What is an insight, anyway?

February 2014

Great creative work comes from great insights. But what makes a great insight? In the digital world, we tend to think insights are intrinsically linked to data. In the broader advertising environment though, agencies look beyond metrics to derive insights from myriad sources. For researchers, planners, creatives and brand experts, a brilliant insight is the basis on which a great campaign is built. But figuring out what makes a great insight and finding them is tricky, even for the best minds in the industry. In this article, we ask industry insiders to reveal the role insights play in their work.

Insights illuminate, but they don't have to be deep, says Andy Davidson, who is Head of UK Practice at the global insight and brand consultancy Flamingo.

TI: In your agency, how do planners use insights?

AD: Insights illuminate, expand our minds, help us to understand and inspire us to do great things. For me, an insight is a feeling — you kind of know it when you feel it. Here's the definition we came up with at Flamingo: "An insight is a disturbance in discourse." A good insight creates a whole new way of thinking. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty did this — it allowed expression of something that previously was inexpressible.

TI: We often hear phrases like "deep insights" or "a pithy insight". Is there a flaw in this implication?

AD: Insights don't have to be deep. That's only true if you believe you're searching for an answer that lies deep in the consumer's subconscious and you've got to plug in electrodes and use neuroscience equipment to unlock it. I think it's actually a lot more useful to go sideways. So go broader — stop talking to your target consumer for example. Talk to somebody who you would never otherwise talk to in a million years to get that other point of view, that other angle.

Insights depend more on interplay than invention, says market research expert John Griffiths.

TI: Through your company Electric Learning, you use an interesting metaphor about insights. Could you share it with us?

JG: When I teach this I actually get people to build their own kaleidoscopes to show how it works. There is the interplay of the eyepiece (the marketer) and the customer (as the beads) with the researcher playing a key role by using the mirrors to filter out the beads (for amplifying the sample). If you buy that analogy, the point is that insights don't come from insighters; we're the mirror not the lens. It works when everyone works together, when they interact. And you need to know as much about the client's mindset as the customer's.

In a media and communications agency,insights lay the groundwork for implementation, according to David Wilding, Head of Planning at PHD.

TI: Coming from a media agency perspective, how do you tend to think about insights?

DW: I worked with a very smart guy who came from an account planning background. He said whatever planning you're trying to do, boil it down to four things: What's your issue? What's your insight? What's your idea? And what's your implementation? You can see the insight has a very important job of bridging the gap between the issue and the idea. We changed the approach at PHD to this: What's the background? What did we do? And what were the results? So essentially we refined the "insight" into "why we did what we did". If the insight can help explain why we're doing what we're doing, then it's a good one.

TI: Does data play a role in that process for you?

DW: In a media agency you have lots of data. You're surrounded by the stuff! So very typically we do start there.

There are two schools of thought around insights — the creationists and the evolutionists, says Caitlin Ryan, Group Executive Creative Director for the advertising agency Karmarama.

TI: As a creative, how have you seen insights typically used in your field?

CR: When I first started working in advertising in the 1980s, it was explained to me that an insight was a distillation of all the research and desk work into a magic elixir that we as creatives would then use to create good work. It was quite a black and white approach. There was a sense that clients would feel very confident if we could get the insight in a very concrete form, and then the creatives shouldn't depart from that.

TI: And what about now — what's the current thinking?

CR: There are different types of creatives, and I've come to the opinion that you're either a creationist or an evolutionist. Creationists get the insight and then craft a perfectly formed concept. Evolutionists — especially in digital — use insights that come from data and our creative work evolves over time. In creationism, there is a sense that the insight is written in stone and can't be changed. For evolutionists on the other hand, the insight is more mercurial and flexible. Often creationists and evolutionists can come to a fairly similar place, but the insights come from very different methodology.

TI: If you had to pinpoint where the outcomes of the two approaches differ, what would you say?

CR: I think the more traditional construct of insights leads to what brands say. For me, an insight that is more flexible and mercurial leads us to work that's about how brands behave.

In developing a useful insight, consider human needs, explains Nick Hirst, Head of Planning at creative agency Dare.

TI: What's the problem with how insights have traditionally been used?

NH: The way we classically use insights doesn't allow for complexity or change — we use them really literally. But I think that the way that you feel and your behaviour changes even over the purchase of a single product.

TI: So what's the alternative?

NH: A much better model comes from the world of websites. Needs are a useful thing to have in your head. I think with a brand like Dove, yes they had a very critical insight but they also cracked a need — which was that women don't like being told by the beauty industry that they're not up to scratch. The other thing about needs is that it's ok to establish multiple needs and we're ok with the idea that needs can change — not just in terms of life stage but also over a purchase.

The "weird-normal" is a good place to look for insights, says Tracey Follows, Chief Strategy Officer at communications agency JWT London.

TI: How would you define an insight?

TF: For me, an insight is something that is "weird-normal" Something strikes us when we come across weird-normal because our brains try and make sense of it. It's an invitation to interpret. We know it's familiar in a way, but it's also unfamiliar. This is what Lewis Carroll did incredibly well with Alice. Her adventures are not crushingly obvious statements — they're a series of anomalies inviting your brain to unpick and look for meaning.

TI: How do insights happen?

TF: Codes of communication have contrived to make us think an insight is some kind of flash of inspiration that happens in a nanosecond. But I don't think that's the case. I think an insight is less to do with a revelation and more to do with a realisation. I think insights happen or work at a much slower speed. It's quite a considered, thoughtful thing.


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