Cannes Lions | Article
Welcome To The New Empathy

At Cannes, there was one word I heard more than any other. Not Authenticity. Not Purpose. No, not even Engagement.

It’s Empathy.

Of the fifteen or so talks I went to, it appeared as a central theme in about a third.

Why? Empathy is the new way to gain engagement. And of course engagement is one of things we are all trying to achieve in the confusion that is today’s media landscape.

Empathy has come to the fore because of the new digital world. Thanks to social media, we are now all the creators of our own stories and we publish them relentlessly. It is the stories of our lives that we are telling, and of our friends, and even of strangers, that are pulling at our emotions. These are the stories that are creating empathy, and are the stories that are working best.


Madonna Badger, Chief Creative Officer / Founder, Badger and Winters, talked about the founding principle of her agency: empathy. She believes that empathy is the key to make an effective connection between a brand and a consumer, and has developed the Listening Lab – an empathy based creative process. In one of the most emotive talks I’ve ever been to (Madonna lost her parents and her three daughters in a house fire in 2011), she talked about how her purpose has come out of tragedy. Her legacy to her daughters is an incredible campaign, which aims to rid the industry of objectifying images of women (and men). As part of the campaign, they have created four simple filters to check if an image is objectifying and one of them is empathy – what if it were you? How would you feel portrayed like that? Or your mother, son, or daughter?

Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, talked about the growth of his business from the “worst idea that ever worked”. No-one believed that people would ever let a stranger stay in their house, but thanks to the technology of the platform, and the feedback loop at its heart, Chesky was able to bring to life the idea behind the business – that people are basically good. The success of Airbnb and Uber proves it. People will trust each other and do right by each other, when they know each other’s stories. When they have empathy.

Empathy is also coming to the fore thanks to new technology, and specifically virtual reality. VR was everywhere at Cannes this year. Talks, presentations, and installations: I was bombarded with new ideas around VR and 360 video and the immersive, empathetic new worlds that are being created using this new technology.

Cannes was awash with talk about how VR is a major new creative platform. It will be as disruptive as the arrival of photography, of radio, of cinema, of television. What is striking is the sheer amount of new ideas being generated by this new medium. Check out DreamsofDali, NotesOnBlindness, Nomads and BeyondTheFrame, all of which allow us to experience a whole new world, putting us into someone else’s story and feel their feelings, their mind and their emotions. This is a new level of empathy. Toms created a hugely engaging piece of VR content called Charity:water capturing what it was like to be a girl having to walk 30km every day to get water. We were shown how The Guardian placed you in Solitary Confinement. This is real empathy.

A new generation of cameras will let you film moments in your life forever in VR, so that in the future you will be able to put on your VR goggles and step back in time to happy family dinners, chats with your mother or even show your now adult son what it was like to chat with him as a three year old.

Welcome to the new human empathy, driven by the platforms and machines we have created.

To learn more about ‘New Human Empathy’ and 14 other trends that will fundamentally affect marketing communications, click here.

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