Over the years, quite a few people have asked me what it takes to be successful in the marketing/advertising world. And I always answered “curiosity”. You need to be curious to stay relevant, to understand what people really care about. You need to be curious to understand how humans change behavior. You have to have a basic understanding of anthropology, neuroscience, economics, politics – you name it. While that’s still true, I’ve changed my mind and believe now that being curious is not the most important trait to be successful in marketing/advertising.

The real answer is empathy

Data insights are important. And I’m not arguing against it. But our industry tends to forget about human insights. Data insights fit neatly in a spreadsheet, on a PowerPoint slide. Human insights are messier and harder to obtain. To gather human insights you need to do more than just hearing what people say, you have to feel it. You have to feel the complexities and issues that contribute to changing human behavior. You have to feel how the moment of attention that you grab from people can turn into something deeper and more meaningful. This doesn’t happen by segmenting people or hoarding them into data clusters.

Let me give you an example: There are many people that can tell you all the details about location-based marketing. They know everything there is to know about Gowalla, Foursquare and Facebook Places. They can give you tips how to market in this space, how to stand out. They will give you that tiny bit advantage that will be gone by next week. This incremental benefit that evaporates over night because once anything is successful, marketers will copy it. These people are good at the “What”.

And, there are others, that are good at the “Why”. They will explain to you why people are checking-in. Why people want to connect with others. Why this might be something your brand should consider. They are good at the “Why” because they are empathetic. They can help you make a powerful and interesting difference. And really connect with people.

We need more of them. As we learned during the financial crisis, humans are not very rational. A pure data insights approach will ultimately fail. You need both. Or you’re just talking to a head and not connecting with the heart.