EMPATHY IS JUST NARCISSISM THAT PASSES AS CARING

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EMPATHY. THE KEY SKILL OF A PLANNER. THE KEY SKILL OF ANYONE IN ADVERTISING WHO NEEDS TO GET UNDER THE SKIN OF THEIR AUDIENCE. JUST THIS WEEK WE’VE SEEN THE BRILLIANT ANDREW TENZER AND REACH RELEASE A REPORT ON HOW LITTLE EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING WE HAVE AS AN INDUSTRY. BBH STRATEGY DIRECTOR DEAN MATTHEWSON HAS LITTLE EMPATHY FOR THAT.

The latest buzzword in vogue amongst the planning community self-help groups is ’empathy’.

Sitting here in our London agency bubble we all could do with an intravenous empathy drip. Let’s hardwire those real-world insights straight into our bloodstream! We’re told we don’t do enough to connect with real people, to walk a mile in their shoes, to even begin to think that there’s a life and culture outside of the M25. As though sitting in Doncaster talking about biscuits to a lady that over-indexes as a biscuit buyer is suddenly going to make me a monumentally better planner. 

For a start talking to people, listening to them and trying to see things from their side is pretty much what we should be doing anyway. Kids in the playground make a pretty good stab at it, so why not us? 

Telling a planner they need to be empathetic is like telling a creative they need to come up with ideas. It’s a given. Trying to imagine what someone else might think about a product is what we do day in day out. It’s such a basic part of it what we do, that it becomes utterly meaningless to talk about it as something that can make us better planners. 

Ogilvy blew the big fanfare trumpet in early 2017 about their Get Out There initiative, where London based planners journeyed out to the far reaches of this massive country. Bournemouth. Boston. Oldham. Even the Isle of Man.

Wow. 

Like people outside of London are a different race that has to be seen in the wild. The Campaign piece even used that exact wording FFS!

I’ve got a picture in my head of Sigourney Weaver in Gorilla’s in the Mist. Learning to communicate with something she has very little in common with.

Image result for sigourney weaver gorillas in the mist

It is all so patronising.

Quite a few years ago I wrote an article for the APG about how empathy is the most important tool in a planner’s skillset. That the best work comes from when we put ourselves in the shoes, hearts and minds of the people who watch, listen to and buy the stuff we’re peddling. I was wrong.

Because it’s not only what we should be doing anyway… 

…it’s the smuggest fucking thing in the world.

I’m sure Dian Fossey (Sigourney’s real-world character) had tons of empathy for the gorillas she was studying. All too much in our industry, we see ourselves as gorilla-watchers. Examining them, trying to bring ourselves to their level, to understand what makes them tick so we can make better ads.

The arrogant notion of ‘us’ observing ‘them’ in the wild, is best described by Robert Berezin, writing in Psychology Today, as “projective self-involvement.” Empathy is basically “narcissism that passes as caring.” 

We don’t try to empathise because we care. We do it because we get something out of it. In a personal capacity we empathise by waiting our turn to tell the other person all about how we’ve been in that situation, and therefore stealing the conversation back towards us.

Or in the case of ad-land, our attempts at empathy are all about self-validation. We’ve done a great job travelling to Boston, don’t we feel better about ourselves now? We feel validated that we’ve done the right thing, ticked the box of getting out there and meeting people. It gives us leeway to carry on doing exactly as we’ve always done but under the guise of having ‘connected’ to real-people.

Because we go back into our bubble. All of our friends and colleagues are in that bubble. Our entire world view is contained within that bubble. Try as hard as we might we can’t truly empathise with people we’re selling biscuits too because

a) we don’t really care about what biscuit lady really thinks about our biscuit and

b) we’ll quickly fall back into the trap of making stuff for ourselves and our friends because they’re the world we’re immersed in. 

So fuck empathy. And think about experience instead. Do we have enough people who have led interesting, different lives? A life perhaps akin to the lady on the street we’re trying to flog biscuits to? They may not have experienced the sun rising at a yoga retreat on a beach in Guatemala. But they might have used to work in a sausage factory.

They might not be a fresh-faced grad.

They might not be a perfect agency strat clone. 

They might not know their Byron Sharp from their Daniel Kahneman.

They might, in fact, not know the first thing about brand relationships. 

Which is good, because 99.9% of the people we speak to don’t either. 

Back when I was an empathy championing delusional, I interviewed someone for a planning role where I asked the formulaic question, ‘what do you do to keep up with trends in the industry?’

It was a standard question. We expected a standard answer. Campaign. Mediatel. Marketing Week. Maybe even something insight related. Preferably something we weren’t reading so they could do that for us. 

“Grazia”, they replied.

Boy didn’t we scoff – after the interview of course.   

That candidate didn’t know anything about our industry or have any desire to read around the subject. Might as well put their CV in the bin now, right?

We wanted someone who lived and breathed advertising and marketing. But, thinking back now, reading Grazia meant they had more in common with a larger proportion of ‘real people’ than anyone else we were interviewing. We didn’t hire them. Marking their card because of that answer was a massive fuck-up. Because their experience may have been something we really needed and we never really got the opportunity to find out.

Let’s be hypothetical. If we’d received a brief where one of our main comms channels was women’s weekly magazines, which would’ve been more useful.

  1. A well-drilled planner empathising with what it would be like to be a reader of a woman’s weekly magazine
  2. Someone who actually reads a women’s weekly magazine

Yep, I know, it’s a blunt example. But we wouldn’t need to empathise with ‘real people’ if we actually recruited some ‘real people’ in the first place, rather than planning clones. 

Experience beats empathy every day of the week.

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1 Response

  1. I agree wholeheartedly – this is something I have been banging on about for a while, too
    https://secretagencyblog.blogspot.com/2017/08/empathy-by-numbers.html
    I’ve even heard the word “compassion” come up in discussions – which goes right off the smug and patronising scale.
    To me the phrase “empathy with the consumer” is an oxymoron which highlights the problem. As long as you box off your fellow human-beings who buy the product or use the service into “the consumer”, there’s not going to be any empathy.

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