How strategists should deploy emotional intelligence

Thought Leadership

Strategists may be known for their intellectual chops but the very best use empathy in several different ways in order to build deeper, better communications. Chief Strategy Officer Harvey Cossell discusses how strategists should be deploying emotional intelligence.

For time immemorial strategists have been seen as the smart ones, the bright ones, the intelligent ones. And as I heard in one new business meeting a couple of years ago, the ones who have “brains the size of melons”.

However, whilst everyone loves to be thought of as intelligent, this isn’t strictly any more true of strategists than of everyone else around us. The fact is that our industry, on both sides of the client/agency divide, is awash with smart people. It is just that as strategists we think differently, working at the intersection between client, brand, consumer and creative.

I do think there has been a self-perpetuation of this intelligence myth by strategy types because it makes us feel better about ourselves, but this notion is entirely predicated on Intelligence Quotient (IQ). And to a certain extent, this is because of where brand planning and strategy have come from.

Historically, planning was always about linear logic and precision of thought, retreating to the sanctity of one’s office to analyse consumer and market data, emerging triumphant with a direction of travel and a killer insight for creative to knock it out the park.

Now, I am not saying brand planning is any different today as a process, but the way we ultimately go about it is different. Where once the strategist was a lone wolf working in isolation (complete with the gift of time), today has a much more collaborative bent to it.

Much has been written about the rise in the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) and how it can facilitate success in the workplace. I mean, it makes sense doesn’t it? In the main they are environments chock full of relationships. Melting pots of different personalities, skills, aptitudes and emotions. And within all this is the actual purpose of the business itself, so it stands to reason that EI is intricately woven into the fabric of every decision and action that comes to pass.

But I am not here to extoll the virtues of EI in that context. Enough has been written on this subject, by people far more qualified than I could ever be. Just do a quick Google search and fill your boots. Where I see the future of EI in brand planning is in the analysis and understanding of consumers.

In the old world, brand planning and strategy was all about communicating a single-minded thought in a compelling way and deploying that through the means of reach and frequency. But today’s media landscape is much more fragmented and consumers expect more from the brands that make it into their consciousness.

Yes, reach is hugely important, but it is no longer just about repetition. It is about connection. And connection requires empathy. Sure, consumer insights bring interesting truths to light that can be harnessed to create compelling messaging, but this doesn’t necessarily require the strategist to truly put themselves in the shoes of the consumer.

The best thinkers out there who I have had the pleasure of working with over the years are the ones that have an intuitive feel for their audience. They can put themselves in their shoes, not only empirically understanding the people they are trying to reach, but implicitly feeling what they feel. But in my opinion, this is less a type of intelligence and more a skill that, combined with even moderate IQ, can be an extremely powerful combination for the modern strategist.

The key thing as I see it with EI is that it gets you on the same level as your consumer. It allows you to develop brand communication aided by an almost instant feel of how the consumer will respond. Empathy in these situations allows the strategist to never judge or look down their nose at the consumer, instead retaining a healthy respect for them. In essence, the strategist and the consumer are one and the same.

As Salovey and Mayer’s definition of EI states, it is the ability to “accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge”. And this ultimately prevents our clients from holding up a mirror to their consumers and showing they actually give a hoot about them.

Theodore Roosevelt said best, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” So it stands to reason that bookish smarts are not necessarily the be all and end all when it comes to compelling communication. So when I am looking for strategic talent I will always look beyond traditional indicators of intelligence as I have found this not to be the best predictor of strategic prowess.

This is not to say, however, that great strategists don’t need a solid intellectual base, but it is the ones who possess the ability to harness the power of empathy that are the stars of the future and this is what we as a community need to get with. When consumers are more adept than ever at ad avoidance, connection is king and this can only come from empathetic understanding.

So now is the time to shift our emphasis away from the big-brained mythology that surrounds brand planning and strategy. We need to stop our over-reliance on the traditional markers of intelligence. It’s time to get emosh.

This article was originally published in WARC.