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Why Empathy is the Secret to Creativity

Opinion and Insight 5805 Add to collection
Laura Swinton on what the 20 most popular branded films can teach us
Why Empathy is the Secret to Creativity

‘If I was someone else and I wasn’t doing this job, would I ever actually watch this?’ Sacrilegious, I know, but it’s a question I find myself pondering often. And I’ll bet that you do to. Working in the ad industry bubble it’s easy to get swept away by smart ideas, beautiful craft and enthusiastic creative but that dark, shadowy whisper lurking deep within the brain can burst free at the most inopportune moments. That’s why this week’s list of the 20 most viewed branded content videos of all time made for interesting reading. With the highest scoring films notching up scores of over 200 million each, there is obviously an appetite for resonant, authentic, creative content. As I wracked my brains to figure out why these films had been such a hit with the procrastinating public at large it struck me – the secret ingredient is empathy.

Empathy, the ability to intellectually and emotionally connect with the experience of another, is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. Now, it may not feel like that as you endure the thoroughly antisocial daily commute or the machinations of Machiavellian colleagues, but according to researchers it’s the cornerstone of civilisation (language, art, politics are all products of our sociable natures and desire to communicate with and understand others). It may even be the key to our species’ long-term survival.


So how does empathy, both lofty and profound, translate to the day-to-day business of advertising? Well there’s the obvious – it requires a degree of empathy to figure out what other people might respond to. The most viewed piece of branded content according to Visible Measures’ research is the 2010 Blendtec campaign ‘Will It Blend?’, which has notched up 244,060,185 views. Essentially it’s a demo campaign for a bit of kitchen equipment. Pretty dull, right? But thanks to its silliness, an appeal to our childish appetite for destruction and the authentic, awkward humour of Blendtec founder Tom Dickson it has made a connection. Similarly 12 on the list, Volvo Truck’s Live Test series is another set of product demonstrations guided by an expert evaluation of how not to bore people.


Check out the top 20 most viewed branded videos here.

But empathy in advertising is about more than just exploiting people’s emotions. With a highly evolved ability to identify with others and connect comes a finely tuned bullshit detector. Without true empathy, authenticity is faked, forced and a total turn off. Just think about Kony 2012, number three on the list. Within a week of launching, the viral video inspired a colossal backlash when it was exposed as a hoax. It may have garnered 70 million views in its first week, but its colossal hit-count and longevity has as much to do with the anger and disgust it triggered. Sky high view counts don’t necessarily translate into effectiveness, particularly when people feel like they’ve been manipulated.

The best creatives know when and how to empathise. When I use the word ‘empathy’ I don’t mean vague and fluffy candyfloss niceness. I don’t mean emotional incontinence. And I certainly don’t mean spinelessness. I mean that they are interested in people. They seek emotional resonance. Admittedly, the traditional stereotype of the narcissistic, arrogant creative-type seems to hold true in some regards; studies suggest a relationship between narcissism and self-perceived creativity and the ability to project oneself as a creative person to others. However, that doesn’t mean that narcissists are in fact more creative than anyone else - they just think they are. However research has also found a positive relationship between empathy and creativity – and psychologist John Wakefield suggests this might be because empathy allows ‘problem finding’, which paves the way to creative problem solving.

This week I interviewed Ogilvy & Mather CCO Tham Khai Meng about his recent Creative Week talk about LGBT representation in advertising and why the industry needs to catch up with changes in social attitudes. I was struck by his insatiable curiosity and desire to see the world through the eyes of others. Don’t get me wrong, well-timed belligerence and single-mindedness are important weapons for any aspiring creative superstar but the key is to know when to deploy the stinkbomb and when to hold fire and look beyond yourself.

Designer Seung Chan Lim researches empathy and is convinced that it can improve innovation, design and our capacity to collaborate. It makes sense – whether you’re building an app or an ergonomic can opener, the best design puts people and their experience at the centre. In one TEDX talk, he goes as far as to suggest that there are several similarities between the creative process and the empathic one. And – pertinently – he highlights the link between empathy and respect.


“If there's anything I've learned in the past five years of doing this research it’s that we don't see anything or anyone the way they are, we see them as we want to and for that reason the first step to realising empathy is to practice respect," he declares. "But we live in a time when we think that respecting is synonymous with tolerating or accommodating them. We say things like ‘I respectfully disagree’, which really means 'you're wrong but I'm nice - enough to tolerate your stupidity."

It’s a sentiment that struck a chord. There are brands that seem to treat people with respect and there are those who treat us like mugs. Over the years, I’ve heard several successful ECDs express their deep dislike of the word ‘consumer’ and I’d like to think that speaks to their capacity for combining creativity and empathy. It’s a pretty dehumanising term, after all. What’s wrong with thinking and talking about people as, well, people?

Data and analytics are an ever-growing part of the advertising landscape, always threatening to encroach upon or even engulf creative. But numbers without nouse is a fruitless exercise. That’s why in many agencies you’ll find econometricians and mathematical whizzes paired up with psychology grads and other statistically literate people with communication skills and a foothold in the real world. 

As a whole, the industry is not always particularly conducive to empathy – all the greasy poles, gossiping and grandstanding can make it appear to be a psychopath’s playground. But where it’s allowed to flourish, so too does creativity. Empathy is the product of millennia of evolution and when it’s not suppressed, it serves us well. So perhaps stopping to question ourselves, looking at our work through new eyes or, hell, even escaping the industry every now and then isn’t such a bad thing after all.


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LBB Editorial, Wed, 21 May 2014 16:20:33 GMT