Go Gonzo

April 26th, 2013

I used to earn money as a journalist for a while. Back then I could spend a hard day with road workers carrying kilos of heavy melted asphalt and perforating roads with a ten-kilo hammer drill, because I was doing research on how women are taking over men’s jobs, and I was thrilled to dive deeper into the topic and experience all the pleasures of traditionally male careers on my own back. My back hurt like never before, and I could hardly move after my road-working experience. But the next day I went to a mountain-based regiment of the Israeli army to share quarters with female infantries for a while. I foot marched 10 km distances wearing a flak jacket and transporting some armory and learned to shoot a Kalashnikov together with other girls.

Today, I’m starting over in Strategy. I am not even nearly close to who Barack Obama is, but I feel it might be the right time to say to fellow strategists the same words he said to Americans, “We should talk more about our empathy deficit.” Mr. President and I, we mean it differently, though. Whereas Obama was speaking about affective empathy, our ability to empathize emotionally, share the feelings of another; I am aiming to talk about intellectual act of understanding and recognizing another’s beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes, a cognitive empathy.

Here is the difference. Affective empathy implies our biological ability to literally feel what another is feeling. The lighting of mirror neurons in our brain causes it. “If I’m observing you, your anger, your frustration, your joy, and I can feel what you are doing, the same neurons are going to light up in me as I am having this experience myself,” says Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The Empathic Civilization. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, can be learned and mastered, and it involves a skill to know (rather than feel) another’s mental states. It is a perspective taking. A step into somebody’s world, like shooting a Kalashnikov with Israeli soldiers.

Talking theory, cognitive empathy is a kind of 2.0 version of the Theory of Mind.  When children reach 4 years of age, they start consciously realizing that other people actually have different thoughts than they do; different knowledge, opinions, and intents. Before that age children are not able to separate what they know from what others know. This is the Theory of Mind.

Cognitive empathy, in my opinion, goes a step further: It is the act of trying to actually realize a variety of different mental perspectives.

Applications of cognitive empathy can be spotted in professional fields somewhat related to strategy. Nobel George Orwell went tramping on the streets of poor East London. This experiment gave him “the whole literary materials he used for the rest of his life” (Roman Krznaric). Hunter S Thompson described certain phenomena only after he would have explored (passionately!) & experienced them himself. He has created the whole new approach in journalism and writing called Gonzo. You hear this subjective narrative in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary.

“They asked me what I needed to get started. I said, a new car. They give me resources I need, and I give them a kick-ass commercial,” independent filmmaker Casey Neistat shares his experience cooperating with Mercedes. Neistat is a New York based filmmaker who entered the world of premium brands not as a director of commercials, but as a consumer who documents his experiences with a product and religiously reports them. It all started with Nike Fuel band: Casey produced the Make It Count video by spending the budget on travelling with the band on his wrist. The video has eventually got almost 9 million views! In his case, it is not just a familiar product trial. Neistat really does put himself in shoes of diverse types of people who eventually will use a product – and not in a one certain way, but in many different ways. Isn’t a rise of Gonzo advertising?

WPP strategy guru Jon Steel claims that he gave his planners unlimited vacations once a year. There were just two conditions when using the offer: Not to abuse the proposal and actually make an experience out of the vacation (no matter if it is a travelling, or taking karate classes). Steel said this allowed strategists to stay passionate and enthusiastic, as well as to work more efficiently during the year. In my opinion, it added another value by giving people an opportunity to immerse themselves into another roles for a while: to become a painter when taking a course in a local community, or a wild member of a tribe while travelling in South America. In the end, if you are lucky enough to work on a brand that sells Indian war bonnets, you will rock it.

Speaking seriously, though, I see many opportunities for planners to be ‘routinely’ empathetic.  We can start with the simplest one – if you are researching a butter brand, just go the a supermarket and see how fast you can find the product on a shelf, observe what kind of people choose it, ask a person on the counter if it’s popular among customers, and of course, buy it and try it. You can probably make some conclusions even by noticing how the butter spreads on the bread compared to the usual brand you buy. Finally, take a creamery tour on a weekend. And, of course, don’t forget about the brand personality – you can imagine what kind of a person your brand could be: What s/he would like, what music s/he would listen to, if you could meet her/him at a local bar. By creating this new ‘person’ you can take a brand’s perspective.

I am not saying Gonzo-principles should substitute data research. However, they can make your insights more vivid, lively, and warm.

Other options of empathetic approach can include expressing empathy to clients and co-workers: I like to have a lunch with Creatives and chat to PMs or QA analysts not because of the social norms, but because it gives me a deeper understanding what their world looks like from the other side of the agency room. I would not mind to switch roles with my colleagues for a day (to play a switch day like back at school). I strongly believe that eventually it cultivates amazing collaboration and makes working processes run smoother.

It does seem to be a simple truth now as I write it. But when was the last time you asked your friends why they love their sneaker brand, instead of Googling the answer?


Yulia Yushchik is a junior digital strategist at Blast Radius Amsterdam. Before relocating to Amsterdam to become a planner, Yulia worked as a journalist in Moscow and Brussels.


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