Be Humble

Written by Kate Waters, Chief Strategy Officer at Now.

I once met someone at a party who was drunk enough to confess to me that ‘I wasn’t half as arrogant as he was expecting of someone who worked in advertising’. It was hardly the greatest personal compliment, (if I’m only half as arrogant, does that still make me ‘quite arrogant’?), but mostly I was struck by his perception of advertising as an industry whose defining feature is the opposite of what I believe to be one of the most important qualities we need to do our best work: humility.

In fact, it seems that the benefits of humility as a virtue are not widely appreciated. I can, for instance, buy over 6700 self-help books on confidence, but only 150 on humility. And if I want advice on leadership and confidence, Google gives me 10 times as many results as it does for leadership and humility. Think of those business leaders who have become household names – Steve Jobs, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, for example – and they are all too often those who are also famously confident and assertive, arguably to the point of arrogance. Humility is certainly not a value that we’d associate with them. Clearly, we put a much bigger premium on confidence than we do on humility.

Yet, I believe it’s humility that inspires and shapes our best ideas, both as leaders and as advertising people.

Perhaps most obviously, in a world that is changing as rapidly as ours, believing you know it all can only be a fast track to extinction. These days, there will always be somebody who is smarter and more knowledgeable than you (and the depressing thing is that they’re probably half your age). Having humility helps you listen, learn, adapt, and make better-informed decisions.

Humility is also critical if we are to understand what’s important to our clients’ customers. To borrow from politics to make the point: what was Brexit, if not the result of a total lack of humility in our politicians? If only the Remain camp had been less arrogant and had recognised the deep emotional issues that fuelled the Leave vote, perhaps the outcome would have been different. I’d argue that the declining approval ratings for advertising among the public are the industry’s version of the same phenomenon. Advertising that doesn’t feel as relevant, inclusive or insightful as it used to can only be evidence that we’ve stopped listening as hard as we should, or perhaps we just prefer listening to ourselves or those just like us (a classic example of what behavioural economists call ‘confidence bias,’ in which we seek out and lend more weight to the opinions of those who reinforce our own point of view). Maybe we think we’re listening and learning, but actually we’re just in the advertising echo chamber.

If you’re not persuaded by the idea of taking a bigger dose of personal humility, then at least consider its potential as a strategy for brands. Two of my favourite campaigns of all time – Tesco’s ‘Every Little Helps’ (in its original incarnation with Prunella Scales as Dotty) and Avis’s ‘We Try Harder’, used humility as a wonderfully disarming way to make big, powerful and corporate brands feel relevant and useful.

So let’s make championing humility a work resolution. As well as making us more popular at drinks parties, it might just be the secret to better work. In the words of GK Chesterton, ‘Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley, but only small things from the peak’.