BBDO executive says empathy makes a better creative

by Chloe Anello

October 13, 2017

Sharona Sankar-King visited Newhouse as a guest of the Eric Mower Advertising Forum

A photo of Sharona Sankar-King and associate professor Beth Egan at the Eric Mower Advertising Forum
Sharona Sankar-King and associate professor Beth Egan at the Eric Mower Advertising Forum Kai Nguyen

Sharona Sankar-King, executive vice president and head of marketing science at BBDO, said “the ones who move this industry all practice empathy.”

On Oct. 4 at the Newhouse School, Sankar-King stressed the importance of putting yourself in other people’s shoes. “I call that a skill because empathy is just like anything; if you practice, it gets stronger and deeper,” she said. “You need to let yourself feel deep feelings to make others feel deep feelings.”

The best advertisements are the ones that create an emotional connection to the viewer, Sankar-King said. In her role, she uses the scientific method and computer programming to understand her consumers better and target them more accurately.

Ninety-five percent of human behavior is non-cognitive; people may feel a certain emotion, but not be consciously aware of why they feel that way, Sankar-King said. Our brains make decisions based on emotion, and we create memories that way. When someone has an emotional connection, they’re more interested and more likely to remember what evoked that emotion. Sankar-King uses this concept in her work.

“With creative [advertising], it’s about grounding something to a truth, and we ground it through data and science,” she said. She uses facial recognition tools to map out between 50 to 100 different human emotions experienced by viewers of an ad, which can “be much more telling” than if a consumer expresses their feelings in a focus group afterwards. Artificial intelligence (AI) can tell Sankar-King more about consumers than ever before.

AI and machine learning algorithms can greatly improve the consumer experience by making it more immersive and interactive, especially when predicting the emotions brought on by an ad. While AI helps Sankar-King more easily sift through and interpret data about her consumers, she admitted there are downsides.

“If you’re not understanding what the algorithms are actually doing, then there’s more room for error and misinterpretation,” she warned.

Sankar-King feels that AI and machine learning is where this industry is headed, regardless of the challenges. She said the media is in a “time of transition,” and advised students to take advantage of that.

“Students must understand the uses of data and how data can help them. And again, practice empathy.”

Chloe Anello is a senior magazine major at the Newhouse School.