As digital marketers, it’s easy to imagine ourselves on the inside, looking out at the world. John Van Daele recalls an unexpected lesson in humility when an Old Order Mennonite family turned that perspective inside out.
JOHN: On a sunny day in St Jacobs, Ontario, a family of Old Order Mennonites—mother, father, a little boy and two littler girls—sit on the grassy south bank of the Conestogo River.
The parents have fishing rods. The river is low and calm.
St. Jacobs lies in the heart of Southern Ontario’s Mennonite community. As rural people, their way of life has changed little over the last few centuries. So it’s not unusual to see the occasional Old Order farmer taking a break on the riverbank after a long morning in the fields.
What’s more unusual is who occupies the building directly behind that family. In a hundred-year-old space that’s been—over time—a textile mill, an ice resurfacing machine factory, and a retail mall, lives Quarry Communications—a decidedly modern B2B marketing firm.
For those of us who work at Quarry, this idyllic location can offer some refreshing, if unexpected, epiphanies on the fast-paced business they’re in. Let me explain.
St. Jacobs is a town famous for its antiques, its baked goods, and a huge farmers’ market. It’s also the last place you’d expect to find an office full of Mad Men and Women.
You’d be more likely to find people like that over here—on King Street West in downtown Toronto. This neighborhood is home to most of the city’s digital design firms, interactive marketing shops, brand gurus, and advertising agencies.
And even though we’re in Hogtown, this could be the agency row of any major media centre—New York, London, Sao Paulo, Tokyo. Any place where art and commerce meet on a massive scale to build brands and woo customers.
Driving all that activity is customer insight—the practice of observing consumer behavior to understand how and why people buy.
From psychographic research that studies your personality, values, and lifestyle, to Big Data that tracks and analyzes every click and purchase across every device you use, people are always watching your buying activities in the name of commerce.
Now imagine what it’s like to be a marketer and find yourself being watched.
So, that Mennonite family on the riverbank? While mom and dad wait patiently for a nibble, and the two little sisters take turns braiding each other’s hair, their brother turns around and looks through the floor-to-ceiling window directly behind him.
He’s peering into a small meeting room, watching a man seated at the table, talking at a speakerphone and tapping away at a laptop.
That man is me.
I’m on a call with my client, taking notes, when I look over and see the little blond Mennonite boy.
At the exact moment our eyes meet, I have to stop typing.
I can feel the heat of self-conscious rising in my face.
The two-centimeter sheet of glass that’s separating us has become a fishbowl. And I’m the fish.
To this farm kid, standing on the outside, I’m a man talking to an empty room who couldn’t tell you where his food came from.
My version of work—and I’m doing air quotes now—must look absurd.
I realized then how, as marketers, all the data we have at our disposal—KPIs, BDIs, MDIs, exposures, click-through, conversions—let us create a neat little theoretical microcosm, a tidy fishbowl of human experience.
But it doesn’t convey the whole experience. I have to remind myself that to really understand customers, I need to understand them as people, within the full context of their lives.
I need to go beyond the data and look at the sum of experiences that wraps itself around the buying decisions they make—those moments in between the moments people like us tend to measure.
Call it a nuanced view. Or just call it empathy.
Now, back to the boy.
As a dad to a child no older than him, I turned, gave him a “hey there, buddy” smile and a wave.
He didn’t blink.
At Quarry, I’m John Van Daele for Fresh Ideas.