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Your Advertising Career Hinges on Your Ability to Empathize

Put yourself in my shoes,
Walk a mile for me.
You know, I’ll put myself in your shoes,
Maybe then we’d see,
That if you put yourself in my shoes,
You’d have some sympathy.

Clint Black should be poet laureate for the marketing industry. He nailed, in 34 words, the sine qua non for all good advertisers and marketers – empathy. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of three constituencies – customers, employees, and clients – is more important to marketing than creativity, budget, or even the almighty price. Because you can make a wildly creative advertisement about a low-priced, amazing product, air it during the Super Bowl, and produce no results because you didn’t think like potential customers.


Are you the target demographic for your client’s (or company’s, if you are in-house) product or service? If yes, then you’re wearing the high heels or hiking boots that you need to be in. If no, then it doesn’t matter one damn bit what you think. You have to imagine what it’s like to be a mom, or a frat boy, or rock-climbing hippie – if you’re successful, you might have to put yourself in all of their shoes on the same day.

Not only do you have to imagine their lives, but you can’t recoil at those thoughts. Empathy requires that you realize it takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round. I’m telling you this because I hope you can awaken your empathy within, because I’m not sure you can learn to empathize as an adult, if you don’t already know how.

What you can do, through the miracle of big data, is learn what people in your target market like, don’t like, and what they spend their money on. You can create customer personas, and if you can’t inhabit that person personally, you need to find someone who can. That’s what it takes to create the kind of messages that will resonate with people – because every target market consists of people. That requires empathy.


Have you ever asked your client what they hope for and what they fear? I mean in regards to business, because you do not want to know their personal hopes and fears. Sorry, flashbacks… Anyway, if you start empathizing with a business owner, CEO, or CMO you’ll be more adept at setting and meeting expectations. You’ll be better at communicating to them the way they want to be communicated to. You will understand what they need you to accomplish. You can be very successful at showing a return on your client’s marketing investment, but if the client was expecting a different outcome – that’s a hollow success.

I used to think that a broad and deep knowledge of the world was the most important element of advertising. After all, if you can relate to someone’s interests, you can make a connection, right? And, if you have a connection it’s easier to sell them something or make an analogy they understand in order to explain a concept. Now, I think that’s the second most important characteristic of an advertiser, because I can know lots of information without being able to relate to how another individual perceives that information. That requires empathy.


“What’s your management style?” Answering that question in a job interview is the adult equivalent of taking a standardized test. The answer you need to deliver isn’t the one you believe to be correct – it’s the answer they expect. In reality, the only right answer is, “I try to be a servant leader,” though few interviewers will expect it.

At the heart of servant leadership is empathy. The difference between, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, “Do unto others as they would have you do to them,” is – you guessed it – empathy. You must care about the people under your charge individually in order to know what motivates them. You must motivate them to get thoughtful, creative, and efficient work. And, to care about a person, you must make that person’s priorities your priorities – possibly even your top priority from time to time.

Leadership is a function of support – you must not produce anything other than guidance and support to be an effective leader, because a contented, produces the results. But a team is composed of individuals, and you must guide and support them individually – as they need and want you to. That requires empathy.

If you want to reach individuals – to sell them something, to keep their business, to motivate and support them – you have to put yourself in their shoes. Otherwise, Clint Black’s arch-nemesis, Nancy Sinatra, will play her tune for you:

These boots are made for walking,
And that’s just what they’ll do.
One of these days these boots
Are gonna walk all over you.

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