Why Empathy Matters in Advertising and Design

Last Friday, I attended the latest Creative Mornings gathering and saw Holley Murchison, from communications consulting firm, Oratory Glory, speak about why love and empathy are important in our work. This is something I think a lot about, both in my work and when I teach students. Why does empathy matter so much as a creative? Well, a lot of reasons.

1. Empathy is understanding you’re not the audience

The most obvious answer to why empathy matters is because we’re not only making things we like, we’re making things to appeal to an audience. Attempting to understand the worldview of a homemaker or a 15-year-old YouTube enthusiast takes leaps of imagination but also empathy. To make good work that is effective, we can’t patronize and stereotype who our audience is, we have to place ourselves in their shoes and connect to a truth in their lives.

How can we do that? Research. David Ogilvy said “Advertisers who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore the signs of the enemy.” Yes, of course, read the brief, ask questions, delve deeper, but also read more yourself. Watch documentaries, follow people who have a different worldview from you. If your audience is consistent, then get to know them. Stop having aversions to certain social platforms if your audience is there. If you work on Taco Bell in 2016, you might actually have to download and use SnapChat. I hope you wouldn’t work on a brand that you didn’t get to know, do the same with your audience.

2. Empathy requires creative growth

When you cultivate empathy, you’re forced to grow creatively. Your personal taste can only take you so far. When you lead with empathy, you’re forced to take on new viewpoints. What is beautiful in this context? Who does this appeal to? What kinds of things does your audience find beautiful, funny, insightful and true? If you’re designing UX, it’s especially important. Just because the user flow is obvious to you, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to most people. Rely on your research, formal and informal.

3. Empathy requires collaboration

In order to understand other viewpoints, you have to collaborate with your team. You actually have to listen to your client, your strategists, the well-researched media and analytics teams (who know where people are actually clicking), and the intern who understands the latest social media craze. The egomaniac creative is (or should be) an endangered species. Though creatives often get the credit when an idea is good, good ideas are not born in a vacuum. The best ideas understand context, culture and audience.

4. Empathy forces diversity

Finally, and importantly, if you lead with empathy in your work, you’ll realize that we can’t just have one worldview when creating the work. Research helps, yes, but who is doing the research? Who is making the work? In order to create truly empathetic work, we must have diverse voices creating that work. There needs to be women in the brainstorm room when we’re targeting women, mothers when we’re talking to mothers, people of color and LGBTQ people, well, on everything.

The last couple of decades we’ve seen representation get better in advertising on screen, with diverse actors and models in the work (though we still have far to go), but the people behind those ads aren’t always as diverse. In order to create truly empathetic, truthful work, we need the people creating that work to have diverse backgrounds and understandings. We can’t create something that hasn’t already been done if we have the same types of people continually creating the work.

I have more thoughts on how to recruit and retain more diverse talent, I’ll get to that in another post. I’d love your thoughts on how you cultivate and use empathy in your work. What are some ways empathy has made your work better?