Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life

Reviewed by Susan Fader, FaderFocus, Teaneck, NJ, susanfader@faderfocus.com

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life by Rory Sutherland, William Morrow, 2019

If you are not based in the U.K., you may not have heard of Rory Sutherland and that is definitely your loss. You can quickly rectify that situation by immediately getting your hands on his book, Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life.

This is the U.S. version of the book’s name, though I vastly preferred the original British publication name, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense. The book publicist has assured me that the name is the only difference between the two editions.

Rory is the U.K. vice chairman of the advertising agency Ogilvy, and cofounded its behavioral science practice. He has an acerbic British wit and humor, is immensely articulate, and has the confounding ability to point out an enlightening observation that is usually unbelievably obvious once he has identified it. It is difficult to convey the enormity of what he knows based on his extensive marketing, brand positioning, and advertising campaign experience. In addition to his Ogilvy responsibilities, Sutherland is a sought-after speaker and A-list podcast guest. He also writes a newspaper column, a blog, and is an active “Point of View” writer on LinkedIn. If you are not following him, stop right now, do so, and then get back to this review.

In a world where many thought leaders believe that technology is where we will find the answers, Sutherland feels that “it seems likely that the biggest progress in the next forty years may come not from improvements in technology, but in psychology and design thinking.” Alchemy provides the master class in psychology and design thinking, with Sutherland sharing a vast array of what he knows, has experienced, observed, and thinks about.

Alchemy is an immensely fun and interesting read. It uses very short chapters—many three pages or less—to effectively convey an idea. This tidbit of information approach encourages the reader to keep reading because, in the next chapter, they will quickly uncover another great insight.

The objective of Alchemy is to encourage the reader to think differently and move past superficial analysis, i.e., to realize that nearly everything is not as it appears. It is not just a marketing/branding book, it is also a book that provides life insights. It encourages the reader to stop approaching challenges logically.

Sutherland points out that there are “often two reasons behind human behavior: the ostensibly logical reason, and the real reason, and that stubborn problems are probably stubborn because they are logic-proof.” Sutherland therefore recommends that if you want to solve a problem, you should think “laterally rather than literally.”

In other words, make sure the problem you think you are solving is the real problem. For example, for repair services for home appliances it is difficult to be precise as to what time the repair person will get to the home. Generally, appointment windows of four or more hours are given to account for all types of possible delays, such as traffic, or the repair before yours taking longer. When asked, people say they want to be given a specific one-hour appointment time frame for when the repair person will show up. Do you create a costly solution to hire more repair people so you can narrow the time frame, or does just having the repair person call a half hour before they are planning to arrive solve the problem? Yep, it wasn’t about giving people a narrow time frame, it was just giving them a heads-up of when the repair person will arrive. In reality, people just hate the unknown of when the repair person will show up.

So, get this book! It is bursting with relevant, interesting, and fun insights. You definitely will approach strategy, stubborn problems, and life differently after reading this fast-paced book.

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