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June 11, 2009
The Path To Empathy
In advertising, a little understanding goes a long way

I once had a homebuilder client who complained behind my back to my boss that I shouldn’t work on her account. Why? Because I rented a loft the city, not the suburbs, and therefore couldn’t understand the mindset of a prospective first-time homebuyer. Which was nonsense, as most of my co-workers were already long settled in their McMansions whereas I more closely fit the target profile.

This distant memory popped into my mind because of the recent national debate over Sonia Sotomayor and the idea of “empathy.” I have no idea if empathy makes a person a better Supreme Court justice, but it sure as hell makes you a better advertising creative.

Just so we’re all clear, here’s the dictionary’s definition of empathy: “The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”  I think that’s also a pretty good definition for what’s involved in making effective advertising.

Can we write ads for people who we don’t physically or psychologically resemble? Can we really understand people we don’t share common experiences with? Yes, but it ain’t easy.

I have rarely had the pleasure of writing to people who fit my psychographic profile. Or my demographic profile. But I needed to understand them, identify with them, and find the right way to communicate to them. So I’ve read, and researched, and ended up talking to people at places I wouldn’t ordinarily go.

In advertising agencies, empathy—in this case, the ability to understand an audience—is a skill, just like Photoshop prowess. It needs to be learned and honed for effective marketing. And yes, it should be an advantage for someone in advertising, at hiring time and on the job, if they come from a different background or upbringing than the majority of their co-workers. If creative people are judged by their unique talent, a unique background should be held in positive regard as well.

And let’s face it, ad people are a fairly homogenous lot: College-educated, white-collar, urban dwelling, working behind computers in well-lit, clean offices. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how many people in the world don’t fit that description. If you want a more accurate cross-section of humanity, go to the DMV or the security line at the airport. Might not be pretty, but it’s our audience.

Even if we don’t resemble our target, we can’t leave it up to other people to understand our audience. Yes, account planning was designed to do this—pick through the thoughts and behaviors of people unlike us to find some nugget of understanding. But it’s in our daily interactions—writer working with art director, account people working with creative and media, in brainstorming sessions and client meetings—that we need to keep in mind who we’re talking to. That’s where it’s difficult. We run into trouble when we get into a conference room full of similar people and the groupthink takes hold quite easily.

Empathy is sadly lacking in much of the creative work that’s lauded. No wonder advertising often speaks to only us in the industry, not the general public. It’s no accident that portfolios of recent ad school graduates seem alike. They’re the product of students who’ve spent the last 12 or 24 months living and breathing advertising, and hanging out with the same like-minded people. And it’s no accident that awards show books reflect the perspective of the same small circle of judges and people who create ads specifically to impress those judges.

Clients know their products. We’re supposed to know their customers. When the balance tips too far and the client gets their way, the result marketing that focuses only on the product and not the people who use it. Advertising people need to contribute something else. Which is why life experience, and the ability to relate to people who aren’t like us, are what makes good advertising professionals so good.

It’s up to us to always be curious about others—and understanding of their lives. Fairfax Cone, the C of FCB, once said, “the inventory goes down the elevator every night.” Ad Agencies need to keep the inventory fresh. Which doesn’t necessarily mean new people, just a fresh understanding of the world and our clients’ customers.

So despite what you might hear on cable news, empathy is a good thing. We all could stand to have more of it. After all, we’re in the business of communication.

Do you understand where I’m coming from?

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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