I was recently asked to put together some “insight generation” exercises for a training workshop. This is pretty standard fare for a planning director, the person who ‘owns the insights.’ Creative briefs now often feature sections that are titled something like, “What’s the key insight?” – into which, the planner dutifully fills in some text in order to earn her wages.
For some reason, on this particular request, I just completely stalled out. I often, at conferences and in client meetings, or with other planners, remark on how “insights” is another crime against the English language that Adland has perpetrated upon corporate culture. I often joke that “insights” are not just strewn about the place waiting to be spotted by brand managers and strategists; they were not left, neglected, under your chair or a stack of papers on the corner of your desk. You can not uncover, seek, find, or land on “insights”.
Insight isn’t a noun in the sense that a car or a nickel or a pen are nouns. It’s a noun that names a quality or capacity, like beauty, intelligence, compassion. We tend not to pluralize and objectify these nouns, because they are not about objects. But in Adland, we call things “insights” because we are nothing if we haven’t (great big sigh) “productized” our work.
And this is where it all goes to hell.
Planning is about Insights?
Insight is a capacity to gain accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing. Insight, in other words, is what a good planner or creative – or hell, in a perfect world a good client or account manager – should have. The depth of this understanding should go so far as to seem intuitive. There are many ways one might obtain insight – through study, immersion, experience, interrogation, observation. And these are the standard tools of the planner or market researcher or strategist.
But the work product of these processes isn’t ‘an insight’. Insight is a quality possessed by people. You want to hire planners who are insightful. But they will not ‘uncover’ or ‘land on’ or ‘find’ insights for you, because that is not possible. The best they can be, is insightful on your behalf.
The results are embarrassing – what we call ‘insights’ are often, in fact, observations or statistics. That women are the fastest growing segment of online gamers is not an insight. It’s a statistic. That if you give employees effective and efficient software they’ll make the company more money isn’t an insight, it’s an observation. Yet these are often the kinds of things you’ll find in the box marked, “What is the key insight?”
A friend suggested that at the very least an insight should be a non-obvious observation. I asked for an example. We talked through several and they all went much like this one, “Nike+ was built on the ‘insight’ that people like to listen to music when they exercise…. Wait, that’s not an insight, that’s an observation, and a damned obvious one at that.’ At least since magnetic tape, with music recorded on it, placed in a cassette, and spooled around the teeth of a Sony Walkman first appeared in 1979, it was clear that people so wanted to listen to music while exercising, they would pay top dollar for a device that would allow you to exercise like this lady:
You didn’t have to run 10 miles a day or earn a Gym Rat Badge on Foursquare in order to notice that people listen to music when working out. Does this demonstrate a deep, intuitive and accurate understanding of a person or thing? No, not really. But it didn’t stop them from coming up with something people really like to use, either. Which begins to suggest that maybe ‘insights’ aren’t as useful as just noticing stuff.
The Rise of Storytelling
Perhaps this is why ‘storytelling’ was so in vogue for the past few years – the industry realized that a planner can not imbue clients or creatives with insight into a group of people or a trend or a category, but that she must, nevertheless, teach them to get by in this world without offending the locals. It is a lot like learning a foreign language. Some of us go and live in a country, forcing ourselves to be immersed in the local language and custom and idiom. We are surrounded by not only the syntax and grammar, but the context and meaning. We can become fluent – we can tell jokes or write poetry in the language. But most people don’t have the time or the inclination to cultivate fluency; they want to be able to ask their way to the hotel or hail a cab or order a steak. We then tell them stories and lead them through workshops until they can speak enough of the language to do this; we give them little abridged dictionaries for later, when they get stuck. We hope some sense of the place and the people and their customs seeped in to the lessons, and that they will at least be respectful when they get there.
But we don’t hold out much hope of that. So in the end, ‘insight generation’ and ‘storytelling’ are really just products we sell, because we are in business too, and because clients feel they ought to buy them, even if they will never really use them. Kind of like an espresso maker, or a Pilates reformer.
Insight? Strategic Idea? Creative Idea?
When I was at Hall & Partners, we deconstructed campaigns before we went out to test them, because we wanted to try to give each element its due and we wanted to find a way to fairly determine whether a campaign was succeeding. Our approach was this:
Obviously, you want to make sure you’ve registered the business objective; clients aren’t in the business of making ads, you are. Agency clients are in the business of managing agencies; marketing departments are in the business of commissioning marketing materials; sales departments are in the business of supporting a salesforce; and so on up and over and across the line until you get to a CMO or CEO. They, in the end, are in the business of being profitable and pleasing shareholders. They probably ought to spend as much time on innovation and marketing as they do on profit-and-loss statements and internal politics, but in the end, they are how their bosses are incentivized, and they are probably incentivized on a business objective.
So, anyway. After you’ve established what your clients’ bonuses are based on, you want to bring it back down to earth – what is possible for the advertising to accomplish, and what role do we want it to play in achieving that business objective? This exercise is often the part of the job called, “managing expectations.” But it’s also the “what do we want people to believe or do” part of a creative brief; it’s not the “what is the client asking us for” part. One is about outcomes, the other is about assignments. Don’t confuse the two.
Where things get sticky is in the difference between the strategic idea and the creative idea. (I’ve also included a media idea here because sometimes the creative idea is actually a clever use of media, not just a nice image with some clever copy.) The strategic idea is how you’re going to go about achieving the advertising objective. Let’s think about Nike+ again. The strategic idea is not “People like to listen to music when they run” – the strategic idea is probably something like, “Let’s entertain and reward people so they’ll use our content when working out.”
So then, what’s the creative idea? It’s the framework for bringing that strategy to life. In the Nike+ example, perhaps the creative idea was to build a social, interactive, content- & feedback-driven ecosystem. The executions were the product, the playlists, the points, the platform, the app. Some of the executions work harder to deliver on the strategy than others; you can swap these out for something that is more effective without losing the overarching creative idea or undermining the strategic idea.
All of this makes loads of sense, except we all know that this isn’t how the sausage gets made. Probably RG/A planners did say in a meeting, ‘hey, people like to listen to their headphones when they work out, right? That’s something, isn’t it?’ and then a creative said, ‘we could make some Nike sponsored playlists’ and a tech guy said, ‘what if people could share what they were listening to or their favorite workouts or something, like on a microsite?’ and it layered on from there. Probably there was a lot of trial and error; ideas stolen from partner agencies, pet projects folded in to please a client, weird little one-offs that got the ‘what the hell’ stamp of approval and turned out to totally rock. I really don’t know; I wasn’t there. But I think we forget, when writing creative briefs and talking to clients about “insights”, that the means by which you deconstruct something almost never resembles the means by which you constructed it.
The Need for Proof Before the Fact
Meanwhile, back in creative brief land…
Sometimes, you’ll see the box “Insight” followed by an arrow that points to the box that says something akin to “Brand Idea” or “Creative Idea” or what-have-you. This suggests causality and correlation. The ‘idea’ must arise out of the ‘insight’. It must do this, not because it always or even often does, but because in order to assuage the doubt of client service teams and clients themselves, we must have ‘proof’ – something in which to root the creative idea. The old belief that ideas come from some magic, catalytic moment has largely gone out of vogue. Now you build creative ideas out of insights. If you have enough insights, and if they are unique to your brand, and if they apply to lots of people, and if you combine them with some borrowed interest from a celebrity or location or song, and if there’s an awesome pack shot and a dead simple call to action… well, then you just won yourself the Campaign Lottery. I mean, that’s just how it’s done.
And if it doesn’t work out? If something doesn’t ring true? If it feels ‘complicated’? Well you have three possible routes to go:
- Blame the planners because “the insights were wrong”
- Blame the creatives because “the work was off brief”
- Blame the clients because “they didn’t brief you correctly”
Which is what happens when you let people like this guy run the industry for a few decades:
So everyone is now in the business of minimizing risk – and the most common approach seems to be to believe that if we’re all holding hands when we jump off the cliff, then we’ll somehow all survive the fall. So we buy in to ‘an insight’, and then we start circling the wagons. I’ve been asked by clients in the past to come up with a model that will indicate how many people I think will see all the parts of the campaign – which isn’t unusual – but then to somehow work some analytics hoodoo and tell them at what level of spend, and in which combination of channels, the campaign will ‘work’. Despite not being an analytics jockey or a media planner, I can get a group of people together to guess about reach and frequency and clicks and CTRs and even guess about likelihood of repeat visits or time on site, if they have enough analogous historical data and a person who has enough free time that we can justify torturing them with such a futile task. But these are vanity metrics; I have no idea – if people view and click and return at the rates we predict – whether that will mean that they:
- Remember or recognize it
- Care about it
- Believe it
- Talk about it
- Act on it
Back to the Beginning
Okay, I’ve belabored my point. “Insights” is poor English. Most things labeled “insight” aren’t; they’re observations. ”Insights” are a way for planning departments to demonstrate that they, too, make stuff, and that the campaign is built on and out of this stuff, and that therefore clients should pay for planning. Clients demand “insights” as proof the creative idea will work. We’ve all put our money on black and are letting it ride. But if we go back 15 years, and that’s really not so long ago, people didn’t talk about “insights” at all. The core components of a creative brief were, according to the APG’s book How to Plan Advertising :
- Why are you advertising (the objectives)?
- Who are you trying to influence (the target audience)?
- What do you want to communicate about the brand (the message)?
- Why do you think people will believe it (the reasons to believe/proof points)?
- How do you want to say it (tone & manner)?
- What do you think people will say after seeing/hearing it (the desired outcome)?
- What can’t you say/do, and what do you have to say/do (the so-called ‘mandatories’)?
Nobody said, “what’s the core insight?” because that would be ridiculous. Keen insight into the product, category and consumer will help you answer these handful of questions in a compelling, unexpected, effective or inspiring way. And then you dump this knowledge, this summary, into a creative hopper. Creatives should absorb as much information as they can, digest what they’ve learned and play with interesting bits, debate it with the team, mull it over. They should walk away – go do or think about something else, and let the information sink in. At some point, “usually out of nowhere” the APG book says, there’ll be an ‘aha!’ – a line or an idea from which a campaign grows.
Sounds like the perfect plan, except we’ve forgotten one thing. People do what is in their interests to do. A planner who has never even met the target audience has no incentive to be their advocate, translator and representative. A creative who rarely sells in his best work, only the stuff that works to the formula the client likes, has no incentive to do something unexpected. An account person who only gets his bonus if the client maintains or incrementally increases the spend each year doesn’t care what the work looks like as long as the agency makes deadlines and produces work he can sell easily. And so, the aha moment might never come. The answers to the creative brief’s template questions might elicit only platitudes and obvious observations. The work could be trite. The campaign could fail, or worse, be totally invisible.
We’re working in an industry that assumes a series of wrong-headed things, the least of which is that ‘insights’ are a set of collectible objects. The industry is predicated on a belief in an assembly-line process, in which people don’t leave the building or meet customers and prospects, yet nevertheless write a brief as both subject matter and audience experts; in which a couple of people are expected to lock themselves in a room for a few hours and come out with a stroke of genius; in which everyone will instinctively understand, adopt and know how to produce that stroke of genius; and in which the produced campaign will drive the outcomes the client desires.
If the whole thing is an elaborate web of make-believe, then what difference does it make if we hijack the language? The real miracle is that this process ‘works’ to whatever degree it does. Which is a post for another time.