Empathy: the force that will power media relationships in 2023

Empathy: the force that will power media relationships in 2023
Opinion: Strategy Leaders

In difficult times we must use empathy in advertising at the right time and in the right place to inspire the right reaction not only from consumers, but also clients, media owners and agencies.


‘In feeling’ is what the word ’empathy’ etymologically means.

As advertisers, this concept is not new to us. A key element of advertising focusses on aligning our clients and their products with their potential consumers, and finding or even creating a shared empathy is crucial to that.

Empathy has formed the backbone of relationship-building since before the Ancient Greeks came to describe it in a single word, yet it has never been as important as it will be this year.

Whilst latest figures show that the UK economy narrowly avoided tipping into a recession at the end of 2022, many commentators predict it is only a matter of time until that happens.

This recession will shape 2023 and beyond. Not only that, but dystopian headlines make for sobering reading as we are likely to experience ‘the worst fall in living standards since records began’.

From a business perspective, annual forecasting remains difficult in Q1 and budgets are being squeezed to work ever harder to hit targets.

From a consumer perspective, spending power will decrease as people are being forced to prioritise their expenses and make cuts across non-essentials. In short, it will be a difficult year for everyone.

When experiencing hardship, people turn to others to find comfort and answers.

However, particularly under stress, it is easy to prioritise one’s needs over those of others regardless of whether helping those ‘others’ might actually help you.

Only by showing empathy in all our communication touchpoints can we ensure that we build mutually beneficial relationships and avoid the damaging ‘self-first’ route.

We see four pillars of empathy for a media planner to consider:

Audience empathy

In recessions, people’s livelihoods are threatened. They experience a lack of control over their lifestyles, financial security, and their families’ future.

In this environment, it would be easy for a brand to alienate audiences, potentially bombarding them with messaging that is at best irrelevant or at worst, compounds the stress they feel at this time.

As we strategise and plan for our clients, we should consider how we can be respectful of our audience’s situation and show good etiquette in how we use channels and moments in their day to turn up and talk to them.

Being able to segment your audience in a way that allows you to consider their financial position and therefore potential levels of engagement, allows you to turn up in an appropriate way and maximise your marketing spend, avoid alienating sections of your audience, and maybe even find new customers along the way.

For example, this may be using media to showcase credible and authentic actions that contribute to helping your audience navigate financial insecurity. A good example is Sainsbury’s recent campaign, which directs its existing customer base to use the Nectar app and reap the financial rewards within.

As media planners and buyers, it is our responsibility to understand in which environments users are most likely to engage with the messaging.

In other words, empathetic advertising must pivot at the right time and in the right place to spark the right reaction.

In Sainsbury’s case, TV and OOH did just that by amplifying the in-store campaign and providing “aha!” moments among the mundane of daily life, be it on the tube after work or when making dinner for the family.

Client empathy

Clients will be under heightened business pressure to achieve more with less, as proportional sale target reductions will unlikely accompany budget cuts.

The appetite for media innovation and testing may be low due to the added uncertainty and risk of failure that these bring.

Media plan sign-off may take longer, scrutiny may be higher, and at the end of the day, agencies may be asked to re-do the whole thing again.

Being sensitive to clients’ positions will be pivotal to fostering long-term business relationships that will result in account growth when the recession is no more than a distant memory.

Media owner empathy

As campaign innovation decreases, agencies may close their door to new media owners in an attempt to stick to their guns and prioritise tried and tested channels.

On the flip side, media owners will try their best to slide into media plans by offering attractive discounts and added value.

Even though a partnership does not come to fruition, it is important to at least entertain the possibility of a collaboration.

So, remain respectful and open-minded, do not ignore outreach emails and keep scheduling lunch & learns — you never know when the opportunity arises!

Agency empathy

The above manifestations of panic are often directed at the agency managing the clients’ media planning and buying.

Whilst agencies will use all available data to predict customer behaviour and react swiftly to feedback, to maximise the relationship, all parties should look at working practices that minimise the stress on each party and allow each stakeholder to thrive, rather than just deliver.

This can be successfully achieved through open and honest discussions with clients, which is hugely appreciated and, therefore, highly recommended.

From a logistical perspective, agencies are encouraged to push their service-level agreements (SLAs) in front of stakeholders more than ever before to protect the quality of their work and wellbeing.

With strategic and financial decisions being scrutinised repeatedly on the client side, it is not uncommon for agencies to receive conflicting briefs and budget availabilities, therefore shortening the planning period for agencies.

However, by reinforcing SLAs, agencies not only establish a mutually respectful relationship with clients, but ensure campaign outputs remain of the highest standard.

This thinking can also be extended on how best to engage partner agencies on client rosters — we’re all in this together, so how can we get the best out of one another?

As I write, planning for the recession remains difficult. No one can say how disastrous it will be and when it will end.

The only certainty remains our human ability to show compassion for others in their struggles and accommodate each other’s needs as a means to fulfil our own. For when the sky finally clears, this is what will be remembered.

Maria Tudor is a digital planning buyer at The Kite Factory

Strategy Leaders features on the Thursday edition of The Media Leader‘s daily bulletin with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated to excellence in commercial media strategy.
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