Turbo-charging VCCP's Brain Power: The Cowry Effect

VCCP Group acquired the behavioural science business Cowry Consulting earlier this year. So how's it going?

By conor nichols

Media, Creativity, Production, AI, Employee Engagement, Branding and Design...the list of fully-formed specialisms that sit under the VCCP roof goes on and on. It's no surprise that the creative powerhouse has become the largest UK agency in terms of billings. Its integrated creative output has been staggering, consistently producing acclaimed campaigns for the likes of Cadbury, Walkers, Transport for London, O2, Virgin Media and Dominoes.

But until this year, there was one specialism that was looking a little light over at VCCP Towers: behavioural science. 

Step forward, then, Cowry Consulting. Launched in 2015 by Jez Groom and Will Saunders, the company has become the largest business-focussed behavioural science consultancy in the UK, focusing specifically on behavioural design and data techniques with the sole aim of bringing conceptual designs to life. Its mission to make big companies as "human as humanly possible" attracted an impressive client list that included HSBC, Sky, Tesco, Co-op, Sainsbury's, EDF, TUI, O2 and Legal & General. And in January this year the business was snapped up by VCCP.

How, then, has Cowry elevated VCCP’s creative and fully-integrated offering so far?

We picked the brains of VCCP London’s CEO Andrew Peake, and Cowry Consulting’s deputy CEO Ziba Goddard and chief design and innovation officer Raphy March to find out.

Plugging into VCCP

As VCCP London CEO Andrew Peake notes, the industry took an enormous interest in behavioural science a few years ago due to the tidal wave of books that were released. “Within most agencies, I'm sure the planning departments were beginning to experiment with some of the theories that came out of those books - but they only provided some knowledge,” Peake explains. “When you take what Cowry has, which is nearly 40 specialists with qualifications in behavioural science, it's completely different.”

Ziba Goddard, deputy CEO of Cowry Consulting, believes that behavioural science has evolved as a discipline that was once simply linked with a series of captivating but hollow anecdotes, like the fly-in-the-urinal nudge that Richard Thaler wrote about in 2008. The anecdotes were not empirically evidenced. “Behavioural science now is much more nuanced. It's a bunch of principles being used together that are driving behaviour change, not just one thing shifting behaviour seismically.”

Cowry Consulting is evidence based, according to Peake, and applies the theory of behavioural science to commercial challenges in the real world, testing its impact on business growth. For VCCP, Cowry slots into its integrated offering by applying its practice across the many different stages of the customer journey. “Through applying behavioural science theories in a commercial setting, we can begin to understand the impact it has on the effectiveness of the creative solutions we provide for brands,” Peake says. “The role of an agency like ours is to build brands and memory structures in people's minds and then encourage certain behaviours as consumers go through the customer journey.”

At the heart of behavioural science lies the fact that most people make decisions subconsciously - or as Goddard states: “90 to 95 per cent of our decisions originate in our System One brain - we call it our Homer Simpsons brain.” VCCP’s work in creating distinctive brand assets, brand worlds and ideas that engage people, attempts to feed into the emotional decision maker.

Peake notes that people make decisions based on the emotional connection to a particular brand. “That’s what creative agencies are trying to appeal to and Cowry and behavioural science put the theory behind that as well,” Peake adds. “We use creativity to help create brands that people become more predisposed to. Behavioural science can have an enormous influence on how we develop our creative work to make it as effective as possible. We can really harness the power of behavioural science at a strategic level, but also at quite a specific detail channel level.”

In the past year, Cowry has worked with VCCP on client briefs in three different ways. The first is a complete joint effort between the two in which Cowry helps pitch and work on client challenges. The second is in the development of VCCP work in which it consults with Cowry, whether it be campaigns, customer engagement or social and content work. The application of behavioural science principles are discussed with clients - which is “hugely appreciated”, according to Peake, because it means the work is informed by a range of ideas and creative thinking. The third and final way that VCCP works with Cowry is through its own standalone clients that Peake hopes to work with in time.

“Overall, we've got a brilliant working relationship between all of us and Cowry has plugged into the business brilliantly,” Peake says. “We were really attracted to Cowry because of how similar they are to us culturally. They have the challenger spirit in the behavioural science consultancy world as they do things slightly differently and they still work as an entrepreneurial business. Behavioural science is still in its infancy as a discipline and we’re so excited to continue to see how Cowry can fit into our ‘it only works if it all works’ ethos and be used across all the different capabilities we have as an integrated agency.”

"When it's raining, people are more likely to open up and express things. We applied this insight to design for a large financial business which needed more people to report when they might have messed up because it was costing the company a lot of money.”

Raphy March, chief design and innovation officer, Cowry Consulting

Cowry’s USP

Since launching in 2015, Cowry's focus has been on making companies as 'human as humanly possible'. Goddard feels that, in the age of digital transformation, human touch is often being lost in customer journeys. “We want to tap into the evolutionary ancient brain and use 50 to 60 years of hard science to add a human touch and also understand the decision making that takes place at every point in the customer journey.”

Goddard wanted to join a creative agency because of the USP she feels Cowry has - behavioural design. “A lot of behavioural scientists are designing choices but then they're not thinking about behavioural design. They're changing the choice architecture and the way that people choose but they're not using neuro design principles to actually make sure that people are feeling the right way or focusing on the right thing when they're looking at a brand’s touchpoint.s” 

Cowry’s chief design and innovation officer Raphy March has the largest team of designers in the world who are continually translating behavioural science principles into design principles. By looking at people’s eye-gaze and using shared attention to enhance a brand’s website for example, Cowry is trying to motivate consumers to behave differently through behavioural design principles, “not just designing behaviour,” as Goddard puts it. She adds: “Our team has over 200 behavioural design principles that can be used to nudge people to feel a certain way.”

Cowry and VCCP are taking the principles of corporate behavioural science and applying them to work in a way that is designed specifically for each of the different challenges that are being set by clients. March and the team of behavioural designers she works with are also not just designing behaviours, they are analysing the science of design itself. “For example, we can translate the common bias of ‘loss aversion’ into design to create much more emotional responses. Imagine receiving an email in your inbox and there’s a picture of a product you put in your basket but haven’t bought yet, and that picture starts to slowly fade and disappear from the page. That's a very visceral and visual sense of loss that you're experiencing because it feels like it's actually disappearing in front of your eyes.”

Cowry are baking things like the emotional responses people have to rain into brand design also. It has translated its ‘C Factors’ into the neuro design space - a client toolkit which has boiled down 200 tried-and-tested behavioural science principles down to 20 relevant ideas that are most important in everyday decision making. “When it's raining people are more likely to open up and express things for example,” March explains. “We applied this insight to design for a large financial business which needed more people to report when they might have messed up because it was costing the company a lot of money.”

“It’s so powerful...the smallest little difference in the way that consumers respond to the way that you've laid out a webpage can result in millions of pounds of upside in terms of sales.”

Andrew Peake, CEO, VCCP London

March believes Cowry’s design offering is crucial to the industry because “no one else is thinking about it from a sensory perspective”. She says: “People interact with specific textures and they taste and smell things and these are all really important components of actually driving behaviour. I think we're the only true team of behavioural designers in the sense that we're considering the sensory perspective and the way that the brain is actually processing information. It's not just about aesthetics. There's so much further that we can push with behavioural design.”

Cowry Consulting also uses behavioural science to enhance brand distinctiveness, an area of popular discussion that is often measured by reach and uniqueness. The consultancy’s approach is different in that it feels that memory is the key to helping brands stay at the forefront of people's minds. “Logos, jingles, brand characters or an iconic feature like a Coca Cola bottle, for example, can all be made to stand out from the behavioural perspective,” March says. “If assets are distinctive they will create structures within your mind. Instead of thinking about it in terms of reaching uniqueness, because that's just two factors on a scale, we need to consider the emotional response that people have when they see something. Sensory information lasts for less than a second, however, so we also need to be thinking about how we can get people to encode information and move brands along into short term memory and then long term memory.” 

Behavioural designers make up but one of four roles that every client team at Cowry has working across the board, from gaining insights to testing what is actually working. Behavioural researchers using subconscious techniques like psychometrics, biometrics and neurometrics, to gauge genuine human emotions and reactions to content in order to gain rich insights. Behavioural architects then inform the behavioural strategy and get to grips with the behavioural challenge asking what behavioural framework and model Cowry needs to set up interventions. Behavioural designers then translate all the strategy and all the friction that's been identified and design innovative ways of creating behavioural interventions conceptually. Experimental designers then run experiments.

Throughout the work these teams carry out, Cowry tries to prove the work and collect statistics. “Behavioural science isn’t taken seriously if businesses don't see that it works in their business,” Goddard adds. “You can show clients a million case studies from other clients but they want to see proof in their business.”

The fact that behavioural science methods are tested and proved to impact business excites Peake. “It’s so powerful. I'm so excited to have Cowry on board because when a consumer is on a brand’s website, for example, the smallest little difference in the way that consumers respond to the way that you've laid out a webpage can result in millions of pounds of upside in terms of sales.”

“We can impact choice at a high level, in terms of how you position a product, particularly if you're trying to encourage behaviour change, but you can also use behavioural science when you're in the ecosystem of a brand, on a website for example. It has a really practical application at that stage as well.”

The work 

VCCP and Cowry’s most recent work for Keep Britain Tidy was the first project and pitch that the pair collaborated on where creativity and behavioural science could be combined to ensure powerful behaviour change. The 'Cigarette Butts are Rubbish' campaign challenged attitudes towards cigarette-butt littering - an act that smokers do not see as negative behaviour that also accounts for 66 per cent of all litter in England. Cowry’s main input was around the research and beginning to uncover why smokers put their butts on the ground.

“What is compelling them to do it?” Goddard asks. “But also what are the barriers going to be that are going to stop them from doing it? Often when you ask people explicitly, ‘Why do you do that?’, they will rationalise it, because they've had time to think about an excuse and they might be embarrassed about it because it obviously isn't a really positive behaviour. They also actually might not know at all why they do it.”

In its research for the campaign, Cowry used different techniques to uncover insights. One of the main challenges was ensuring that the work was not making smokers feel guilty, so the consultancy ran facial expression analysis tests with indirect interviews about other people’s behaviour to place interviewees in a more comfortable state. Three different groups of people were identified. As Goddard explains: “Anarchists, who really hate authority figures. Socially anxious people who smoke as a way of coping with emotions who also felt really guilty about littering. And copycats who essentially looked at other people to determine what the correct behaviour was.” For Cowry and the campaign it was essential that the right tone was selected to deliver the message.

“Overall, with these three different groups, we were able to identify the common themes between them so we knew how to actually speak to them,” Goddard adds. “Off the back of that, we created a formula which then fed into the strategy and the creative campaign for VCCP to then create something that brought the idea to life in such a fantastic way with a perfect message.”

The behavioural science consultancy also had to ensure that the work had a robust methodology and was not prompting a crave response, but Cowry and VCCP actually witnessed a decrease in craving due to the feelings of disgust that the campaign evoked. 

As well as being proud of the “extremely positive” work for Keep Britain Tidy, Cowry also holds its work for Aegon in high esteem. Fewer than 5 per cent of Aegon’s two million pension customers review their pension online each year and the consultancy strove to create a genuinely innovative approach that would change this. “We thought - let's not optimise the pension statements themselves, something that's fundamentally slightly broken - let's design something new,”Goddard says.

Cowry baked behavioural science into the work by designing a three minute immersive personalised experience for customers in which they could see their pension data rendered and summarised in real time. For example, birdsong was placed at pivotal times in the video to calm people down and get them to pay attention. “As a result, 85 per cent of people watched it until the end and 22 per cent of people set themselves savings goals,” Goddard adds. “An additional 1.3 million in assets flowed onto the platform in the pilot when people got that first digital summary video of their pension. It was an amazing result for Aegon but what was really satisfying is that people actually started to be active about something that was happening in 30 to 40 years time and actually made some really difficult decisions.”

Future ambitions

Moving forward, Peake hopes to use Cowry to continually make the work effective at “whatever stage” of the journey the customer is on. “Cowry has been the best at applying behavioural science in a commercial environment in the UK,” Peake affirms. “I think there’s so much potential because behavioural science can influence everything that the creative agency and the marketer does. It can also span an entire business and it deserves a seat at the top table in most businesses. We will do our very best to help businesses recognise the power of behavioural science as a discipline.”

The CEO of the London-arm also wishes to export into other countries embracing behavioural science. Goddard agrees with Peake in that global expansion is also on the horizon. “Part of the reason we wanted to join VCCP is because of the countries that they're in. We're wanting to move into markets like the US and Asia. International growth will be fascinating from a behavioural science perspective because behaviours are context-dependent. What works in the UK won't work in India or Singapore, so having boots on the ground where we can have local people who understand the culture will mean they’ll understand the behavioural context that they're in.”

Cowry Consulting is also setting up a civic arm, working with NGOs, the public sector, the government and charities. The company feels that the biggest problems in the world are going to be solved at the intersection of the corporate and the civic. Cowry wishes to move into that space to help with problems like sustainability. March feels that there are “so many opportunities in civic services”. She adds: “There are quite a few players within the space but I think from a behavioural science perspective we can bring a much more unique approach to how we're actually starting to tackle those issues.”

The consultancy’s ​​chief design and innovation officer also believes that the intersection between behavioural science and AI is also exciting. “How can we start to combine behaviours with solutions through things like machine learning, for example? AI could also help predict the particular emotions people are feeling across the customer journey.” 

“In general, there’s so much we can do with AI,” March continues. “Whether we start to train it on different models or on the way that people are actually thinking. But of course, we will also have to make sure that it's still a human connection that we're driving, because the more that we start to use AI, the more we open ourselves up to having transactional efficient conversations, without the emotional human element to it.”

And this it seems is exactly what drew VCCP to Cowry - ensuring through behavioural science that brands do not lose touch with the person behind the purchase. As Peake says: “Not only is the sole purpose of this partnership to make the work as effective as possible - but it’s also to really make the experience of the customer as positive as well - overcoming ambiguity, reducing anxiety and making the customer journey as friction free as possible.”


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