Marketing’s New Frontier: Human Centricity

How do we get people to care about things they are tired of seeing? How do we keep stories fresh and continue to reinterpret them? How can we be sensitive to our audiences? We often hear marketers asking these questions. But I’m borrowing these questions from a hard-hitting session at Cannes Lions with two photojournalists—Lynsey Addario, a survivor of abduction and abuse and the subject of a new film directed by Steven Spielberg, and award-winning South African photo journalist Brent Stirton—both of whom explored the roles of authenticity and credibility in achieving impact.


Against this backdrop we have the narrative of how tech is changing our future. Altering humanity’s future. And indeed, automation and algorithms are already fulfilling their promise to take the effort out of everyday tasks. Meanwhile, the angst over “too much technology” gets louder every year at Cannes Lions. Once the lair of only the “creative types,” at every corner of the festival you can hear loud moans about the loss of storytelling because technology is removing the need for sustained human intellect. Not true, of course. As someone who is working in a data-first creative agency, I think we have entered into an era of intelligent, human-centric and responsive relationship management, with a focus on understanding consumers in both a data sense and a very human way. At the same time, we cannot underestimate the volatile combination of the new possibilities, the deep insights that data and technology provide us and the disruptive force they can be, changing the marketplace as we know it. When we talk about data and technology, we cannot avoid a conversation about complexity. But that is not to say we cannot resolve these big challenges. There’s a huge opportunity for our industry to develop a much-needed humanistic perspective on the wider issues of tech and automation.


These were much the same lessons the two fascinating photojournalists talked about in their very stirring session. They shared their experiences working in some of the most dangerous and remote parts of the planet, and talked about how they approach themes—themes of conflict, in particular—in new and creative ways that trigger an emotional connection and build trust between the subject and the audience.


Following are the key inspirations that, when applied to our industry, will help develop the human-centric approach we are all seeking when trying to solve problems or purpose innovation.


  1. Utility and purpose:

    “Whether you are selling cars or selling an issue, if you feel you're useful beyond your own self, that's what we all have to strive for,” said Stirton, narrating the story behind his famous picture of a dead silverback gorilla carried by rangers in Congo.Talking about finding his own “usefulness” in the world of sustainability, he recalled how the picture raised $15m for gorilla conservation. The picture “was a tool we could use to talk about Congo in a different way” at a time when people had lost interest in the region.


    Brands understand purpose. A clarion call from consumers for businesses to do good and be truthful and more open has meant a flurry of purpose manifestoes. But purpose has to be serviceable and functional, even memorable. Which ultimately leads to the need to gain deep understanding and human insight into the stories, stories that really matter to people. For instance, what value are you going to deliver outside of a sale to earn the permission to interact thereafter?


  2. Show your flaws:

    Both Stirton and Addario reveal their vulnerabilities when recalling the stories behind some of their most famous photos. Taking photos of people and places with very little positive elements to showcase is an exigent and Herculean task. And perhaps stretching this analogy to how brands can learn to behave might be deemed facetious. However if you consider customer relationships through the human-centric lens, at a time when technology has shifted the balance of power toward the consumer, what ties all of us together (people with people, people with brands) is this sense of vulnerability that reveals reality and therefore fosters trust and creates deeper bonds.


    We know consumers are demanding a more open and honest relationship with brands. And if brands were to admit weakness—a thumping, great affirmation of honesty—all their claims would be more believable.


  3. See past the brief

    Stirton showed photos of the illegal elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn trade, and added: “I’m going to China next year to deliver a lecture at a Chinese university and talk about what I’m seeing [the ivory trade and its growing demand in Asia—primarily China]. It has to happen in such a way that it's not an attack [on their beliefs]. We are like you [advertisers]: We strategize. Like you, we have to see past the brief.”


    This was an interesting perspective on how creativity (in all its forms) is a critical means to an end. As an industry we embrace uncertainty and complexity as creative catalysts that require innovation, so why are we not always looking past the brief to try new things and new technologies, rather than fearing failure?


  4. Honesty is what will get people to care

    Addario’s images were even more hard hitting and focused on another aspect of conflict—the systematic use of rape in warfare. She narrated a story of one such victim who became pregnant from one of those rapes, and added how in order to keep the stories fresh and get people to look at them and care about them, she has to sometimes reinterpret the aesthetics. But with “absolute honesty.”


    Revelation of true self and honesty are what lead to intimacy, and the new revised rules of marketing acknowledge both authenticity and morality. In an era of instant sharing and with more people engaging with content that appeals to their heart, be honest. Be bold.