tips and answers to FAQs.

3. I have stressed the importance of balancing logic and emotion – and encouraging readers to back intuition and instinct where they might have been swayed by a loyalty to logic.

Morris: Why are so many (most?) meetings a waste of time?

Wethey: Most meetings are not set up to help produce a decision. Most meetings have too many attendees and usually the wrong people. Most meetings are badly led, badly written up, and lead nowhere. Sadly the worst meeting is probably going to be the next one you attend, and until you take a stand, that meeting and all the others you are condemned to attend will waste your time and restrict your career and potential.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, which specific suggestions do you have?

Wethey: With colleagues I am engaged on a big project to relaunch the most important meeting of all – the one dedicated to producing a significant decision. This meeting will not be called a “meeting.” It will be dramatically more effective. It will change the face of office and corporate and organisational life. Remember what I said earlier about Dreams and Determination!

Meanwhile not to worry. The UK Government manages the country’s affairs via regular Cabinet Meetings. The famous Cabinet Table in 10 Downing Street has been extended to accommodate 36 people, the biggest Cabinet in history. Every department represented around the table has items needing decisions and views on the agenda from other departments. Strangely this Government seems to be struggling somewhat. My case rests.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “Blamer”?

Wethey: It is always someone else’s fault – for instance, yours. Blamers are frequently ‘Headlines’ – see Chapter 6

Morris: Of a “Pacifier”?

Wethey: It is the Pacifier’s job to keep the show on the road, to avoid headlong conflict, to bypass the blame game, and to change the subject. Pacifiers are normally “Logos.”

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, you discuss high confidence and low self-esteem in Chapter Six. (Pages 175-180).

Wethey: For this I am indebted to Simon Calver, now CEO of retail store chain Mothercare. Having worked extensively for US companies as well as British and European ones, he sees arrogance in executives as a congenital weakness this side of the pond. The fixation with one’s personal brand that I mentioned earlier may be a key problem here. We don’t want leaders (or indeed followers) to lack confidence, but a degree of humility and dedication to the organisation and team is a pretty good idea too if goals are to be achieved and everyone prosper.

Morris: What is the specific relevance of each to making better decisions?

Wethey: Fairly simple, I think. High confidence is good for decision making. Low self-esteem is not a handicap. But it probably implies less selfishness and more concern for what is good for the organisation and others. Can’t be bad.

Morris: You suggest that Steve Jobs was “the most effectual thinker of our era.” How so?

Wethey: Jobs took an entrepreneurial mindset into a corporate environment, and fashioned a culture of extreme competitiveness through innovation. Was he an effectual? Here is a quote from him retold in Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs (p.569), “I hate it when people call themselves “entrepreneurs” when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business.” Or how about this quote (p.567), “Some people say, “Give the customers what they want”. But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.”

Morris: Here is a two-part question. What are the three dimensions of choice and what is the specific function of each?

Wethey: #1 is setting search criteria, looking for candidates and agreeing a list to consider. #2 is assessing the array of choice and eliminating till you have a manageable number to choose from. #3 is making the decision on a winner. The function of #1 is to turn the criteria into viable examples of what’s out there (executives, agencies, houses, jobs, holiday destinations etc). On dating sites they do it with potential partners. The purpose of #2 is to eliminate less suitable, less attractive options until you are left with a short list to select from – normally by a series of binaries. The function of #3 is to make an informed choice or selection. In terms of the balance between logic and gut feel, there is more logic in #1, and a mixture of both while eliminating in #2 and choosing in #3.

Morris: You offer 20 tips on better decision-making in the final chapter. In your opinion, which of them seems to be the most difficult to follow? Why?

Wethey: Unquestionably #1 – the journey, not the single step. We have had “decisiveness” dinned into us as a desirable attribute for success. It is so easy to be seduced into thinking that you can get away with an “early decision” for expediency or under pressure. One of the main reasons I wrote Decide was to give the reader a practical approach and process (“Smart Decision Making”) whether they have 60 seconds, 60 minutes or 60 days to make a decision. Encouraging people to work out a method and stick to it is crucial.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Decide and is now determined to improve decision-making capabilities at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Wethey: Changing the organisation’s meeting culture and practice.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Decide, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Wethey: Years of managing small companies have given me an affinity with them and the heroes who start and run them. The whole book is for them.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Wethey: “Why have you spent your whole working life in the advertising business?” The answer? It is a mixture of:

o Keeps getting more interesting
o Never thought about leaving
o Inertia

But decision science has made me think that there is maybe another way I can be useful….Hopefully it’s not too late!

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David cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Agency Assessments International home page

David’s blog

Marketing Society blog

Amazon US page for Decide

Amazon UK page for Decide

You can follow David on Twitter: @davidwethey

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