Half Technovore, Half Creativore

By Marty Orzio Gotham/New York Posted on May 06, 2011

I’m feeling stuffed with Technology. Innovation, the Conversation, Memes, this new tool, that new app and that Mashable guy’s cheeky mug popping up on my Twitter screen every 20 minutes —it’s like the four inches of pastrami on a four-and-a-half-inch pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli. I’d like a more balanced diet.

Did you hear about the agency that recently tasked a creative candidate to amass a thousand or so Twitter followers in a week in order to be considered for a job? How does that happen at a solid creative shop? Smart people get a little off track.

I think we all could benefit from a more balanced diet.

I want more creativity. More craft. More art. Because as Dave Trott said about waiting for the next technology, “That’s as creative as waiting for a train to come into the station, and being the first to jump on.” What he meant, I believe, was not that it doesn’t take creativity to create new technology, but that it’s just not inventing a fresh way of saying something yourself. So where will meaning come from?

As new tools debut every week and we all want to be the first to apply them, I say we look for some perspective, a simple quality that we can all seek out and nurture in our people, a quality against which our work could be evaluated.

I’m talking about Empathy. Empathy makes us human. It makes the communication human. And in a world desperate for authenticity, human is a good thing. Do we want to give our clients the latest technology or do we do the right thing, which may or may not include the latest technology? With Empathy, we understand the true needs of our consumers and our clients, because we’ve put ourselves in their shoes.

Years ago, I read about Empathy in a management book called First Break All the Rules and it stuck with me. It’s a story about a Gallup study for a hotel chain. Gallup was asked to determine how to identify the best housekeepers. After interviewing them, Gallup noticed that several of the outstanding subjects routinely gave each room the same kind of final inspection. They lay on the guest’s bed and turned on the ceiling fan. “Because,” it was explained, “that is the first thing that a guest will do after a long day out. They will walk into the room, flop down on the bed, and turn on the fan. If dust comes off the top of the fan, then no matter how sparkling clean the rest of the room was, the guest might think it was as dirty as the top of the fan.” So the talent had very little to do with how to make a bed or scrub a sink. The real challenge was making a genuine connection to the guest, using one’s special talent for Empathy. That’s what I’m talking about for our consumers.

Empathy helps direct us to an idea that has emotion—the appropriate emotion, the main ingredient of effective advertising, the feeling our consumer wants to feel. And this demands that we advertisers have some ability to know what someone else is feeling, or at least to imagine what someone is feeling now and to intuit what he or she could be feeling ultimately, if exposed to certain stimuli.

Interestingly, Empathy means being creative. In fact, it is not generally revealed in left-brain-directed ways, as Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. We express our own emotions and read the emotions of others primarily with our right brain; left brain activities pertain to things like building systems, following processes, applying logic and analysis, thinking about what is said and where it’s said as opposed to how it’s said.

So Empathy could provide the detachment we need from technology and from ourselves to become fine-tuned to our consumers. Empathy apportions us with the much-needed balance.

It’s the difference between a tweet announcing a new line extension and one that says, “My new Komodo is not an island inhabited by ten-foot lizard beasts, it is a freshening balm named after it. http://bit.ly/oldspice¬_komodo.” With Empathy, the writer knows that this consumer wants some cleverness with his brawn.

Similarly, there’s Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” How else would the creative team know that their male consumer would also want people to “ hang on (your) every word, even the prepositions,” if not for a little Empathy?

Try this one: www.milkmatters.co.uk/cats. It’s a link to a little film for Cravendale milk that purrs with Empathy. It’s about craving milk, craving it as much as a cat does. You know what it’s like to be a cat? If you empathize with one, you might persuade some human beings to crave it as well.

One of the cleverest campaigns of the last few years, the Best Job in the World, had consumers in the flip-flops of someone who had a job very unlike our own jobs, a job so cushy one needn’t ever escape on vacation from it. Once we imagined that person’s particular heaven, we found ourselves wanting to take a vacation to see exactly how beautiful it was in Queensland, Australia.

At Gotham, instead of asking prospective moms to consider a baby stroller for its trendiness, we created posters that gave them a glimpse of themselves in the beautifully timeless role of motherhood. (Yes, that was a bit of self-promotion, but put yourself in my shoes and you probably wouldn’t have resisted the temptation, either.)

Empathy crosses all categories. A good pharmaceutical campaign, like Tylenol’s work a few years back, probably had the consumer believing “Finally, someone feels my pain.” Good car advertising, like the original Mini work, puts us in a better and more exhilarating driver’s seat. Good sneaker advertising, like Nike’s and Adidas’s, often has us feel the intensity of a world-class athlete’s desire to triumph. Of course, Empathy may not always play such an obvious role, but wherever consumers are trying on a little change, getting into another head, if only for a moment, I’ll bet Empathy had something to do with it.

What if a team wanted to create something that involved avatars? What if they wanted to create, not just a bit of role-playing, but the opportunity for someone to put themselves in an important role? We might have a good idea on our hands.

In a commoditized world, Empathy is an indispensable tool. We’ll differentiate products by knowing how people differentiate themselves. It’s a skill that will become critical for future success in an age that is increasingly conceptual and emotional. It can be the difference between a good idea and a great one.

And, as a virtue, who would argue that a little more Empathy wouldn’t be a good thing? If I weren’t so distracted, Empathy probably would not have allowed me to be so insensitive to that Mashable guy.

You can reach Marty at marty.orzio@gothaminc.com
twitter: @martyorzio


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