Why Empathy Is as Critical a Skill as Any Other

In Managing Any Relationship, Knowing What the Person Is Feeling Is Important

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Cliff Medney
Cliff Medney
Leading up to the 1992 presidential election, Democratic strategist James Carville was right to focus the Clinton campaign on the single-minded message of the economy. Obviously it was not the only issue the campaign thought was important, but it was the most important one. Because if people did not believe that Bill Clinton knew -- above anything else -- that the nation's economy needed to be fixed and that he was the guy to fix it, nothing else really mattered.

Carville found absolute clarity in what matters. It's what marketing desperately needs today. So many of us in this business seem to be touting a special process or some divine intervention that will lead to the even more overdone notion of "the big idea." Given that every client wants "the big idea" as the ultimate business solution, selling the process and the road map to getting there would seem to make sense.

But creativity is never easy. While a smart, defined process can and does help many get it right (if nothing else, it puts the key ingredients in place), in marketing or any right-brain field, it's never really about the process. It's about the people and the emotional or functional competencies they bring to bear. Therefore, one of the true critical skills one can possess -- and a skill that is increasingly sought by employers today -- is empathy.

Gauging reactions
Empathy in the agency business is especially critical. It is the ability to go deep into relationships -- for example, to "feel out" a room full of clients or determine how a client or potential client is feeling about a piece of creative or creative insight. In our agency we talk a lot about the "right idea" as being way more important than the clichéd "big idea." It's about understanding what all the shareholders -- from client to consumer -- will feel, do, and get out of the idea and its delivery.
Cliff Medney is chief marketing officer at Eastwest Marketing Group, an independent, fully integrated marketing shop.
Simply, the right idea is rooted in the essence of why customer-relationship management continues to be viewed by many as the holy grail of marketing. Why? Because in managing any relationship (think marriage), knowing what the person is feeling couldn't be more important.

Successful marketing -- meaning successfully getting someone to emotionally engage and buy into a story -- always depends on the degree to which people connect.

In the creative and marketing-communication business, the ability to deliver on empathy is as important as any asset on the P&L. It's a skill and mind-set, often expressed and even measured in terms of "emotional intelligence," a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his early 1990s book by the same name. From a business perspective, empathy is essentially a core competency every bit as definable and leverageable as any computer or communication ability.

There is a lot written in psychological literature regarding the nature-vs.-nurture aspect of empathy, as well as the difference in empathetic ability between men and women. And while historically women score higher than men in most empathy-based testing models, clearly men can be very empathetic, even if they often prove not to be.

So when it comes to evaluating potential hires in terms of company fit or skill set, we look very closely at how candidates will mesh psychologically as part of the overall team while also retaining their own creative identity. Empathy is a critical area that is explored on numerous fronts -- as it relates to clients, clients' businesses, agency culture, learning and other capacities, even how the individual feels about being in the "service business." We even have an abbreviation, AE, that stands not for "account executive" but for "agency empathy" -- as in, "How do you feel about their AE ability?"

To paraphrase President Clinton, feeling someone's pain is in the job description.
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