If we can solve our empathy deficit, we can save the world

Since Bill Hicks implored for people who work in advertising or marketing to: “Kill yourselves”, the industry has struggled to shake off its toxic image. Unfair?

The latest research from Reach does little to dispel this. People who work in the industry, apparently, have ‘low levels of affective empathy’, are less likely to share and – in the slightly sinister language of the report – ‘have different ethical settings to the modern mainstream’. Much like, say, a torturer might be described as having ‘different ethical settings’.

I once pitched a sitcom idea to a BBC commissioner. It was set in an ad agency. Although the script was well-received, it was rejected. Why? “The audience won’t empathise with the characters. They think people who work in advertising are dicks.” (BBC2’s only foray into this genre, The Persuasionists, had worse ratings than your dad’s jokes and was cancelled after its first series.)

As my best friend likes to say, ‘some of my best friends work in advertising’. And while I have encountered some absolute Jeremy Hunts – I’ve also had unreasonably understanding bosses, experienced unprompted kindness from colleagues and even willingly spent my spare time with some of these sociopaths.

So is the industry really reeling from an innate lack of empathy, futilely virtue-signalling its way to ever greater contempt? Or are we maligned and misunderstood, trying to readdress the empathy deficit one 6-second pre-roll at a time?

At Ogilvy, we launched ‘Get Out There’ – an initiative to get planners away from their desks and out into the real world. In the aftermath of June 2016, it was an exercise in bursting our Veja-donning, liberal-leaning, Liberty-shopping London filter bubble. It wasn’t ground-breaking. It was just the basics. How can we understand people who have different perspectives if we never ‘get out there’ and listen to them? But is it enough? Are our attempts at empathy, as a recent BBH Labs post put it, simply ‘narcissism that passes as caring’? How can we be better?

I recently went freelance. Partly, for flexibility, but mostly, because I wanted to explore other things; other lives outside of advertising. So I spent a year training as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. And what trait does an actor need more than any other? No, not delusional self-confidence. The other one. Empathy.

When I was at school, I was, how do you put it – a precocious little shit. I was often given leading roles in our dramatic productions and took getting into character very seriously. For one end-of-year performance project, I played an elderly woman. How did a 16-year-old girl inhabit the physicality of an 86-year-old? I went where I knew I would find the biggest concentration of older folk: bus stops. Sat, and observed. For hours. How they sat. How they moved. How they spoke. And brought it back to my performance. Every movement, every sentence became slower, more deliberate, more effortful. I felt, in a very limited way, what it was like to be old. For 6 weeks, I was Edna. Proper method. Told you – little shit.

To become someone else is the ultimate exercise in empathy. And I’m not suggesting we all go off and ‘inhabit the physicality’ of a Marmite shopper. But here are some tactics to help us empathise more effectively:

Live in the real world

You are more than your LinkedIn profile. Go outside. No literally. Get out of the office. Walk, wonder, watch. Not with the microscopic gaze of a scientist scrutinising phenomena; not looking down – on the same level. Maybe (and I know this isn’t the North) but maybe even say hello to someone.

Participate in culture

Agencies waffle about wanting to ‘shape culture’, but how many staffers are actually ‘influencers’, in any context? You want to ‘engage communities’ but when did you last pay a visit to your local community centre? If you don’t ‘get’ TikTok, film yourself trying to ‘hit the woah’. And don’t talk to anyone about ‘social media strategy’ until you can.

Do things outside advertising

The term ‘side hustle’ makes me queasy, but myopically staring at Guinness ads from the 90s and falling asleep with Byron Sharp books on your face is not the only way to get to better work. Always wanted to open a coffee shop? Do it. You’ll learn so much more about ‘business metrics’ than reading another IPA paper.

Do good things

Yes, pro-rata charity work. Yes, be kind to your neighbours, but bigger things too. Extinction Rebellion recently challenged our industry to step up, because we can. Because we should. As an industry, boy do we know: It’s good to talk. But what good things can we, collectively, do?

If we can train ourselves to be more empathetic, maybe we’ll earn our place in the world and prove Hicks wrong.

In the meantime, I’ll be busy exercising my empathy muscle by pretending to be someone else.

Marie Maurer is a freelance strategy director (and an actor), currently at adam&eveDDB

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