Work & Wellbeing Mental Health

Nature or nurture: do we need more empathy in marketing?

By Nate Thompson, Senior creaive director



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May 19, 2023 | 7 min read

It impacts our connections with others and our ability to lead in the workplace; empathy is key to daily life. Nate Thompson of Amplify advocates for more of it in adland.

Poster on lamppost reads: 'We are one'

As marketers, empathy should be second nature, says Amplify's Nate Thompson / Gary Butterfield

It’s no coincidence that empathy is a key component of creativity, being linked to the imagination. It’s the process of imagination over perception that marks the difference between empathy and sympathy. We can perceive a person’s situation and feel sympathy toward them, but when we imagine what it must feel like, we feel empathy. Creatives are imaginative people so, in theory, empathy should come easily to us.

Empathy isn’t a new concept in marketing. It's something that underpins Greg Hoffman’s excellent book ‘Emotion by Design’ where he recounts his 30-year career at Nike. It’s been a buzzword in the creative world for a good few years, but what is it, and more importantly, how do we attain it?

Educating empathy

“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.

Empathy isn’t on the curriculum, but as Ken Robinson outlined in his compelling and hilarious Ted Talk ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity’, we are still seeing young people leave an education system that was primarily designed to meet the needs of industrialism. In a world that needs creativity more than ever and a society that needs empathy even more, why is our education system so firmly rooted in binary concepts?

This is something I feel strongly about. I attended the Rudolf Steiner School in Holywood, Northern Ireland which, at the time, was one of the first religiously integrated schools in the country. It was formed after some of the deadliest years in The Troubles. Communities were being ripped apart, terrorism and divisive politics hogged the headlines and the education system was strictly divided by religion. This turbulent environment led a group of parents to build something better for their children.

The school was formed in 1975 with nothing more than goodwill, a handful of pupils and an education system drawn from some of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. Viewed as a 20th Century philosopher, Steiner had ideas on how to educate children in a way that enables them to become their true selves, be good citizens, contribute to society, and be a strong force for good in the world.

He recommended that to enable this it was essential to take into account the age and stage of development of each child in deciding what and how to teach them. For example, in the early years, children learn best through imitation and play, from around age six to the beginning of secondary school, engaging the imagination and artistic activity inspires strong learning and from secondary school age onwards, cognitive learning engages in earnest.

What I remember most is the storytelling. Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin stood out. Each morning we would be told stories and then get to draw our interpretation of them. This meant we were using our imagination to interpret the story – my first-ever brief. More than that, though, these stories were about human emotions: love, loss, honesty and responsibility. It opened our tiny minds to other people’s behavioral and emotional needs. It was brilliant.

We covered English and math, of course, but there was a creative approach to learning through the framework of storytelling established from an early age, and even early math lessons were delivered in an artistic way (I also remember making a pair of moccasins by hand. This hasn’t proven useful so far).

Although I left the school just before my GCSEs (another story), which probably makes me unemployable on paper, I came away with something much more worthy: an affinity for storytelling.

Empathy in adland

Fast forward many years later, and storytelling is still a key part of mine and many creatives’ working days. Good stories ensure people care about them, they create empathy, and whether we are telling our story to the client, or their audience, we want people to care, show interest, or feel understood.

Thinking back to Nike's work over the last 30 years, it's a key ingredient. You are drawn into the story they tell, the imagery they use, and as a result, the product they are selling.

Client work aside, read any leadership articles over the last lot of years and empathy is top of the bill. It seems so obvious in hindsight, but having the soft skills to listen, understand and make people feel heard is the bedrock of any working relationship. It brings about a more open creative environment, where people feel free to take risks and push their creativity. So why is it something we write about, and not second nature? Is it on us as individuals, or us as a society to be more empathetic? Can it be learned, or are we born with it?

Empathy is a choice

It seems to me that the ability to feel empathy is something some people are born with – it comes naturally to them. But being empathetic is a choice and one that benefits all of us when we choose it. It can help us come up with more relatable creative ideas and foster an environment where people feel empowered to take creative risks and collaborate openly.

It’s vital for the work that we do and the people we work with and if we all embrace it fully, it might just make the tiny part of the world we each inhabit a little bit better.

Work & Wellbeing Mental Health

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