Strategy requires empathy
That's it, that's the post.
Hi. Hey. Hello. This is the second edition of The Other 90. Thank you so much for the positive feedback and conversation after the first edition a few weeks ago. If you missed it, you can read it here. As always, if you like what you read, share it! If you don’t like it, still share it, but I understand you’ll be doing so begrudgingly.
Let’s start here:
In my time in advertising, I’ve pitched and won a sporting goods brand, built the global social strategy for a brand whose poster I had on my wall as a kid, and developed the digital strategy for a clothing brand that takes up 60% of my closet.
In my time in advertising, I’ve also built a social strategy for an investment firm when I couldn’t initially tell you what an ETF was, picked the moments to activate a breakfast bar even though I don’t usually eat breakfast, and redefined the story of a “magic” mobile game even though I’ve never visited a “magic” theme park and don’t usually play mobile games.
When the brands you work on align with you, the work can be really fun. You get to draw insights from your own experience and play jury on the creative because if the idea doesn’t work for you, it probably won’t work for others like you. But a hard reality of being a strategist at an agency is that you often have to admit that you are not the target audience for your client. (This is the same problem that lots of clients face, too.) And when you don’t share the interests of the person you are talking to, the way you approach understanding that person matters.
It would be easy to look at how some advertising works - the targeting of a specific type of person because research says the product is best for them or they are more likely to buy it - and be cynical. But I would much rather view strategy as an empathetic task, and the best strategists as empaths that go to great lengths to understand and relate to the person they are talking to.
One of the reasons empathy is so important to strategists is that we no longer live in a monoculture. There’s simply too much content, information, & conversation in the world to believe that one POV connects all of us. Without the monoculture mentality, it becomes the job of the strategist to figure out who advertising should be talking to, where it should be talking to them, when it should be talking, and the hierarchy of what it should say.
Today, strategists are constantly asked to answer those questions and dive deep into subcultures, using the tools available to them (both qualitative and quant) to make the best decisions possible. Sometimes, you get months to do this work. But in most cases, you get days, and sometimes just hours, to compile what you are seeing into a cohesive thought that allows for insightful action to be taken. It requires empathy to do this well, and without it, the resulting work runs the risk of suffering from missed connections.
(Pause for small pity party: Maybe we should also show more empathy to the strategists who are trying to stay on top of all of this and constantly find new ways to frame problems & solutions under increasingly tight timelines.)
I’ll admit that I have found it hard, sometimes, to remain empathetic as a strategist. When you work across multiple accounts, or frequently pitch new business, you are constantly churning through your research tactics to find an edge. The constant reading of data and charts runs the risk of removing humanity from the work, not to mention that with the end of a scope or the loss of a pitch, the subculture you’ve consumed like a firehose is suddenly no longer filling useful space in your brain. This is where cynicism can crop in, and empathy can be cropped out.
This can also happen with language - the cold tone of a slide-by-slide framework-laden breakdown of a plan can feel about as human as Frankenstein’s monster. Taking an empathetic approach to the research is one thing, but applying that mentality to how you build your narrative is just as important. Treating presentations like a human conversation, in tone and narrative, is an important way to transfer empathy.
When Conan O’Brien lost the Tonight Show in early 2010 after he’d had it for only a year, he gave a speech where he spoke about the kindness he had received from the Team Coco crowd. “To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life,” he said. “All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism - it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.”
A few months later, an artist took part of the quote and used block letters to press it onto some canvases. It was one of the first pieces of “art” I ever purchased, and it’s been hanging in my subsequent apartments for a decade now.
Given ~waves arms~ all this going on around us, it can be hard to remain empathetic and optimistic. And maybe it’s naive to believe that approaching the work of a strategist with empathy makes a difference. But I’d rather look to add value to someone’s experience on this Earth than to exploit their experience, and at the root of things that’s what being an empathetic marketer is all about. Connecting with people in a meaningful way and providing value to their lives doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Bergy Bits are icebergs that are under 5 meters in size, so this area is for tidbits I find interesting.
Three of the things that bounced around in my brain this week and made me write this:
This tweet (and subsequent quote tweets) that touches on a lot of common themes in how people view brands and the way they talk to people.
This BBH Labs research that rather directly points out the need to understand specific interests and subcultures versus bucketing people broadly by date of birth. (I originally came to this link from Bob Hoffman’s Ad Contrarian newsletter.)
I really liked this profile of Jaron Lanier.
This newsletter scrapes 104 other newsletters to show you the most shared links.
Growlers are icebergs under 2 meters across. This is where I share a parting quote or thought.
"It wasn’t overwhelming, The backdrop wasn’t monumental. But it fit this American moment of tentative pleasures and small, improvised celebrations. Maybe there would be bigger fireworks someday, when there was more to cheer about. The important thing, for now, was the feeling.”
I usually enjoy James Poniewozik, but am particularly fond of this passage in his critic’s commentary of the DNC. 2020 has been full of setbacks, and I imagine most of us are only still sane because we’ve been finding the tentative pleasures and improvised celebrations that point to a better tomorrow.
The Other 90 is written by Rob Engelsman, a former baby model now leading a team of strategists in New York City (some other stuff happened in between). You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, & LinkedIn, and honestly if you’re near Queens you may hear him yelling about the NHL Playoffs. Go Flyers.