Move over data, people are the real deal

Recent research by the Account Planning Group has shown that as the industry gets increasingly dominated by data and technology, empathy - its core strength - is being forgotten, say Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's Craig Mawdsley and J Walter Thompson's Shekhar Deshpande.

Craig Mawdsley: calling for a focus on empathy with JWT's Shekhar Deshpande
Craig Mawdsley: calling for a focus on empathy with JWT's Shekhar Deshpande

Let’s face it – the world is moving one only way. It’s not going to change. Unless we say "data", "technology" or "digital" in every other sentence, we are dinosaurs. It’s true of agencies of every stripe and marketing departments at every level.

But are we in the danger of losing something valuable in this one dimensional discourse?

Recent research by the APG shed light on this issue. The research took in the views of 25 of London’s leading chief strategy officers, across agencies of all types. (digital, media, social, experience, research, design, advertising, historical, pastoral, tragical, comical) and APG members were also polled to understand what they thought we, as an industry, needed to do, to survive and thrive in the future.

Was there a radically different view of the future between these diverse types of leaders?

No.

There was a singular frustration.

We are in danger of losing touch with people.

Deep, intuitive and relevant understanding of people that made the industry the success that it continues to be. It’s our superpower. Who else can make sense of the outside world, the world that people live in, and use that empathy to create effective outcomes for our clients?

We're the only ones whose empathy with people and culture can diagnose and define how and where to create an effect, and then help execute it

Consultancies understand the inside world of business and clients. Researchers understand the outside world of people. Technologists understand, well, technology. But we’re the only ones that are able to connect the outside to the inside. The only ones whose empathy with people and culture can diagnose and define how and where to create an effect, and then help execute it. There isn’t another breed that does all of that. Such a shame, then, that we’re obsessively trying to become technologists, or consultants, when they’re trying to become us (or robot versions of us).

Technology and data are not curses, they should be fuel for our understanding and action. But often the humanity gets lost in the desire for the rational algorithmic solution (or to borrow from a recent compelling TED talk on the topic, the weapons of math destruction).

Marketing is a subjective discipline, for it depends entirely on the subjectivity of our customers. Will they respond, or won’t they? Unless we go back to looking closely at people as a whole, rather than just signals of their behaviour, we will be eroding the power of marketing communications.

We exist as a discipline only because we are valued as a discipline. Recent forecasts suggest that we could soon be entirely replaced by Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google. Embracing data and technology is part of the answer to stopping this. But what likelihood is there that we can do that better than those big four? Zero.

Play a different game

We need to play a different game. To advocate a different source of value. To think that the new digital world is a fad is naïve, but to abandon empathy as old-fashioned is dangerous. We have spent decades turning that understanding into consistent and healthy returns for our clients.

One of Jeff Bezos’ principles in business is to solve for the things that don’t change.

Humanity is one of those things.

It is this core strength that will could reunite our fragmented discipline, and help create better work and better brands.

The APG study is a cry for help from a discipline in our industry that once created significant new value, and has been exported from London to the world.

Allowing strategy to be buried by data, or become a tech services department would be a big mistake. But it’s one we’re rushing headlong towards.

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Shekhar Deshpande is the global planning director at J Walter Thompson