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A view from Ramsey Naja: LISTEN UP

Ramsey Naja is the former CCO of JWT MEA, @geminisnake

Being “a good listener” is the one virtue that’s so universal, so cherished around the world over centuries that it should come with a UNESCO World Heritage certificate attached to it. It manages to score brownie points with HR, matrimonial agencies, a hot date and government intelligence, without even worrying about the cool factor police. Listening, you see, is not just the result of proper ear hygiene but more a sign of empathy, of kindness, of patience and the ability to deconstruct problems prior to presenting appropriate solutions.

We are seeing leading, monumental brands become pathetic listeners to amateur opinion.

It also happens to be a recipe for mediocrity, laziness and decrepitude.

Google “listening” in a marketing context and what you get is the equivalent of an otolaryngology convention. Listening tools, listening guides, social listening, you name it. Everyone’s at it, everyone pontificates about its merits and everyone else is so desperate to get on that bandwagon that they seem to be hoarding cotton buds. Listening is marketing’s new black, and its tyrannical imperative has meant that eavesdropping is now something to boast about.

There is nothing empathetic, kind or patient about this. Indeed, it is nothing more than another marketing attempt to diminish unpredictability by handing control over to the consumer, in the same way, that “consumer-generated content” has become the CMO’s means to shy away from creative and innovative leadership while protecting his or her job. Today we are seeing leading, historic, monumental brands become pathetic listeners to amateur opinion and going so far as turning flagship stores into “customisation centres” where any Tom, Dick or Harry can play at being Karl Lagerfeld for a day and then flaunt the disastrous consequences around town.

This should rank up there in the list of marketing sins, alongside criminal negligence and community management. In the course of their desperate pursuit of “what the consumer wants”, armed with data, geolocalisation and the whole digital shebang, brands are once again turning to the consumer for inspiration without even stopping to think that they themselves will ultimately become uninspiring as a result. Leaders don’t ask their followers to point them in the direction of relevance. They establish what’s relevant. Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive were famous for putting the consumer last, at the end of the chain, and it is now common knowledge that, had Henry Ford listened to his customers more carefully, we would have ended up with faster horses. Brand leadership doesn’t come from listening to your consumers. It is the result of being able to make them sit up and listen to you.

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