Shaper: Sven Hughes

Show aired on 8th July 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson with the super duper upbeat Happy Talk. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I’m Elliot Moss thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers is the place I hope you know by now where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we bring someone who is shaping the world of business and we call them Business Shapers. I am really pleased to say my Business Shaper today is the intriguing Sven Hughes and you will find out why he’s intriguing he’s the founder and Group CEO of a business called Verbalisation and Verbalisation is a strategic communications consultancy with quite a big twist. You’ll be hearing all about how this man is talking about communications as a science rather than an art and I think that’s interesting. In addition to hearing from Sven you’ll be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice I hope for your business and then we’ve got some fantastic music today from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, Zara McFarlane, Ibrahim Maloof both are in there and so is this one from Billy Taylor.

That was Billy Taylor with I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. Sven Hughes is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers and as I said he is the Group CEO and founder of a business called Verbalisation and whenever we talk about the world of communications people usually go well what does that mean, you are in the world of communications? He’s here to tell us about his journey to that very place. Hello.

Sven Hughes
Good morning Elliot.

Elliot Moss
Good morning and thank you very much for joining me.

Sven Hughes
Thank you for the invitation.

Elliot Moss
Give me the elevator pitch about what Verbalisation is and then we are going to get into how you came about with this business idea and business model.

Sven Hughes
Very simply we use words, we verbally engineer language to effect, to create specific behaviour change in an audience. So speaking the right way to create hopefully beneficial change for our clients.

Elliot Moss
Now you’ve been doing this for six years this particular business is that right? Just about then I think 2011 is when you founded it. Just give me a sense of the clients that you can talk about because I love the fact that some of them we can’t talk about so we won’t but for the ones that you can say publicly on the record so people have a feel for the kinds of people and organisations you work for.

Sven Hughes
We’re very lucky to have News UK as one of our clients. We represent The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun we are working with. We’ve worked with Wall Street Journal but then right through from media across to Nuon Energy in a neighbouring European country through to other FMCG brands around the world. I mean we work across one hundred and twenty countries now so it’s a range of clients from the financial sector through to media, FMCG, energy, a whole range of diverse sectors.

Elliot Moss
And as I understand it you also work in the political space whether it’s with Prime Ministers or Presidents or Royal Households, Militaries, Government Departments and so on which obviously we probably can’t say whose who although maybe you can refer to a couple.

Sven Hughes
Yes I mean we have, I actually own two companies; there is Verbalisation on the one hand and then there’s a second company which is Global Influence and that’s where we do the Governmental work and the charity work and NGOs so we have been quite active in countering ISIS, Daesh online with a range of charity clients in that space and seem to be having a good effect and delivering results.

Elliot Moss
How did you get into this part of the communications world because it is a specific strand. Just explain briefly how you got to the point where you said, I’m going to make a science as I mentioned earlier out of the way that words are put together.

Sven Hughes
It was a convergence of two things I was working in marketing for many years as a copy writer up to creative director, working on traditional big brand campaigns but at the same time I was a Reserve Soldier in psychological operations and it was really just understanding that first of all those two worlds were actually very similar which was facing a verbal future. So in the defence space you know blowing people up wasn’t necessarily the most effective way of winning hearts and minds. What was much more engaging was to have a conversation with people. Similarly in the communications space of marketing a lot of the tide was moving towards words being much more effective than pictures. If you think really actually over the last ten years where technology has gone in terms of online, viral now with speaking technologies in your house if it’s Amazon or Google who are placing them there really the power of words is the space to be working in I assessed some years ago. But then you have to do that responsibly it’s all very well saying I think this will work or I like that idea it’s much more difficult to assess based on the evidence this is the right thing to do for your brand and so what we’ve really tried to do in both arenas marketing and the defence space is look at the science of language, decoding the audience very rigorously and then encoding language to ensure that its relevant and resonate for that particular audience.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out how the science of language has unfolded and it will unfold right before your very eyes very shortly. Time for some more music before we go back to Sven our Business Shaper today this is Sarah Vaughan with One Mint Julep.

That was Sarah Vaughan with One Mint Julep. Sven Hughes is my Business Shaper today the founder and Group CEO of Verbalisation and also Global Influence which I hadn’t mentioned but am pleased you did mention it. You said quite a few things there in terms of the build up to where you arrived where you said the power of words is really important and the world of psychology meets the world of marketing and if you go back into the fifties and the sixties it was when psychology I believe started to play a role in marketing and how people thought about this thing they used to call the art of persuasion. You’re now obviously you’ve kind of taken that to another level. I just want to understand though before you set this business up you said you were a Reservist. At what point did you start doing that and why? What drove you to and tell me a little bit about which area of the Military you have been involved in.

Sven Hughes
Okay well I joined the Territorial Army because for like many other people you know I wanted to do my bit. I was originally in the military intelligence and then in psychological operations and then supported Special Forces as well but always with a particular aim which was to more effectively use language to effect behaviour change and of course that’s become more and more apparent and important within any defence force if its countering Russian hybrid threats or if it’s looking to find stability and peace in parts of the Middle East it’s not necessarily going to be achieved by what we call kinetic activity by War fighting it has to at least end, if it doesn’t start, it has to end with people sitting round a table and talking to each other so if we know that that’s where we end up let’s start with the end in mind and start creating the language that can enable peace more effectively than conflict.

Elliot Moss
Now that’s all really important stuff and I understand why you would be interested in the application of your brain and your endeavours to that. It’s much lighter when you move that into the commercial world. What was the, I don’t mean in terms of the theory I mean in terms of the absolute outputs here we’re talking about peace though.

Sven Hughes
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
How does peace square with selling more newspapers for you?

Sven Hughes
No absolutely I mean I think… let’s take The Times as an example it’s a client that we’ve been working on recently. You have a marketplace there where sales are going down, digital subscriptions are going down you know it’s essentially a market that’s managing decline but by properly understanding the audience, by properly taking the time to deep listen to them and using our methodology called RAID which is Rapid Audience Insight Diagnostic which is a long way of saying finding the right language, the right way of understanding the audience’s psychology to really be relevant to them. We’ve played a part in kicking that trend and The Times now has you know an upturn in subscriptions I think the largest in the sector and upturn in digital paid subscriptions and the difference there is people are getting quality news in an environment of fake news. I think that’s tremendously important. I mean we choose our clients carefully you know but that’s something we’re very proud of you know.

Elliot Moss
And that’s what I wanted to ask about choosing clients carefully because many people I meet you know they’re making a buck and I applaud that and it creates wealth and there’s all those other things with jobs and so on and so forth. It sounds to me like the principles are important to you is that a fair comment?

Sven Hughes
Yeah absolutely. I mean we…

Elliot Moss
And why then? Why Sven? Why do you care whether it’s a good organisation to work for or not?

Sven Hughes
Well I hope very much it’s a good organisation in terms of the enjoyment of working in the organisation.

Elliot Moss
I mean in terms of your clients?

Sven Hughes
In terms of the clients I think we’ve got a very powerful system here that’s demonstrably delivering very significant results for our clients you know it’s often into treble digit increase in their sales and that was true when we worked for the FT and for The Times now and for the energy company we work for. You know double/treble digit results. With that in mind let’s start with the clients that we feel strongly about and passionately about. So if that’s making sure that people have or understand the value of news the value of being well informed rather than just informed. At the moment in the world if you look across the pond to America perhaps they need more of that you know and that’s a very important thing to do and similarly for the energy company we were working with Nuon you know who are making a real effort to move from grey to green energy. We think that’s fantastically important and we’re very excited to be part of that journey with them. There are other clients yes that come and knock on our door that want representation that we don’t sometimes go with but you know I think people self-select the agencies that they want to represent them and people are quite clear of what we’re trying to achieve which is yes significant results but significant results for clients that we believe in.

Elliot Moss
I’m going to find out later why that’s so important to you because you’re excellent at answering the question a certain way and that’s good because that’s the power of words for you. Sven Hughes my Business Shaper here and I said he was intriguing and indeed he is. Founder and Group CEO of Verbalisation and also Global Influence is part of that. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom I hope from our programme partners for your burgeoning business and by the way they’re from Mishcon de Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I am very lucky I get to talk to somebody who is shaping the world of business and they come from all sorts of places and they’re doing all sorts of things. Sven Hughes is my Business Shaper today and he is the man behind the business called Verbalisation and also a business called Global Influence and he believes that words are important and he doesn’t just believe that should be applied to anything he believes they should be applied to conflict situations as well as businesses he deems to be worthy as it were. Now I just want to understand I asked you about why you joined the Territorial Army and why you are a Reservist and you talked about doing your bit and then we talked a little bit about the certain organisations that you work for and some that you won’t. Where do you think that sense of what’s right and what’s wrong comes from? How were you brought up? Were you brought up to believe that there was a right way of doing things?

Sven Hughes
Yeah first of all I think I push back a little bit on the sense of the clients that we deem are worthy I mean I think let’s not be too over inflated about this we just chose clients yes that have ideally a moral framework we’re quite clear about our moral framework. Does that come from I mean you know cod psychology my father was a GP perhaps that has something to do with it. I have seen you know a male role model before me who was very interested in taking care of people or at least taking his role in society seriously as a member of society. I think as a company we try and do that, we tend to have a corporate responsibility the people that fit well with our organisation, are very politically aware, they’re very socially aware, that’s something we look for in our team and it’s something that comes through in the work that they do. That’s not to say we let that get in the way though of also having to deliver profit for our clients and bottom line for our clients.

Elliot Moss
And this is an important thing as well not just bottom line for your clients but for you how much is the money, how much was the money a driver when you set the business up? Was there a sense I’m going to do my best here because I’m really interested in the financial returns? I am sensing not massively? Is that right for you though personally and therefore the business?

Sven Hughes
No that wasn’t why I set up the company I mean the back story of the company is I was on a particular day in Afghanistan in a trench where you know conflict was happening around me and I saw little sort of blue triangles on the floor of the trench which actually turned out to be arrowheads from Alexander The Great which meant that in several thousand years we hadn’t actually achieved more than Alexander The Great at that moment if you can call that an epiphany moment there must be a better way of doing this and the traditional conflict framework isn’t the right way of doing it lets look at words but similarly morally coming from marketing as well I have a concern that our marketing industry in many places, not all of it but in many areas is built on sand you know you may have very clever people sitting in a room and having a jolly good gas but in many cases they haven’t actually taken the time to really understand their audience to really deep listen to their audience in terms of the motivations and the unmet needs of that audience and so you know the two worlds collided in terms of the opportunities are more responsible and more effects based and more demonstrable use of your marketing spent if that’s for whatever kind of client so that you can actually demonstrate cause and effect between the intervention and the consequent behaviour change of the audience. I think that’s a good way to spend our time.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from Sven my Business Shaper today. Time for some more music it’s a cracker, it’s one of my favourites I always say that but it’s true Ibrahim Maalouf with Essentielles.

That was the big and beautiful Essentielles from Ibrahim Maalouf. Sven Hughes is my Business Shaper and we’ve been talking about substance and marketing not in a worthy way I hasten to add Sven because he is smiling and he’s got a light side to him as well but the book you’ve written which I’ve read pretty rapidly so I’m not going to pretend that I know every single last page though chapter 0 was where I read about the blue little arrows and it is lovely the fact you had a chapter 0 I thought that was quite original. The book is called?

Sven Hughes
Verbalisation.

Elliot Moss
Good, clever.

Sven Hughes
Yes very simple.

Elliot Moss
Very simple. What did you study out of interest Sven what was your…?

Sven Hughes
I studied film originally, film studies at London College of Printing and Distributive Trades as it was known.

Elliot Moss
Over in Elephant and Castle.

Sven Hughes
That’s right, a long time ago.

Elliot Moss
On the roundabout. But where did the psychology and the interest in that came from because I kind of touched on the justice piece I understand that you like marketing but the psychology is a very interesting point. What’s happened there?

Sven Hughes
I was lucky enough to work with some people who took that care to underpin their campaigns with robust psychology when I was in the Territorial Army so I owe a great deal to the TA had it not been for being a part of the TA I certainly wouldn’t own a company now, or two companies now. So it was, I’m not a trained psychologist although obviously to be part of psychological operations we had to go through basic training in that but then since then it’s been the last sort of ten/fifteen years working hand-in-hand with psychologists to really design effective audience analysis that gets to the route of the problem, gets to the underlining cognition or driver and this is really one of the issues at the moment perhaps that you can see illustrated in politics with political polling which is much of that polling is perceptual rather than behavioural. So it’s a bit like turning round to someone on the first day of January and saying do you think you’re likely to carry on going to the gym for the next few months and of course anyone will tell you what they think they’re likely to do. Behaviourally though you need to get to the realistic behavioural triggers to say actually they’re going to stop going to the gym in February or March and that’s what a lot of polling and a lot of advertising planning doesn’t take account for they do questionnaires and they ask questions of their audience which are perceptual rather than asking the kind of questions that illicit behavioural responses or at least data that you can use to illicit behavioural insights and this is what’s happening with politics at the moment. So as we look back to the recent election if you look at a few weeks before the election actually took place you had a range of polls saying quite different things from a Yougov poll to maybe a BBC poll or to other polls that are available. That seems very strange to me that actually if you go to the same or similar audience you can have that much variation in your polling means that it’s not the audience that’s wrong, it’s your methods of capturing the intent of the audience that’s wrong.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Sven plus we’ll be playing a track from Zara McFarlane that’s after the latest traffic and travel.

Zara McFarlane with Night and Day. Sven Hughes has been my Business Shaper and will continue to be so up until 10.00 o’clock. I want to ask you one question more about the topic, you said that words have become more powerful and I personally love both words and pictures and I believe that both can persuade. The internet has of course through SEO and everything else that’s word driven meant that words become more important but the primacy of film and the way that that has spread across the web and the way that that is the way that people converse surely it’s become much more important than it was ten/fifteen years ago as well?

Sven Hughes
No strangely not and all the evidence seems to suggest not. I mean the first thing to think about is there’s no pictures in the bible okay but it’s the biggest idea and the most transferred idea perhaps in the world in the last two thousand years. You’re not allowed to paint a picture of the Prophet Muhammad but it’s of course the fastest growing religion in the world. It’s all between the ears and it’s in the pictures that you paint in your mind is the real pictures you carry round with you. The fact that you can be exposed to an image of a funny kitten online so forth is very transient. Our retinas take in I think I’m right in saying twenty-seven hours’ worth of visual imagery within a twenty-four hour period. We have so much bombarding us, multi-layered images, our brains just can’t take in all the information and we rely on what’s been known as sort of system one and system two processing you know we get, our brains just sort of cut out a lot of stuff and go to quick cognitive biases saying, oh I kind of like that, I don’t like this. Words on the other hand are sort of the unexplored area still of the science of communication but actually they’re the most powerful. If you think of peer-to-peer recommendations it’s the most powerful form of recommendation. If you think as I said of where branding technology is going in-house with spoken word technologies like Echo and other ones who are available you know that’s going to a non-picture space. So it’s not to say it has to put down images entirely but the real potential still is within the audio space and otherwise you get into an arms race between brands where they just sort of outspend each other to get as much visual collateral hitting your eyeballs in the period of time they’ve got available with you that’s not anything other than throwing good money after bad.

Elliot Moss
And it sounds like you’re clear on your purpose and the business’s purpose I mean you just articulated it pretty much. I would urge you if you get the chance to go to #notanotherbrother which is a very strong piece of film which I watched, around 65,000 people have watched the film I saw at least on the YouTube bit I’m sure many more have watched that but it’s one and a half to two minutes about this particular situation.

Sven Hughes
That’s a small piece of work we did for a charity that approached us to disrupt the recruitment of young Muslim youth in this country by the terrorist organisation Daesh Isis. We did it for free as a piece of work to demonstrate the effect of our techniques and I can assure you it’s much more than 65,000; 500,000,000 media impressions in the first seven days internationally on that campaign

Elliot Moss
It’s been a pleasure talking to you I’ve enjoyed hearing about the truth shock. I think the book is really good, it’s really interesting. There’s details there, there’s some substance there and it’s a good read and I applaud you for trying to transform the marketing world.

Sven Hughes
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
That’s no bad thing. Sven Hughes, a guy with real purpose, someone who joined the Territorials, someone who had an epiphany on the battlefield as it were, someone who really saw the connectivity between psychology and marketing and someone who’s given his organisation therefore great purpose, really interesting stuff. Do join me again same time same place; 9.00am sharp here on Jazz FM for another edition next Saturday of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us coming up next its Nigel Williams.

Sven Hughes
Sven Hughes is the founder of Verbalisation. He was a reserve soldier within MI, Psyops and UK SF and has worked variously within military, political and commercial stratcoms for over two decades.

Sven has completed Verbalisation target audience analysis and intervention campaigns on behalf of Prime Ministers, Presidents, Royal households, militaries, government departments and commercial clients in over 120 countries.

He was Campaign Manager for the successful election of Prime Minister Douglas (SKN) in 2010, as well as the successful “no” referendum in SVG. He was also responsible for the groundswell campaign in Trinidad & Tobago that swept Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar into power.

Sven is a regular international speaker on the future of strategic communication to audiences including JFHQ, RUSI and the House of Lords.

He is the recipient of 14 international advertising and film awards, a Queen’s Enterprise Award nomination and Fellowship of The Royal Society of Arts. His company was responsible for producing “one of the most successful counter-radicalisation viral campaign in history” (Quilliam Foundation).

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“…let’s start with the end in mind and start creating the language that can enable peace more effectively than conflict.”

“The difference is people are getting quality news in an environment of fake news. I think that’s tremendously important. I mean, we choose our clients carefully but that’s something we’re very proud of.”

“My father was a GP. I have seen a male role model before me who was very interested in taking care of people, or at least taking his role in society seriously.”

“The people that fit well with our organisation are very politically aware, they’re very socially aware, that’s something we look for in our team.”

“I have a concern that our marketing industry, in many places, not all of it, but in many areas is built on sand.”

“You may have very clever people sitting in a room and having a jolly good gas but in many cases they haven’t actually taken the time to really understand their audience.”

“If you can have that much variation in your polling, it means that it’s not the audience that’s wrong, it’s your methods of capturing the intent of the audience that’s wrong.”

“Our retinas take in, I think I’m right in saying, 27 hours’ worth of visual imagery within a 24 hour period. We have so much bombarding us, multi-layered images, our brains just can’t take in all the information.”