I may come across as a bit of a gushing fanboy here, but when it comes to bravery in research Steve Lacey is up at the top of the list no debate. If you want to break out of your middle-class, metropolitan bubble, then he’s your man. Operating on the front line when it comes to hard-to-reach social groups, he goes where others won’t, listening to voices that don’t normally get heard, to bring vital, often challenging insights on what’s actually happening in the real world.
I've known Steve for many years now, but didn't get to work with him properly until the ad industry hand-wringing that followed the Brexit referendum. The question we asked:
"if we got that wrong, which was apparently so 'obvious', what else are we mistakenly seeing through our own lens when it comes to the people buying our clients' brands".
And at that time Steve was able to provide some much needed insight. Unfortunately, four years on, it seems little has changed in our world, as the recent research from House 51 for Reach Solutions showed. Those of us working in marketing and advertising still lack understanding of and empathy for the 'just about managing' modern mainstream who represent a significant proportion of the people buying what we're selling.
Which is why Age of Rage and the Battle for Trust should be required viewing for all of us.
The most recent project from Steve, Age of Rage is a deep dive into the modern mainstream as of today. Ranging widely from coronavirus to Black Lives Matter, Dominic Cummings to conspiracy theories, the far right to the environment, compelling insights are offered on all these areas.
And mainstream is the operative word here: this is the middle-ground talking, the mass-market. Predominantly white yes (we have to grasp that particular nettle), but not the "rage against the dying of the light" found at the radical popularist extremes.
It's not always comfortable to hear points of view that differ so much from our own, opinions we may have a deep-seated disagreement with even antagonism towards. And there is a clear tension here to grapple with. For brands and business, individuals and pressure groups. How to support the progressive positions that reflect our natural inclination, or represent the emerging normative moral position of society, without demonising those not quite there yet.
Because if differing (though not necessarily extremist) views aren't handled sensitively, the danger is we seem dogmatic or judgemental (a proven blind-spot for us in the left-leaning liberal 'elite'). Which can end up pushing people in the opposite direction. Something we know to our cost that the popularist right has leveraged effectively not just in the UK, but around the world.
This is why it's important to understand that opinions and beliefs we may disagree with are still the felt truth born from lived experience for many people. And this understanding is the first step on the path to empathy. Yes the E word again. We may never get there fully, but we have to try. We need to move beyond the negative stereotypes, with the fear and contempt this can breed in us, the perception of unhappiness at a sub-optimal life (on our terms) and the ill-conceived beliefs about motivations that seep into the work we do.
Which doesn't require us to agree or endorse, in the same way that we shouldn't patronise with our sympathy. Rather it's about acknowledging the 'truth' of these feelings and beliefs, the reality of the social and cultural factors driving them, and the (real) needs and wants they generate, before engaging with people on this basis: a dialogue that starts where they are not where we want them to be (or worse still, where we are ourselves).
As Steve says in Age of Rage, this is about recognising the importance placed on respect, fairness and decency, the centrality of family, community and belonging, taking pride in who you are, the search for a hopeful future and the need for clear leadership in getting there.
And whether individually, or via the brands and businesses we work with, this is maybe something we can offer.