The Strategist's Most Essential Tool: Empathy

I once asked an industry legend, Jeremy Bullmore, what he looked for when he was recruiting for his agency. I thought I’d be able to predict his answer – some combination of creativity, lateral thinking, toughness, determination, self-belief, relentless energy, commitment, passion, charm, wit.  

His actual answer: vulnerability. To date myself, this was over decade and a half before Brenee Brown made vulnerability the new cultural aspiration. After several more years in advertising, I humbly want to put forward a build on the brilliant thinking of Jeremy and Brenee– vulnerability is essential, but it is the first step in developing a quality that is even more important for good strategists-–empathy. 

Empathy is a willingness to make yourself emotionally available and imagining how others feel. Not just people who you know and like and whose ideas you agree with. True empathy is inclusive. 

Empathy for our audience always leads us to our best work. Because it means that you understand how they feel, what they want. We listen to them, get to know them. Inevitably, that leads to affection for that audience and the individuals within it. 



You don’t just provide standard form profiles and personas with lots of facts and Simmons statements. You find them as individuals and in their lives to be interesting. This then kicks off a virtuous cycle of effects, with more interest and affection sparking better briefs, better comms, better, more useful and delightful marketing. 

Building on your richer insights and esteem for the audience will often inspire similar love within a marketing team. We did this successfully for Macy’s a couple of years ago, making their “fashionable spenders” a valuable brand asset with the investor community in a time of financial turmoil. 

With our clients, we can lose sight of them as people, as we’re often, rightly, focused on bringing brilliant thinking to the table about their audiences, brands, businesses and comms opportunities. Empathy is like a Leatherman, and one way we can use it is as a contextual tool to understanding what matters in our clients’ business, the role that marketing plays in the company, and so on. 

And finally, empathy sweetens our connections with colleagues on both the client side and in our own teams. This is a highly emotional business, full of human error and brilliant ideas made and lost. Tempers, egos and opinions abound. Throughout it all, making time to understand each other, where we’re coming from and where we’re going to, is probably the best time we can spend in a day. 

Like all good insights, this might seem pretty obvious now, how important the big E actually is for all of us. As an industry, and especially on the strategy side, we often need to be strong and armor-plated to protect our fledgling ideas, earn our seat at the c-suite table, learn, master and wrestle with the opportunities and challenges of measurement, AI and ROI and various other killer acronyms. 

But as we sharpen our technical prowess, the soft skills – empathy, vulnerability, humility - are becoming more important than ever before. Empathy is our bridge to our clients, our consumers, and within the intensely collaborative world of brands and ideas, to each other. 

Make sure you’re giving some.

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