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September 2, 2008
It’s the Empathy…Stupid!
Carville was so right in 1992 to focus on the single minded message of the economy. It was obviously not the only thing the Clinton campaign thought was important, but it was the most important. Because without fixing it, without people believing he knew—above anything else—that it needed to be fixed and that he was the guy to fix it, nothing else really mattered.
Carville found absolute clarity in what matters. It’s what marketing desperately needs today. So many of us in this business seem to be touting a special process or some divine intervention that will lead to the even more overdone notion of the “big idea.” Given every client wants the “big idea” as the ultimate business solve, selling the process and the roadmap to the getting there would seem to make sense.  Except if it was just about the process, everyone would be able to create them daily. Just follow the yellow brick road of process and the big idea will be waiting. And as a fallback, you could pick up Big Ideas For Dummies…Talk about the ultimate oxymoron handbook!
But creativity is never easy and while a smart, defined process can and does help many get it right by, if nothing else, putting the key ingredients in place (and comforting financial stakeholders like clients who need “process”), in marketing or in any right brain field, it’s never really about the process.  It’s why Hollywood fails more often than it succeeds with its original theatrical releases—and brilliant creative people like The Love Guru Mike Myers even fails, baby!
So what is it? It’s the empathy, stupid. Successful creativity—meaning successfully getting someone to emotionally engage, emotionally buy into your story—always depends on the degree people connect.  Daniel Pink in his NY Times Bestseller “A Whole New Mind” provides clarity into what empathy’s core value is fundamentally about: “…empathy is a stunning act of imaginative derring-do, the ultimate virtual reality-climbing into another’s mind to experience the world from that person’s perspective”.
In the creative and marketing communication business, the ability to deliver on empathy is as important as any asset on the P&L. But, just like there’s no formula or process for falling in love, the same holds true for empathy because, as I said earlier about big ideas, if it was that easy, everyone would simply download it.  Am I saying to think of empathy as some amorphous, touchy feely new age psychological trait du jour, not at all. It’s a skill and mind set, often expressed and even measured in terms of “emotional intelligence,” a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his early 90’s book by the same name.  From a business perspective, empathy is essentially a core competency every bit as definable and leveragable as any computer competency or communication ability.

It’s probably important to note that there is a lot written in psychological literature regarding the nature versus nurture aspect of empathy, as well as the difference in empathetic abilities between men and women. And, while historically women score “more empathetic than men” in most empathy-based testing models, clearly men can be very empathetic just as they often prove not to be.

Empathy in the agency business is especially critical. It is the ability to go deep into relationships—be it “feeling out” a room of several layers of client management or determining what a client or potential client is feeling about a piece of creative or creative insight. Empathy, like strategy, both ends in and answers “y”. In our agency we talk a lot about the “right idea” as being way more important than the clichéd “big idea.” The right idea goes beyond just “reaching objectives,” it’s about understanding what all the “share” holders—from client to consumer—will feel, do and get out of the idea and its delivery. Simply, the right idea is rooted in the essence of why CRM (customer relationship management) continues to be viewed by many as the holy grail of marketing. Why? Because in managing any relationship (think: marriage) knowing what the person is feeling couldn’t be more important.    
So when it comes to evaluating potential hires in terms of company fit, skill set competency, etc—while we’re no Microsoft or Google (Microsoft raised the bar in the 80’s and Google, since early 2000, raised it higher in terms of psychological/evaluative testing in the overall interview hiring process), we look very specifically at how candidates will mesh psychologically as part of the overall team; while, retaining their own individual creative identity. Empathy is a critical area that is explored on numerous fronts—as it relates to clients, client’s businesses, agency culture, learning and other capacities, even how the individual feels about being in the “service business.” We even have a Google-like acronym, “AE,” that stands not for “Account Executive” but for Agency Empathy…as in “how do you feel about their AE ability.” 

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Cliff Medney is Chief Marketing Officer at Eastwest Marketing Group, an independent, fully integrated marketing agency with capabilities in advertising, partnership marketing and promotions. Cliff heads up strategic idea generation, planning and program development, as well as manages Eastwest’s account teams. Cliff is a passionate advocate, author, and public speaker for marketing innovation and creativity in business. Cliff is also a published poet and always appreciates the value of a great pun.
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