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Understanding more & better

As a planner, part of my job is to put myself in the shoes of consumers: to understand real people, out there in the real world. To understand their dreams and struggles, hopes and fears.

But there’s been a lot of talk recently that we’re not really putting ourselves out there enough.

Technology is put to blame (of course, it’s the culprit of all evil in our generation). If the internet can provide all the information ever needed, at a split second, why go out there, really?

If you know me well, you probably know I really care about diversity - about having empathy for the other, about seeing things from different points of view, about championing people with different backgrounds. Not just diversity of race or gender, but diversity of thought too.

I’ve been reading a diverse range of authors, both fiction and nonfiction, to learn about worlds different from mine, about struggles and wins I’ve never had, but also to find commonalities in those stories.

They are rich stories, sometimes both pleasant and painful to read, and offer real insight into what being someone else feels like. But as empathetic as I am, and even though I often found bits of myself on the pages of other people’s stories, there’s a distance. No matter how well told the story is, you are not there.

Maybe VR will change this. Maybe through immersive journalism, by being surrounded in a digital recreation of sounds and images - and maybe even smells and prods, if we add a few extra bits of technology - you’ll get to feel you’re really, really, really there.

You can probably read my skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of using technology to facilitate connections, and am fascinated by the effects it has on human relations, for better or worse. But I see tech as just a means. It can change the access to the information, but it won’t, by itself, change how people feel.

And to really get it, we need to feel.

Long before P&G’s The Talk, there was a NYT’s Op-Doc called A Conversation with My Black Son. The title is pretty self explanatory, and it’s basically a 5-minute chat-to-the-camera doc-style of the ad, going much deeper than ad ever could.

When you get pulled over, not if you get pulled over”.

I had never thought of that. Not that way.

That first spark of knowledge made me realise the gaps in my knowledge.

(Paraphrasing the saying slightly: Now I know I know nothing)

As the years passed, the conversations around it came (and went), Black Lives Matter became known internationally, a lot of shit went down, and that Pepsi ad happened, nothing of what I had read, watched or discussed, as much as they might have provoked some feelings, came close to experiencing it.


Not long ago, I was visiting a friend in Boston, and we had just met her boyfriend for dinner.

They were casually chatting while we waited for the table, and he mentioned he didn’t manage to get an Uber again because the driver just drove away and made up an excuse not to stop for him when he saw him waiting. And they kept talking about how often that happened. Like it was no big deal, like oh, it just happens.

Now, I’m not trying to pretend that having heard a conversation is the same as having experienced racism. Fuck no. But seeing two real human beings in front of me talking about it gave me a whole different perspective.

That was a chance encounter, and nothing to do with strategy. I had no steer in or objective with that conversation (as we do with focus groups and interviews). But it reaffirmed to me that, to really understand people, we need to get close.

And in our jobs, we need to get out of our offices and speak to the people we want to understand.

But we’re too busy turning projects around like crazy, fixating on petty or wrong problems and focusing too much on client pleasing or their budget cuts, to try to actually understand the people whose lives we want to make better.

That’s why a lot of strategy is bland.

That’s why a lot of communications - and businesses - fail.

And actually, it goes beyond advertising.

Earlier this year, I went to Cambodia. Wandering about in Phnom Penh, I stumbled on this big square without a living soul. But then again, it was around 40 degrees celsius and there was almost no cover.

Empty square with trees and buildings in the background. Blue skies with clouds.

The square was probably designed by someone who was too busy stuck in an office to notice that the square was not usable while there was sun out.

Same shit happened in the city where I’m from.

The city hall decided to build a square to give a communal space for the people living in the neighbourhood. A lovely idea were not for the fact they didn’t plant a single tree to give shelter in a place where there’s direct sun more than 300 days a year, and that that particular neighbourhood is not too safe for kids to hang around at night.

Don Norman would be so pleased.

So... to really, really get it, we need to get close.

The notion that we, as strategists, need to stop hiding behind our computers is not new.

But what I’m suggesting here is to go a little beyond than just going out in the wild. To go from good to great, your strategy will need to move from understanding and knowledgeable to empathetic and actionable.

We need to get close, and have a process that leads somewhere.

Think like a journalist.

Ok, you don’t need to go quite as the NYT folks.

But the principle is the same.

  • Follow a lead (that’s your research and your gut).

  • Find the people (and any unlikely connections)

  • Analyse the data (what does it tell you didn’t yet know?)

  • Follow new leads (anything new that looks promising?)

  • Check the sources (is this the truth?)

  • Connect the dots (what does it all mean?)

I’ll add one more thing: get vulnerable in the process. You’ll know you find something worthwhile when it makes you feel uncomfortable… and eager to act on it.

Then, go do it.

(If you can't get others to believe in it, do a Gwendoline Christie and make it happen yourself.)

And maybe, just maybe, apply a little bit of closeness and vulnerability to your personal life too, it will change the way you have conversations with people.



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