Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Patrick Collister: Without empathy there is atrophy

Patrick Collister, NDA’s monthly creative columnist, is the Curator of The Caples Awards, Editor of Directory and a friend to

I’ve recently received an email invitation to a conference about Empathy Marketing. Frankly, I’m gobsmacked.

Empathy Marketing is a thing?

I’ve just Googled it (empathy marketing) and in 0.54 seconds have been delivered 64 million possible connections.

I guess because I’m old and stupid, I imagined that marketing always required empathy.

You know, thinking about customers, who they are and what they do, what they like and what they don’t like and then talking to them in a friendly way.

That sort of thing. 

But no, it seems that looking at the world through the consumer’s eyes is new. And exciting.

Apparently this is how you create authentic connections. And build trust.

Here’s some advice on how to empathise from a recent blogpost.

Understand your audience’s pain points.

Establish what can you do to help them?

Take an educational approach in your marketing.

Capture everyday life in your campaigns.

Try to get your audience involved.

Isn’t it bleedin’ obvious? This is all stuff William Lever was doing 150 years ago.

Okay, so I guffawed a bit. Then stopped. I had a little think and began to realise what a huge problem lack of empathy has become. Arguably the biggest single problem for marketers today. And it’s all down to data.

Yup. Marketers have learned to see their audiences as data points. Not as people. David Ogilvy’s dictum that “the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife” is as pertinent now as it was when he wrote it in 1961.

Data has allowed marketers to be lazy. There are so many different opportunities to connect with potential customers they don’t need to be thoughtful about it.      

When I was a young copywriter, we tried to make the ads as pleasant as possible so that the people who weren’t in the market for the product would tolerate them.

If we were going to invade people’s living rooms, we should be polite. And respectful.

In direct marketing, I always argued that when you send out a mailing hoping for a 2% response rate, remember the other 98%. If you offend them, you are doing more long-term damage to the brand than you’re achieving in short-term sales. 

That’s the role of creativity in advertising.

Not simply to make a point about a product or a service in an interesting and relevant way but to do it thoughtfully. With…oh, what’s the word? With…empathy.

In other words, to buy the goodwill of all those who see it.

Look at most digital advertising and it’s clear most marketers hate the people they’re talking to. The ads are moronic so it’s clear they believe the consumer is a moron.

(And you wonder why people say they hate advertising?)    

This is the problem AI-based creative management platforms are trying to solve, using data to clear up the mess data caused in the first place.

The trouble is, it still looks like a performance sell. Companies like Ad-Lib, Celtra, StackAdapt et al are optimising optimisation. Their algorithms make better ads, which work better. Clients can buy that.

But for me there’s a much bigger story.

Advertising funded the internet. You could go online and learn about anything and everything from acrobatics to the meaning of zeugma.

Now the whole model is in danger of collapse. People hate advertising so much that close to a billion devices have ad-blockers installed.

Content now costs.

And because the ads are almost all so awful, people would rather pay money to avoid them than get their content for free.

Apple TV Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime sell themselves as being ad free.

50 million people are paying $9.99 a month for YouTube Red. 

The flipside is the awful ads are being placed on awful sites and in awful apps or are attached to awful videos. I can see a connection between Magnum and porn. But I doubt very much if it’s one the bosses at Unilever would want people to make and yet ads for the ice-cream have appeared on X-rated sites. As have ads for vacuum cleaners, make-up products and headache pills.

Forbes reports that sites with images of child abuse are in on the increase because the site owners are making money from them by hosting ads.  

They can do this because most marketers have no idea where their ads are appearing.  The link between the advertiser and the media owner has been erased. Algorithms talk to algorithms.  

In the entire process of commissioning and distributing advertising, there is zero empathy.

Not just for the poor consumer but none also between creative agencies, media agencies, networks and ad exchanges. The result is corrosive.

So, if you want a conference, here’s my suggestion: Can we save advertising?