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Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Last week I was fortunate to attend the APG strategy conference, a fantastic event with seven brilliant and eclectic speakers.

A reoccurring theme running through a number of the talks was our preoccupation with our own world, our privilege and our middle-class, London-centric professional bubble.  

Margaret Heffernan reminded us of our tendency to surround ourselves with people like us, Martin Weigel bemoaned the lack of diversity in advertising, and, in a barnstorming performance, Mark Ritson covered not only how different ‘we’ (the professionals) are from the wider world but how we are blinkered to those differences.

So what to do? There is perhaps a suggestion that righteous recruitment policies are key: more people from outside London, more people from minorities, a more diverse educational background. But whilst that would undeniably help (and have wider business and societal benefits) it doesn’t really help the here and now.

Thankfully I don’t think the problem is as great as we may fear. Do we really believe that we need to have the same social-demographic composition, media habits and values to be able to understand someone’s world? Don’t we all (particularly those attracted to advertising and the social sciences) have the human capacity for empathy without the need to look the same or have exactly the same experiences as those we study?

How do we achieve empathy? Surely it only come from attempts to engage, listen and observe – it won’t just come to us whilst we sit at our desks. It is here that we are perhaps guilty of negligence. Being different (or privileged) isn’t a crime, failure to attempt to understand others perhaps is. The good news of course is the tools that allow planners to understand the markets they are selling to do exist – we just have to use them. 

Enter market research. 

Advertising Planning developed alongside Market Research however increasingly when we speak to planners their experience of research is limited (or worse, blinkered by the dreaded Pre Test; blunt yes/no, pass/fail surveys that are seen as hurdles to overcome).

The range of research available to the advertising industry and clients has never been greater but their lack of knowledge of how research can help has never been more apparent. Are agencies committed to training planners in the skills available and the applications of quality research? Or is it the job of the market research industry to educate our future clients as to how we can help them make better work?

Market orientation, usage and attitude studies, focus groups, depth interviews, ethnography, segmentation studies, market tracking – the tools and skills that can provide the data, knowledge and understanding that will enable our natural empathy to shine through are there, we just need to use them.

It is not a problem to be a London-based, middle class professional – many worked hard to get here. But our work will be better if we look outside the bubble and attempt to seek empathy and understanding with those we are selling to. Research is the way to do this.

By Pete Canning