Empathy is in decline and it's bad for business, but don't worry... we've got you.


The best products solve real human problems. The best advertising connects with people on a human level. The best brands are compelling ideas that feel inspiring, relevant or aspirational to human beings. The most visionary companies put human beings at the heart of everything they do. We know all of this. It’s hard to dispute that a good understanding of people is pretty fundamental to commercial success.

And yet it feels like understanding people is getting harder. We live in bubbles. We do fewer of the things that promote mutual understanding, whether it’s eating together or talking to our neighbours or participating in team sport. We sit alone buying products from the comfort of our own sofas. Parents in playgrounds stare at their smartphones.

It’s meant to be different in business. Businesses are meant to be better at understanding people than those distracted dads standing by the swings, or the urban commuters whose greatest fear in life is having to share a train carriage with someone who lives down the road. Because businesses have data. And maybe they even have Big Data. They’ve got a passing understanding of a handful of Behavioural Science heuristics. They get along to some focus groups. And yet – more and more there’s a nagging sense that something’s missing.

 

There’s a growing realisation that it’s possible to know everything, but feel nothing.

 

Because what’s really missing is empathy. Empathy towards people whose lives are different. Whose motivations and constraints and circumstances and concerns are different. Whose favourite meals and TV shows and holiday destinations are different.

There’s a growing acknowledgement of – and anxiety about – this empathy deficit. The problem is summed up beautifully here by Wieden + Kennedy’s Martin Weigel.  A recent APG survey of creative agency planners and strategists, rated ‘understanding people’ as the number one skill required in their discipline, yet strategists regularly bemoan the lack of time, money or skill-sets to do it properly these days.

The consequences are pretty obvious. Everyone in a given category ends up chasing after the same surface-level insights or widely-observed trends or fictional (also known as ‘aspirational’) targets. At best this gives rise to campaigns and brand comms that feel generic or dull. At worst it leads to ads and products that actively piss off the people they are meant to attract.

For a long time, speakers at conferences informed us that agencies like The Sound would die soon. Because, you know, Big Data. And yet here we are. We didn’t die, we grew.

 

Because what really sets us apart is our ability to feel – and inspire – empathy.

 

What we really offer is that elusive ability to understand people. I mean really understand them. To go well beyond the obvious, to surprise and provoke. And, above all, to inspire businesses to do something with this understanding.

Let’s take a moment to blow our own trumpet, if only to demonstrate that empathy makes a real difference.

A few years ago, Timberland was experiencing a worrying decline in market share. They wanted to refocus the business through a new understanding of a core target and their relationship with the outdoors. So we needed to really get to know them, beyond their acknowledged behaviours and characteristics, adding layers of humanity to the Powerpoint decks and the algorithms. We visited them at home and went with them to stores and trekked with them in the Dolomites. We brought back insights that were fresh and new and challenging. We made beautiful film that inspired real a-ha moments. Timberland used this new-found empathy towards its core target to turn around a decline in market share, growing its sales by 15% in a single quarter, improving its performance in every global market and significantly improving its profit margin. This customer-focused transformation is the subject of a Fortune analysis here.

But what actually makes us great at this work? It’s not our ability to moderate focus groups or write questionnaires or run workshops.

 

Fundamentally we believe it boils down to three key principles.

 

1. It’s an Attitude

It’s the desire to look through behaviours or claimed attitudes to understand what really drives people. It’s a deep-seated glass-half-full belief that people are not stupid or bigoted or boring or inferior. There’s always magic beneath the surface and it’s our job to find it – even in the dullest of categories. And to do this we need to confront our own cognitive biases and over-compensate for them.

 

2. It’s an Insatiable Curiosity

The best researchers and strategists keep asking why. They’re not satisfied with insights that feel predictable or clichéd or hollow. They dig deeper. They ask what’s happening behind and around the things they see or hear – and they know when to ignore the things that people tell them. They need to feel liberated from the literal findings of research, to make fascinating new connections between disparate pieces of evidence. We need to move comfortably between narrow and wide focus, avoiding the “mediocrity of the middle-distance insight” as this article rather eloquently puts it.

 

3. It’s the Gift that we Give

Building empathy within businesses (a.k.a. making people give a shit, making them want to improve people’s lives) is the real value we provide as an industry. Ultimately this is far more important than simply communicating insights. Insights are worth very little without empathy. If this means creating work that is designed to tell you what someone in the business already knows to be true, but more beautifully and more movingly, we’re absolutely fine with that.

 

 

When we say that The Sound exists to connect brands with people, this is what we mean.

We exist to understand people better than you understand them right now.

We exist to help you feel closer to the people behind the numbers; their lives, their hopes and fears, their tensions, their quirks, their contradictions.

We exist because we believe passionately that knowing it is very different to feeling it.

And we exist because great ideas or shifts in direction need epiphanies and epiphanies need empathy and empathy is in very short supply today.

Written by Stuart Knapman | Managing Director

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