When Madwell’s co-founders decided to make their first vp-level appointments, they knew they were advancing two women for the roles. It was somehow both a big deal and not a big deal at all. But what they didn’t consider was that they were promoting an introvert.
Introvert. It’s a dirty, nerdy word with outgroup baggage trailing it like a permanent sidecar. Only recently have we started entertaining the possibility that introverts didn’t get one scoop less of something, but rather two scoops extra of something else. Something that’s, well, valuable.
That revision comes in large part thanks to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The Extrovert Ideal, as Cain calls it, is the American social preference. In advertising, it’s as good as explicit; those of us who aren’t extroverts are extrovert-performing, from how we surface and evaluate creative to how we sell it to who we hire and promote, because we select to do so. But introverts represent as much as half the population, so whether our industry makeup is an illusion or an imbalance or both, we’re currently reflecting the loudest common denominator, not the fullness of consumer experience.
And that’s a problem.
As advertisers, we’re increasingly responsible for carrying an actual conversation with consumers. Gone are the days of set it and forget it; brands are expected to react and engage in near-real time on the topics and in the ways that consumers prefer or suffer very critical, very public consequences. Put another way, if advertising used to be the friend who never managed to ask you how you’re doing, today we’re someone new: an active listener who takes an interest in what you bring to the table, one who takes care to develop a relationship with you on your terms.
Listening, empathy and deep relationships are introvert strengths.
As an introvert, I’ve spent most of my life in an observational state. Growing up, I read every line of copy that passed through our house. My parents never sent me to my room because it had too many books in it. Even today, I’m perfectly happy watching the plot lines of my friends’ conversations like a movie. I only occasionally yell at the screen.
Introversion is how I became a strong writer, then a strong copywriter, a valuable employee, then a valuable manager. It introduced me to service leadership as the perfect place to realize my action-oriented empathy and general lack of interest in the spotlight. It’s why I speak when I have something to say, and why when I do, people listen.
It is, in the end, why I head up our communications team—because good communication is at least half listening.
Expectations have shifted. Consumers are ready for advertisers who listen. But advertising writ large still doesn’t work that way. We know group brainstorms don’t produce the most, best ideas, but we still do them. We know open office floor plans are inefficient and unhealthy, but they’re still the norm. Recognition and change are slow; for those grinding down under the status quo, it’s hard and tiring in the meantime. But like missionaries of quiet, it’s work that needs doing, and it needs doing from the inside.
As an extrovert, would you promote an introvert to senior leadership status? As an introvert, could you pursue or accept such a promotion? In an age of advertising as a relationship, where agencies that can recognize, capture and keep introvert talent will have the advantage, the answer needs to be a resounding “yes.” Followed by a lot of listening.