Sunday, 1 February 2009


There is a thought-provoking post on Adliterate on the subject of "Overcoming our Empathy Deficit". Reading through, I think that our collective "forgetting how to be human" is an issue that runs through business and society at large. The symptoms are there to be seen in, for example, the tangled web of call centres, wrong departments, press two for this and press four for that and then give your customer code that we're faced with if we have a simple question for our bank. Twenty years ago you would have just walked in and seen another human being. Or the lack of simple, human common sense that is invariably applied by Jobsworths the world over.

I don't think it's ever been that easy for people in advertising agencies to see the world through someone else's eyes. Advertising has always attracted bright young things with a good dose of arrogance that they are a touch cleverer, rather more creative than "the man in the street." Advertising people generally feel far more comfortable at an awards ceremony, in sitting composing the latest witty and erudite post for their blog, than they do coming in contact with "the consumer".

When I started in advertising in the UK, I think we were a bit closer to people and lives outside the agency. In the tradition started by BMP, Planners regularly did their own qualitative research...and this was in the days when viewing studios were relatively few and far between. Coming to Germany, I was surprised at just how few Planners had any direct contact at all with people using the brands that they otherwise so cleverly positioned, analysed and modelled.

I suspect that the truth is that many people working in advertising and marketing are a little frightened of talking directly with other people who happen to use their brand. While there is usually some or other "box ticked" that the junior client has sat through six focus groups, or the Planner and the Account Exec have spent an afternoon "hanging out with the target audience", it's all still done in the spirit of "observing a different species" and, once it's done, the box is ticked and everyone runs back to the safety of the agency.

In my early days at Saatchi, before the word Insight really came into vogue, we talked about "SURTs" - Simple, Universally Recognisable human Truths. It was a shame, really, that the "H" from human never made it into the acronym, as that was the key to it for me. Maybe if we can just remember how to be human, maybe we have a better chance of really finding those "aha" truths that connect with fellow humans, rather than just shouting at them.

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