Does the ad industry lack empathy?

Advertising and marketing professionals are meant to be experts at responding to the thoughts and feelings of the people they're targeting, but new research suggests the reality is different.

Empathy: Reach study finds ad industry folk lacking
Empathy: Reach study finds ad industry folk lacking

Research published last week by Reach found that when it came to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, advertising and marketing professionals were lacking

Just 30% of the industry people studied by Reach had high levels of perspective-taking and affective empathy. That’s almost identical to the general population (29%) – which is not something to celebrate when you consider that being able to understand what makes people tick, so as to create messages that will convince them to spend their money in a particular way, is central to the job at hand.

Commenting below, MediaCom’s Sue Unerman flagged up the danger of the London bubble for an industry that is overwhelmingly based in the capital. It’s a point also made by Nigel Farage in Campaign’s exclusive interview, published today; the Brexit Party grand high witch claims the ad industry "can’t see beyond London, which is why they missed a massive market opportunity". 

While Farage’s notion that ad agencies are "all in Soho" is somewhat outdated, his thrust is not entirely misinformed. In a previous study in 2017, Reach (then Trinity Mirror) found that most major brands were failing to connect with consumers outside London

And just five days after the fateful referendum, Trinity Mirror chief marketing officer Zoe Harris wrote in Campaign that Farage and his merry men had won the vote because adland and the media failed to hear the emotional soundtrack of life in England outside the M25.

It’s not all about our imbalanced, overly centralised nation, of course – as Andy Nairn pointed out, there are the campaigns that seem more concerned with impressing Cannes Lions judges than making an impression on ordinary people. 

And there is the factor that does the most damage to people’s impressions of advertising: bombardment. Industry folk continue to play their part in pushing out repetitive, irrelevant advertising, despite also being consumers and internet users, with first-hand experience of how off-putting it can be. Therefore never send to know with whom you fail to empathise: you fail to empathise with thine own self.

Does does this industry lack empathy?

Andy Nairn

Founding partner, Lucky Generals

Yes, sadly. I should clarify that my answer isn’t really based on this research (I feel the differences mentioned in the report are rather slender). Instead, I draw my conclusion from our collective output: ludicrous purpose-driven campaigns, clumsy attempts at personalisation, creepy retargeting and turgid content all point to an industry which is increasingly talking to itself. Recently, I even heard a senior marketer from a FTSE 100 company proudly proclaim that "I don’t care what consumers think". The flip side, though, is that if you do remotely give a shit these days, you can be more successful than ever – something the best agencies and marketers are happily taking advantage of.

Belinda Parmar

Chief executive, The Empathy Business; founder, The Truth About Tech

My experience both inside and outside the industry is while many advertising people are highly emotionally intelligent and can tune into the mood of room, they fail to take the next step into what I call "empathy-in-action", which is understanding their impact on others. There are big egos in agencies and this can cloud people's ability to see the world through different perspectives and move beyond sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, empathy-in-action is rolling up your sleeves and working together to solve a problem. Corporate politics and bullsh*t is rife in advertising and its hierarchical structure acts as a barrier to real honest conversations. In order for the industry and the leaders to become empathic, we need to dismantle the power structure and start focusing on what really matters: those around us, our colleagues and our customers.

Sue Unerman

Chief transformation officer, MediaCom UK

You must train empathy. Once someone is working in advertising, they are no longer working in a shop/factory/charity/bank or as a full-time stay at home mum etc. It is essential to walk in the shoes of others. We have offices throughout the UK to ensure there’s no London bubble. We mandate "method insight" so teams spend real time with relevant client consumers and employees, and report their insights. "Real world Britain" and "connected kids" panels deliver ongoing cultural insights. We value empathy in our everyday relationships as well and have empathy ambassadors to ensure that everyone is always empathy conscious.

Stephen Woodford

Chief executive, Advertising Association

Advertising people do not lack empathy, but there are important areas for improvement. Much greater diversity will improve this hugely by better reflecting the public we serve. More diverse teams also produce more successful outcomes and commercial effectiveness is a clear measure of good empathy in action. Another challenge, which needs all our empathetic capabilities, is reversing the long-term decline in public trust. AA research shows what is needed. The top priority is reducing what people describe as "bombardment". Putting ourselves in our customers' shoes, planning campaigns to minimise bombardment, with more sensitive media and creative deployment, will demonstrate our empathy in action, benefitting us all.

Diana Tickell

Chief executive, Nabs

Empathy needs to exist not only with consumers but within our workforce for organisations to thrive. The Reach report highlights that creating empathy is actually quite difficult and requires deep self-awareness. That's why at Nabs we've embedded raising your self-awareness into our well-being model, alongside a range of other elements such as good physical and mental health. Encouragingly, we're seeing people at all levels – from new recruits to senior managers – coming to us to build their empathy, rapport and emotional intelligence. There's much more work to do, but that we're embracing this challenge as an industry is very positive.