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

Be Interested In What Others Are Interested In …

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been invited to speak at a couple of conferences – in Hamburg, for the APG, and at ‘Closeness’ in London.

In both cases, I was asked to talk about the importance about empathy – something I’ve been banging on about for centuries.

And in both cases, I felt the best way to do it was to talk through the lens my Mum had taught me … which is the title of this post.

For an industry that is supposed to understand people, I’m surprised how few seem to really understand what that means.

Rather than understand hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions and contradictions … it seems we prefer to focus on the bits that are relevant to our business needs, without seemingly realizing the important role context plays in shaping how we live.

If you don’t get context, you don’t get people … and you don’t get context without investing time.

Not focus groups.

Not ethnographic studies.

But an on-going commitment to going down the rabbit hole of people’s lives to understand how they live and the nuances that separate each and every one of us.

You can’t do this if you want to ‘fast forward’ to the bits you have pre-determined will be useful to you.

You can’t do this if you want convenient answers to ‘sell your campaign’.

You can’t do this if you want answers rather than understanding.

This last point is especially important.

Frankly, understanding is becoming a lost art.

Understanding is built on emotional connection, not intellectual.

Where you leave your prejudices, barriers, filters, expectations and hopes at the door and focus. Asking questions to understand more about what someone is saying than to get the answers you want to your specific challenge.

It’s hard.

It takes real practice.

Because while you may appreciate every person has a story … it can only truly be revealed if you let them do it in their own way, in their own time, in their own words. Which means you might end up hearing things that makes no sense to you, even though it makes perfect sense to them … and while that might not initially seem valuable, you’ll soon realise it’s immense.

But all this takes time.

And takes a real commitment.

However it lets you go back with knowledge that enables you to make work that feels like it was born from inside the culture rather than from a bunch of observers.

Work that is filled with the nuances that makes the audience take notice.


React to.

Feel respect towards because it shows respect to them.

Or said another way …

Work that is resonant to culture rather than just relevant.

And it all starts by being interested in what others are interested in.

Not for commercial gain, but because you are interested in who people are.

It’s why my Mum is still teaching me how to live, 4 years after she has gone.

And now she is teaching others too.

Thank you Mum.

18 Comments so far
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Thank you Mrs C.

Comment by Bazza


Comment by George


Comment by Rob

Fantastic post Robert. I think what your Mum taught you is one of the most valuable skills a planner can have. Unfortunately it is a dying skill as the disciple heads towards executing their job through a screen. There are many tools that can help make parts of the process more efficient and insightful, but for any work to go beyond category norms, a focus on real people rather than the data of people is necessary.

Comment by George

Funny, I talked at the UK APG last night and this was one of the key points everyone gravitated towards. It’s not that data is wrong [though how many people are using it is, mainly because they’re all looking for the same convenient answers rather than the dirty little secrets] it’s just that when you talk to real life people … you get texture, nuance and language and that means you can make work that feels born from the culture not from some slightly-out-of-touch observers pedestal.

Comment by Rob

thanks for making trumps america a lot less fucking horrific to live in.

Comment by andy@cynic

Being interested in people for the simple reason you are interested in them, rather than what you can get out of them, is how great work ends up being made.

Comment by Pete

Except Rob’s real motivation in getting to know you is so he can gain ammunition that lets him take the piss for the next decade.

Comment by Bazza


Comment by Pete

Only did it with you guys.

Good stuff though … handy to know if I ever need you to give me money. Haha.

Comment by Rob

campbell is satans fucking henchman.

Comment by andy@cynic

Excellent post which gets things the right way round, unlike the quote you tweeted and to which I reacted badly.

As for your APG observation, are they reallly convinced or s the anti-data sentiment coming from those practitioners who aren’t very good at numbers rather than those who understand you need both? People who cherry-pick statistics to back up their reckons rather than have the skills to let the data point them in the right directions?

Comment by John

Well my Mum was smarter than most.

And you’re right about the anti-data brigade, but by the same token, I work with an amazing data scientist who openly says her work needs to be partnered with human nuance, mess and language to ensure whatever happens next is more than good in theory but actually changes something in a way that is resonant with culture and distinctively sustainable for business.

Comment by Rob

Your data scientist is right. Does she ever comment on the experience of working with someone who possesses unique matehmatical abilities?

Comment by John

Thanks for this. I guess that being interested in people is either something you have or you don’t. It doesn’t suddenly appear when you become a “planner”.. You can obviously “practice”, you can read read and read in order to “know” but doesn’t mean you are interested. As a new planner, and as a foreigner, I tend to observe a lot, and I realized how little people in the industry are interested in getting to know more about each other.. too busy to talk, to ask.. and to think?!
I admit there are plenty of “to do things” I should start doing.. like immersing myself in other people interests (magazine etc) but I have always been the kind of person who starts talking to strangers on the bus, who, in the supermarket aisle, asks for random advice on products (imagine all kind of expressions on people’s faces- in London you don’t ask- unless you want to sell me something or you are a complete weirdo).. this is the kind of interest I think is missing.. and even if I spend my all time doing “desk research”, I know i have this natural instinct, this better called empathy. Hopefully one that I will be allowed to use it in my job.

Comment by Giulia Bacco

your mum is the best fucking planner ive worked with.

Comment by andy@cynic

Ok, this is good. I’ll also admit you were always bringing strange people in the office who ended up being interesting. Best one is still the time you managed to get a priest, surfer and Russian tourist who was definitely a sex pest to come talk about what Bali meant to them. It shouldn’t have worked but it did.

Comment by DH

[…] my Mum had a similar view means I guess I was always destined to place greater value in the authenticity of subculture than […]

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