Imagining other people's lives is a crucial marketing skill
A view from Craig Mawdsley

Imagining other people's lives is a crucial marketing skill

You don't have to be a factory worker living on a sink estate in Rochdale to understand the lives of others.

There’s a disturbing narrative going round at the moment. Having been on the end of it again in a meeting this week, I was moved to go into writing to try to set the record straight.

The prevailing argument goes a little bit like this. In 2016, the world got turned upside down. People who live outside the major cities and who experience poverty and deprivation rose up to show themselves and vote against the elites.

This is a lesson for brands, agencies and brand managers because we are predominantly affluent people, with high incomes, comfortable lives and liberal metropolitan outlooks. We need to go and spend time living with the people who voted for Brexit and Donald Trump but we will never be able to properly understand them because we’re too rich and privileged.

Well, I’m sorry, but this is total nonsense. The extension of this argument is that nobody can ever produce ideas for people who are at all demographically distant from them.

Women can’t work on products with a male target audience, over-40s can’t work on youth brands, people from deprived backgrounds aren’t allowed to work on luxury products, people who prefer baths can’t sell shower gel, the lactose-intolerant will be terrible at the Milk Marketing Board. All equally outrageous assertions, which are equally nonsensical.

There are no doubt plenty of affluent people who work in media and marketing in London or New York who are incapable of understanding how other people live. But the likelihood will be that these people are incapable of understanding anyone who has different life experiences to them. They would also be bad at understanding the French, or football fans, or small-business owners.

Trump and Brexit voters are not a universal blind spot. The thing that makes the difference about how effectively you can communicate with people who are different to you is not your location, your income or your life experiences – it’s your imagination.

People who are able to imagine how other people live are simply better at media and marketing than people who lack this faculty. The ability to imagine how life can be for other people will be increasingly valuable as we embrace a more heterogeneous future (like it or not, Mr Farage, that’s the way the world’s going).

The success of your marketing departments and your agencies will depend on their understanding of much more diverse audiences than their predecessors.

They will need not only to be able to imagine the lives and outlooks of people who are different to them in many different ways, they will then also need to be able to navigate this complexity and create campaigns and messages for brands to appeal to heterogenuous audiences without becoming schizophrenic and fragmented.

The success of your marketing departments and your agencies will depend on their understanding of much more diverse audiences than their predecessors.

Working that out is going to be very exciting. It’s going to take a bit of imagination. Being disappointed that we’re leaving the European Union, or that Hillary Clinton isn’t president, is just not the same as thinking it wasn’t possible before it happened, and it’s not the same as being unable to understand why it happened.

So the next time someone gravely intones that you can’t possibly understand other people’s lives, it’s worth reflecting on their words. They may well be right. But they won’t be right because you live in London and earn a handsome salary, they will be right because you’re not able to imagine how life can be for those with dramatically different life experiences.

So respectfully correct them on their assumptions and then work out if you need to develop a different way of looking at the world, before you decide that your best career choice would be a move to Yorkshire to live in a shoebox at the bottom of a stagnant pond.

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
@mawdsleycraig