The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Why Some Planners Need To Remember We Deal In Humans, Not Robots.
March 28, 2011, 6:16 am
Filed under: Comment

So tomorrow I head off to Seattle for my date with Microsoft.

Because of that, I don’t think I’ll be doing any posting for the next few days – which means regardless of what you think of Windows, VISTA or Windows 7, you have something to thank Bill Gates for.

To stop you feeling too pleased with yourself, I’m going to leave you with one of my overlong, over-rambly posts.

So I recently got asked to name the single most important thing I think a planner needs, to be able to do their job properly.

The sad thing is, when I told them, they looked at me with surprise … you see it wasn’t things like ‘curiosity’, ‘intelligence’ or ‘creativity’ [though they are all obviously quite important] it was empathy.

I must admit, I am getting a bit fed up how many planners diss human insight.

They act like it’s old hat, irrelevant or serves no purpose whatsoever when it’s anything but.

While I am a big believer that insights can – and should – come from many different places and perspectives, I still firmly believe that understanding what’s truly going on in your audiences heads and hearts is still the best way to drive the biggest change.

Before I go on, I should clarify something …

Understanding society doesn’t mean you simply do things that addresses what they want or think … god no … great brands have a point of view and a set of values that they stick to, that defines what they do and how they do it and if they gave those up, then they’re basically chasing success rather than attracting it.

That said, if you truly understand what is happening in people’s lives – not just in terms of how they interact with a particular brand or category, but in the wider aspects of their life – then new opportunities to be truly creative and meaningful will present themselves and suddenly you move from creating ads to creating fate.

And this is where empathy comes in.

I am aghast at how few planners get people beyond the sort of commentary you’d expect from a robot.

The questions they ask, the views they feedback … cold, one dimensional and lacking in any understanding of the issues, views and situations that are driving it.

Sure, on one level human beings are very similar … we all tend to have 2 arms, legs and eyes and have emotions that cover everything from eating to shitting … but to think that is all you need to know, or that all people’s thoughts and frames or reference are the same is both despicable and offensive.

Too many people are only focused on hearing what people say rather than feeling it – and yet the ability to genuinely understand the situations, issues and complexities that forge many of societies decisions is what turns communication from being a moment of attention into something that has much deeper meaning and value and that is why a planner who can ‘connect’ to people on a deeper level is far more valuable to me than a planner who can simply tell me what the latest trend is with a particular group of people.

Don’t get me wrong, that sort of stuff is important to … but I genuinely believe the greatest way to make a powerful and interesting difference – to brands & society – is to understand WHY things happen, not just WHAT and the only way you can really get that is to have empathy not just curiosity.

Don’t forget to enter Northern’s awesome A[P]SOTW assignment!

45 Comments so far
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So many good quotes in this post Rob.

“I am aghast at how few planners get people beyond the sort of commentary you’d expect from a robot.”

“Empathy turns communication from being a moment of attention into something that has much deeper meaning and value.”

Brilliant, important and bang on.

Good luck with Ballmer or maybe I should be saying that to him.

Comment by Pete

No, you should definitely be saying it to me …

Comment by Rob

so many good quotes? youre not only talking fucking planner shit pete, but you only list two which is hardly overwhelming the fuckers with genius is it.

almost a good post campbell, almost.

best bit is where you say good brands dont crawl over fucking broken glass to do whatever their audience want but know what the real fucking issues are and respond to that in their own unique way. theres a lesson in there somefuckingwhere.

but overall this post is still too fucking plannery for my liking even if youre giving the young and impressionable a bit of a kicking which always tickles my fucking massive fancy.

kick ballmer or get loads of freebies and give them all to me but if you come back laden with shit that youre keeping or a fucking contract from howard to do a picture of your life, go into witness protection immediately because ill be coming to fucking get you.

Comment by andy@cynic

I’ll see if I can do better for you when I get back …

Comment by Rob

Empathy is really important. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to get nearly as many hot chicks wanting to “comfort me”.

Comment by Billy Whizz

its not called empathy when you have to pay them to comfort you.

Comment by andy@cynic

But they tell me it’s so they can buy me a cup of coffee.

Comment by Billy Whizz

that tells me more about the standard of your fucking women than any private investigator report your mum commissioned.

Comment by andy@cynic

Empathy is everything. You have to play a character actor any time you make anything that communicates. You have to try to become the person you’re talking to and feel the way they’re going to respond. I simply have never found any other way, and I couldn’t imagine how else anyone could practice in this business otherwise. It would be just like shooting in the dark.

Comment by tim g

are you saying you have to fake it or are you using a really fucking bad analogy?

Comment by andy@cynic

Stop being a pain Andy … you know exactly what he means and besides isn’t there that quote that says sincerity is the best thing you can fake because when you can do that, everything else is easy, ha!

Comment by Rob

maybe i do maybe i dont but he said playing a character so dont start getting shitty with me. character acting yes. acting no. but were in fucking advertising, not fucking acting even if youve been doing a fucking great job of pretending to be an advertising man for the past 20 years.

dont take my comments personally tim g, but be careful not to sound like youre conning people because that doesnt mean you understand them you can just get them to talk.

Comment by andy@cynic

Careful, you’re turning into John Dodds there Andy …

Comment by Rob

but a whole fucking lot prettier. and cleverer. and everyfuckingthinger. but hes a good understudy as long as he never has to mingle with the fucking public. or hot chicks.

Comment by andy@cynic

No, it’s not a bad analogy. I mean method actor. You have to actually become the person and try to feel the same thing. If you can’t empathize, you’re lost.

I meant understanding people comes from empathy, and that’s where it all starts in planning. The actual connection part, the creative and messaging, that’s another internal sense, a gut feeling of what will work that’s sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Research helps to bolster it, but could also throw you off track. At the end of the day, you’re not conning anyone if you believe it. But that’s also why – after a while – many in our biz do end up like method actors who’ve been playing the role too long: exhausted with conflicts in their own souls. They either leave, swallow it and become bitter, or somehow manage to keep an idealistic view. Not sure where I am right now myself. Torn between the 3.

Comment by Tim

I forgot who said this the other week on here (may’ve been NP) when you talked about job postings and recruiters not making the distinction between skills you’d learn after a few weeks on the job, and others you may never develop in a lifetime.

I think empathy is one of the latter. Great post Rob.

Comment by Rafik

Planning must definitely take a “heart not just head” approach. Empathy being absolutely vital.
“Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities.”

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

i think youve been on the fucking whisky with that analogy. what is it with planners and analogies anyway?

Comment by andy@cynic

What I find amazing is the amount of researchers who ignore this – focused on repeating back whatever comment has been spouted by a member of the focus group without delving any deeper and appreciating what has been said is a justification, not a reason.

Comment by Rob

The best compliment I can give is that you drilled the importance and value of empathy into my head to such a degree that I don’t see this as a great post, it’s just fact.

Have fun with Ballmer, wish him well from all of us at Cupertino.

Comment by Bazza

where the fuck is my ipad 2?

Comment by andy@cynic

In the post.

Comment by Bazza

It must be something to do with Canadian post Andy, because I got mine!

Comment by Rob

*applause* bravo! bravo! sorry andy, but i’m going to be unwavering in my congratulations of rob on this post.

rob, i think we’ve spoken before about the role of empathy in any form of communication (and it being crucial to art practice), so i’m pleased that you continue to remind peeps that they need it. just ‘cos i’m sentimental about the human race, and empathy being one of the key marks of a human being.

when i rule the world and need to find good planners (which is never, luckily for the rest of ya), i’ve decided that i’ll go looking for them expat forums of non-native languages. it’s my personal opinion that learning how to properly live in a language other than your own is a great kick-start for empathy. in order to learn how to speak that language, you have to learn how to think/act in that language. in order to do that, you must develop the capacity to empathise with another (think and act as they do).

have a great time with the microsoft kids. i’m sure you’ll do us proud in the swearing and cheekiness stakes.

Comment by lauren

You raise a great point here Lauren and that’s the role of language.

While I am desperately trying to learn Mandarin, the reality is the chances of me being able to fully understand it is very low and that’s a major issue because knowing HOW people say their words – not just what their words are – plays a massive role in getting a deeper appreciation of what it going on in their minds and lives.

That’s why I have a relationship with Lonely Planet, because while I have my wonderful team to tell me what it going on, they give me a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the cultural frames of reference so I can get a better appreciation of what is shaping societies views and approach to various situations which – when combined – gives me a better chance of making something that infiltrates more than just the eyes.

Given I’ve just made a film that made everyone whose seen it cry [but in a good way. I hope] this approach is getting me through at least until I can say more than where I want to go, how many dumplings I’d like to order and please stop ripping me off.

Comment by Rob

Lonely Planners you mean.

Comment by john

Emathy , sounds simple , but reality is not many people / planners are able to empathise, because i don’t think it’s a skill [ i may be wrong] either you are able to or you’re not. it’s inheret in the individual. a lot depends on how ‘human’ the planner is !

Comment by bhaskar

That is one of the reasons why I like people who have had careers prior to adland – especially careers that required a lot of human interaction and contact. Of course that still doesn’t guarantee an ability to empathise, but the odds tend to be better compared to someone who has only ever worked inside an agency and views the masses as a disease that only they can cure.

Comment by Rob

OK, that was possibly a bit over-dramatic.

Comment by Rob

” and views the masses as a disease that only they can cure” is tops 🙂

i just feel some people are better at empath than other – it’s their natural human side – you are , as andy says a “nice blok” underneath all the rumblings ur human side , helps u empathise

Comment by bhaskar

I agree with Bhaskar too in that empathy isn’t a skill, you either have it or you don’t.

Comment by fredrik sarnblad

Agreed. Empathy is important for planners, and works in tandem with curiosity.


Comment by Carol L. Weinfeld

Excellent post.
Not much I can add really…

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Completely agree. I think it’s the greatest trait you can have in this career: 🙂

Lauren, I’m not sure I agree about the living abroad thing – It’s a partial tell, sure, but I have spoken to a few Planners in London who’ve lived abroad, and use it as a badge to wave in people’s faces…some of the least empathetic people I’ve ever met.

Comment by Will

the answer to why the people youre talking to are fucking wankers are in the words “london” and “planner” and not in that fucking order.

Comment by andy@cynic

I hate to say this, but I might agree with you Andy. How long had these planners you spoke to been away Will – and where?

Can’t say that will tell me anything, but it’ll make me feel better.

Comment by Rob

i know why youre saying it campbell, so you can come up with some random shit facts to pretend youre not one of them. transparent as a fucking walt disney movie.

Comment by andy@cynic

Another reason why it’s often better to hire nice people than clever people. Luckily not always, otherwise Andy would be screwed.

Comment by Rob Mortimer

im a fucking nice guy, what else would you call someone who has been keeping 2 ex wives and campbell in the style they dont fucking deserve to know about let alone fucking live day after day after money sapping day. wankers.

Comment by andy@cynic

will, to a certain extent I agree. a pompous close-minded wanker is a pompous close-minded wanker, regardless of whether they live on the thames, the seine, the euphrates or the yarra. but i’m talking about people who really try to live within a different language (as opposed to impose their language on another) – I’ve rarely met a true motherfucker amongst them.

Comment by lauren

Rob/Andy – Most often, they had been away about a year or two, and had existed within the same network shop. A few of them worked with me at the last place.

Lauren – I agree with you. Am just being pedantic. 🙂

I find empathy usually comes along with being nice. Not always though; sometimes it motivates people to acts of extreme rage (like angry cupcakes, for example). 😉

Comment by Will

It looks like you’re trying to inject innovative ideas into a meeting at Redmond. The Microsoft operating system does not allow such an operation and you will therefore have to reboot. Again.

Comment by Clippy

You can see the people in this business without any empathy. The ones who just talk about themselves, who find it impossible to see another point of view, who can only win argument by shouting louder. Most of them in other words.
But I do think much of it is driven by fear. Most people in this industry just aren’t any good and find it safe and comforting to stick to what they know. Step up proprietary planning models.

Comment by northern

ceos. who fire people with no fucking benefits and then try and be your best friend. wankers.

Comment by andy@cynic

Favorite line: “I am getting a bit fed up how many planners diss human insight” As if it’s a friggin fad.

Comment by Emily

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