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Addressing the empathy crisis

By Mark Murray jones



The Drum Network article

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November 13, 2020 | 10 min read

Much has been written about the crisis that our industry, as well as society at large, faced with declining levels of empathy at a time when it is needed most. All too often, however, these concerns offer no tangible solutions. Here, OMD argues that while the prognosis may look poor, there are very real steps that can be taken, collectively helping to turn the tide at this pivotal moment in time.


Addressing the empathy crisis

A cultural crisis

There can be little argument that empathy is a critical tool for an industry so preoccupied with the art of persuasion. The ability to effectively feel or understand those around us is undeniably central to our success as a species, but it also happens to sit at the heart of some of the most successful marketing campaigns ever seen, often intuitively applied by supremely talented storytellers and thinkers.

As we increasingly seek to connect with overwhelmed and jaded individuals short on trust, patience or attention, the reality is we need those empathic storytellers and thinkers now more than ever.

So, here’s the bad news; all is not well with that ancient and evolutionary characteristic we call empathy. It is beset on all sides by forces, some long-term, others far more immediate, all collectively conspiring to blunt our empathic skills.

Considering the broad perspective first, psychologists have been measuring our levels of empathy for the past 40 years. During that time, it seems those levels have reduced considerably. In a study carried out on US college students in 2009 the average level of empathy exhibited by those studied dropped by 34% over that 40-year period.

Largely driven by greater levels of isolation and the breakdown of traditional social constructs, it’s not unreasonable to assume empathy levels have fallen even more precipitously in the past decade. Furthermore, algorithmically optimised social platforms exposing us to ever more divisive content and jingoistic political and social commentators means we rarely get exposed to views that don’t confirm our own biases.

In his book The War For Kindness, Jamil Zaki suggests that being a psychologist studying empathy today is “like being a climatologist studying the polar ice: each year we discover more about how valuable it is, just as it recedes all around us”.

An industry shortcoming

So, if that’s the bigger picture, how’s our industry faring? Bad news again, I’m afraid. Despite our evident need to see the world from the perspective of the people we’re looking to reach, recent evidence suggests marketing and advertising professionals are no better than average. Reach Solution’s study confirms low levels of empathy among the modern mainstream (a broad cross-section of society defined as the middle 50% in terms of household income), but worryingly, shows equally low levels of aptitude among those working in advertising and marketing.

In addition, it finds an industry that “uses different ethical and cultural settings to the modern mainstream”. While at times the study feels a tad self-serving, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that we attract particular types and lack the diversity so critical for a more empathic approach generally. At times, the work we produce as an industry makes the point in an altogether more depressing and public fashion.

Finally, and perhaps most urgently, the continued global pandemic we find ourselves in is, in all likelihood, making matters much worse. Contact Theory, developed by psychologist Gordon Allport back in the 50s, simply suggests the more time we spend with others, the more we understand them. Put another way, working, living or playing with other people strengthens our ability to empathise with them.

The implication is obvious; spending prolonged periods of time isolated from others, interacting through ubiquitous screens, will do nothing for our ability to empathise. In turn, this will likely be having a significant impact on the work we produce for our clients, not to mention our ability to understand, manage and nurture our most valuable asset – our people.

Taking action

So, how on earth do we overcome this perfect storm of empathy attrition?

Firstly, on a more positive note, while empathy is in our genetic makeup, it’s not the fixed trait it was once thought to be. As we’ve seen, while it can be lessened through external forces, it can also be learned and honed. Consequently, there are a number of active steps we can take to counteract this downward spiral.

For example, building on Contact Strategy theory, we simply have to get better at creating greater levels of diversity (in all its guises) across the industry. Yes, it’s the right thing to do, but it also makes absolute business sense. If we are surrounded by carbon copies of ourselves, we’ll struggle to connect in a meaningful way with anyone outside our circles.

As an interesting side note here; you can’t get around a lack of diversity by observing others. Studies prove that observation alone can actually be counter-productive and exacerbate feelings of resentment. Simply sending our people on wild and daring safaris outside the urban centres we work and often live in isn’t going to cut it. Contact strategy requires a far more fundamental level of integration and commitment.

While the drive towards greater diversity will continue to be a long-term challenge that defines our industry as well as society in the years to come, there are other steps we can take to drive greater empathy that feel more immediately attainable. Try reading a novel or watching a film for example.

There is strong evidence to suggest that experiencing art and in particular narrative art, helps us build empathy. As we read, listen or observe our brains untether, allowing us to imagine the world from the protagonist’s perspective. A kind of empathy workout.

As an aside (and with no scientific foundation), in my experience, many of the most intuitive and creative people I’ve worked with have been voracious consumers of narrative art in all its various forms.

Empathy planning – a systematic approach

Driving greater diversity and spending more time experiencing the narrative arts, are steps that can be taken to drive greater levels of empathy for organisations or individuals generally. There are also altogether more systematic steps we can take as an industry to encourage the application of empathy in the work we do for our clients.

Building distinctive and desired brands continues to be the fundamental and most important contribution we make to our clients’ business success; empathy can be a critical tool in allowing us to do exactly that, but it has to be applied in a considered and holistic fashion.

As the meaningful point of difference increasingly becomes the full multi-sensory experience surrounding brands, it is the systematic and structured application of empathy across each interaction a potential customer has with that brand, that can generate value for the customer and as a result, better commercial outcomes for our clients’ businesses.

At OMD, we do this through our process OMD Design, supported at each stage by Omni, our precision marketing and insights platform. Collectively, process and platform allow us to identify and act on opportunities to create value across the entire customer experience.

While still encouraging lateral leaps of creativity and empathic intuition, we also help our people to systematically consider all potential levers to drive greater empathy. Specifically, we organise this thinking around the six Cs:

  • Content: understanding what messaging will resonate most with our audiences

  • Context: identifying environments as well as moods and mindsets where our audiences will be most receptive

  • Contact: applying suitable flighting and frequency parameters

  • Construct: ensuring our format is suitable for the platform

  • Culture: building the right nuances depending on culture or geography

  • Comms imperative: understanding drivers of intent

Individually these six areas are nothing new, they are the well-established building blocks of comms planning excellence. But applied collectively and informed with increasing levels of sophistication from data-informed signals (pre-, during- and post- campaign), we’re able to supplement instinctive and creative empathy, with more systematic levers to optimise each interaction.

Creating value for the potential customer via empathy can manifest itself in many ways; from simple frequency capping to more tailored and relevant messaging. Empathy planning at its best, however, can start to impact the fundamental pillars of the proposition itself. Increasingly it can shape pricing, packaging or distribution. Furthermore, in its purest form, the marketing interventions no longer just signpost the way to the product proposition, they become part of the product proposition itself via the experience.

Critically empathy planning is an approach that requires the considered combination of relevant data and human interpretation, which brings me to my final point. Technology has rightly been identified as a major contributor to the empathy deficit we’re now experiencing. As you might expect, however, for something so ubiquitous and all-encompassing, the reality is far from black and white. Certainly, its ability to desensitise is well-documented and pretty hard to argue against. On the other hand, technology applied correctly is already helping to promote or enhance empathy in areas like virtual and augmented reality. Furthermore, the data signals we’re able to identify across the consumer experiences increasingly played out on digital platforms, have the ability to eradicate the biases and assumptions so routinely applied.

A call to arms

It’s not surprising that empathy is a term that has cropped up in marketing circles with increasing regularity in recent years. But while the need has been recognised, all too often the response has been superficial at best. Delivering marketing activities that truly deliver empathy, requires serious commitment. While it will be far from straightforward, there are known behavioural, cultural and even philosophical shifts that, alongside systematic ways of working fuelled by human creativity and emerging technology, can collectively turn the tide at this pivotal moment in time.

Mark Murray Jones is chief strategy officer at OMD EMEA. He presented ‘The Empathy Unlock’ at DMexco 2020, alongside chief people officer, Gina Ransom-Williams.


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