Steve Hastings of Isobel: empathy’s in short supply all round, not just in the marketing industry

Recent research by Reach suggests marketing and advertising people lack empathy.

It’s probably worth pointing out the research was carried out by the sales arm of a media owner.

Not the first place one would go to for ‘empathy.’

Slick sales patter, a charming white smile perhaps, but not empathy.

I happen to be a planner in an advertising agency and find the conclusions hard to swallow.

We spend much of our day in other people’s shoes, in other people’s lives. We can only really work by imaging ourselves into the head’s and hearts of the people we want to reach and touch and influence and persuade.

One of our primary roles is to bring the consumer into the marketing process. Without that insight and empathy for them and the way they feel, we really are not doing our job.

As an industry, we’ve moved far beyond Claude Hopkins and his idea of ‘Scientific Advertising’ principles. We’ve moved on from thinking no-one patronises a clown, or that imagery is for information only.

We’ve learnt that brands are not balance sheets of likes and dislikes. People ‘feel’ brands, like they ‘feel’ personalities. We’ve learnt that we should look at a brand as a melody, not the sum of individual notes.

So we need a big empathy radar permanently on high to keep close and relevant to our audiences.

Of course, not all empathy is the same, just as happiness is not all the same.

There are at least three types of widely recognised empathy.

Cognitive Empathy is the gateway to understanding:

“Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.” Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Empathy is, admittedly, a rare animal in our business:

“When you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” Daniel Goldman.

But not that rare. I carry out consumer research. There’s nothing like being in a room with a person, or people, to get a real sense of how they are feeling. It’s a natural human reaction, and an invaluable tool for entering into a discussion with someone on their terms. I literally ‘feel’ the issue as well as comprehend it.

Compassionate Empathy is interesting ground:

“With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” Daniel Goldman.

We are in a situation to help in our own way, with our ideas, products and services. Having empathy is a start to producing things that can really be useful to people.

If anyone wants a job as a planner at Isobel they are going to have to display a large capacity for empathy.

Now let’s turn to the article. ‘Marketing and advertising professionals lack empathy,’ study finds.

But does the study find this?

The study compared levels of empathy in the general population with those displayed within the industry.

And the differences were not significant.

30 per cent of industry respondents displayed high levels of perspective-taking and emotional empathy, compared with 29 per cent in the general population.

We are at the same level as the general population.

Respondents also played the ‘dictator game’, where people are given a notional £50 and can share as much as they want with an unknown partner. 77 per cent in the general population would share equally, while 69 per cent in the industry would do so.

At the 99 per cent level of significance, these figures are not statistically different.

So unless the article wants to conclude that empathy is low in our society as a whole, it has no business concluding we in the industry ‘lack empathy.’

The last issue to bring up is a quote from a director of Reach, the media arm of the sales company sponsoring the survey, who said, ‘It’s no secret that marketeers are different from the mainstream..’

The data above suggests we are closer to the mainstream not different to it in terms of empathy.

So I think that makes us well-poised to put ourselves in other people’s shoes in order to sell to them.

Steve Hastings is planning partner at Isobel.

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