Home >> planningtitle_li=storytellingtitle_li=strategy >> There are no such things as “Insights”

There are no such things as “Insights”

by Farrah Bostic on May 9, 2011

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:

YouTube Preview Image

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.


1 Arvind July 12, 2012 at 12:59 am

Landed here from Bhatnaturally. Will subscribe. Damn good article. Thanks.

2 James "Don't drink cheap beer Demps" Dempster May 23, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Ascending ditto, or eureka a new word “pretto.” A super article indeed! If for not other reason, “insighs” cheapens its meaning insomuch as, if relegated to the plural, it can’t be at the nucleus of any thought process albeit schizophenic ones. And so the battle rages to prevent this and other corruptions of meaning. Lest I dephalagize the wonderous marketer who made “grow” a transitive verb, as in “let us grow your business,” they would tweet their malgrammatic deeds using only their thumbs. Keep the faith and defend the word.

3 Pete June 24, 2011 at 7:37 am

Great article Farrah.

Seems to me that insights and the entire planning process are there to give clients the belief that things have order, and there is a clear proven reason for everything. The truth is that many insights are post rationalized to give reason for the idea that has already been created.

Planing doesn’t really flow like it should, what you read in case studies isn’t often what really happened. Real life is messy, gut driven, human.

We’re not machines, as much as we’d like to pretend we are. We’re human and as such we’re irrational and emotionally driven creatures.

The advertising industry needs to grow some balls and admit that some ideas, some solutions, can’t be quantified, can’t be proven but can perform better those that can.

I guess it’s all about risk and the avoidance of it.

Ad agencies should be risk takers, the ones who will make the difference, challenge, break free of convention.

More and more often it’s as if agencies have been slowly pushed in to a box of proof, rationale and numbers.

All are essential for evaluation but in the process of creation they should be treated with extreme caution because often there only role is to confirm what people already believe and restrict freedom of thought.

4 x June 10, 2011 at 10:53 am

this makes me cringe. insight is probably the only word or thing that is NOT cliche or bullshit about planning.

5 Farrah Bostic June 11, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Thanks for commenting, X.

I appreciate that our role as planners is to be insightful and to develop insight. What bothers is me is that by saying we should find or uncover or mine insights, it affects the process we undertake to get there, and the value our agencies and clients place on that undertaking. It’s not semantics if it affects the value and process of our work, and it’s been my experience recently that seeing insights as easily “collected” data or observations is doing just that.

6 Simon May 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Great post – insight is such as overused cliche. I like to use the DKIW model (Data Knowledge Information Wisdom) as a starting point to remind people that a data point isn’t an insight.

David Smith has a good definition of an insight using the VRIO framework. You can find references to this via google or (self-promotion alert) alternatively I blogged about the topic around a year ago – http://curiouslypersistent.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/avoiding-insights/ – one of the key takeaways is that an insight is only useful if it is unique to your company/brand and aligned with what you want to achieve.

7 Chris Finlay May 21, 2011 at 9:56 am

Hey Farrah,

I hear you loud and clear. People can drive me crazy with the word insight. Even if correctly applied, the overuse and implied earth shattering value of any information transmitted under that banner can drive one to drink.

That said, I suggest that insights, while not always deeply penetrating (this is highly relative), represent the moment at which a person can see something more clearly (also highly relative).

For the Nike designer, the fact that people like listening to music while working out might have been an insight as the designer suddenly could see the situation clearly where before they had not. For you, the observation of the same activity lead to no insight because you already knew or your insights include that information but yield something deeper or more meaningful (highly relative). Both are based on an observation but has different results for each viewer.

It can certainly be frustrating for those trained in the practice of diving deeper and with stronger skills of observation to deal with all those “powerful” “insights” that get tossed around when they feel obvious.

I would say, rather than rebuking the term insight, I push myself and others to ask better questions about what seems “obvious”.

Thanks for making me think more carefully about how I see and define insights vs observations.


8 Farrah Bostic May 23, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Hi Chris,

Thanks for responding – I’ve been traveling quite a bit, so not as active in replying to comments, but I do appreciate the thought you put into this – and your perspective (and am glad to see you included your ideas on your blog). I agree that observations can lead to a spark of inspiration, a moment when you understand something more deeply or in a different way than you did before. And I also think we need that depth of understanding, or that fresh perspective, or that inspiration, in order to design solutions and products and communications. I believe that insight can be cultivated through interrogation and immersion and investigation and experience. I spent too many years moderating focus groups not to know well that sometimes the most ‘obvious’ thing sparked very successful brand or product ideas. For example, the idea that people enjoy stories about ordinary people overcoming obstacles (which seems so… obvious!) helped USA Network reposition itself and its programming, and significantly improved its ratings and brand.

What I object to is the objectification of insight. The view I see inside of agencies and market research firms is that insight – that depth of understanding or aha! moment – can be reduced to bullet points on a slide, filled out like a form, and delivered on demand. I disagree. I think curious people become insightful about a product or category or consumer through a lot of hard work and serious thinking and brainstorming and discussion and debate. I think observations of what people really do, the pain they really feel, or the desires they really want to fulfill can lead us to useful and beautiful designs for communications, or products, or services. I want to put the emphasis back on the process of gaining insight, and less on the insight-as-object. Because in the rush to fill the order or complete the assignment, many people simply list a series of facts or statistics in place of real insight, and hope for the best. What typically gets made as a result is often anything but.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

9 Paul Gage May 19, 2011 at 12:46 am

great piece farrah. I’ve been fortunate (or not) to work in data planning, media planning, account planning and brand planning. In that experience:

Great ideas never came from data & research-based facts.
Media data led to optimisation rather than experimentation.
Brilliant work has usually come from knowing and understanding the audience’s real lives (being insightful!), playing around with some potential areas of exploration, never having to be held to the original brief or proposition and breaking the rules when you can.

10 Katherine May 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm

I really enjoyed this post! As an eager, young college grad gunning for agency life, the misuse and repurposing of catchy phrases is an Adland quirk that I am excited to see in action (though I’ll probably be sick of it in about a week). But from my internship experiences, I did get a feel for some of the things you are pointing out, and I definitely agree that those buzzwords get so convoluted and lose all meaning after a while. Thanks for highlighting a key industry issue and elucidating the job of a planner. I find that the work planners do, is so personally inspiring, and I hope that it will be in my future down the road (even though I am more focused on getting an account position right now). But thanks again for sharing such fantastic, INSIGHTFUL commentary, and I would love to pick your brain about the industry some time!


11 Caley May 14, 2011 at 10:09 am

Love this Farrah! Very nicely done.

12 Ray May 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Love it, great post. Wonderful emotion to drive conversation and thinking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

13 Gita Vaidyanathan May 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Good read, very nicely written. I am sure this will be the so called “new insight” used in high level conversations!!

14 evan May 12, 2011 at 11:14 am

To me it’s a matter of semantics and lazy ones at that. In an effort to constantly reinvent itself, or constantly seem like its reinventing itself, Adland renames things all the time.

The issue arises when USP became Reason To Believe (god help us if we actually sell anything) and then turned into the misnomer key insight. If we are being honest, the mediocre planners have then translated this to mean “cut and paste.” Dull facts. Especially from a Wiki article.

This is also why advertising is most often mediocre, or has moved away from even attempting to sell something, and now favors a new and flashy execution (mostly real time and digital) over anything of substance.

I find this quite ironic, considering the original television shows from the 1950′s were doing the exact same thing we currently do:Naming rights, (Colgate Comedy Hour) in-show product placement, product demonstrations and real-time commercials (remember, most of the shows were live then.) The only difference is that they weren’t creating the commercial based on a thirteen year olds tweet. They were giving us reasons to believe their product work within that frame work rather than exploring the key insight along the lines of “people spend a lot of time on the interwebs.”

So yeah– the media’s changed. The way we spread the message has not. It’s just now we’re (and that includes creatives and account people as much as planners) favoring cool-looking and mostly vapid execution over substance.

That means there’s only one thing to do!

Change “Key insight” to another equally hackneyed phrase, and act like we’ve “revolutionized” advertising. Yay us.

15 Bryan Fuhr May 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

Excellent post. It’s like a rallying cry for simplification.

To me, agencies offer three types of client service:

1. Provide strategic directions
2. Develop creative concepts
3. Produce marketing communications

To your point, any attempt to overstate these services complicates and confuses the client. Perhaps it’s also false bravado.

Thanks for sharing.

16 Jean May 12, 2011 at 5:21 am

This is a nice but trouble shot. I don’t understand why you started by pointing the confusion around insight definitions and then slide to trashing adland…

Insight is misunderstood ok but if insights are used as commercial arguments, this is not the original point right?

17 Farrah Bostic May 12, 2011 at 7:51 am

Hi Jean, not sure I’m getting your question. The essential idea is that we’ve taken a process or talent (cultivating or possessing insight into something) and converted it into a “product” – a list of facts, observations, statistics, truisms, or whatever – as a way of proving creative ideas, or justifying planning. Your experience may be different; but I see a lot of clients and agencies demanding or producing insights, without taking the time to be insightful. I consider this approach to be, often, wasteful – it takes time & resources, and doesn’t always contribute to the work itself.

Which is not to say that creative ideas that tap into something true, relevant, surprising, etc don’t happen – they do. But I would argue that the insightful creative team who came up with those ideas didn’t produce “insights”. In any event, it’s still poor English. ;)

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

18 OleLanger May 11, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Great post with highly relevant provocative statements – nevertheless I am in total disaggreement with your overall conclusion that “Insights” do not exist

Great campaigns/brands have been build on great insights – to name a few:

Dove – The insight that women were tired of being told what beauty was rather than finding the beauty within
Coke Zero – That men drank signicant amounts of coke light but had difficulties in recognising themselves with coke light advertising
Axe/Old Spice: Great insights into male psyche and sex appeal
HostGator – (probably less known) but based on an insight that they were part responsible for global warming and could reduce impact of this through buying windpower for their servers as well as “piggybag” on the fast growing awareness and willingness to pay for green alternatives

I fully aggree with your points regarding insights has to move beyond mere statistics and not something that is put in to justify a campaign
I also aggree with you that a good planer should be insightful and that applied insights are much better than “random” statistics

But to me insights can be meta insights, category insights, consumer insights, competitive insights, channel insights to name a few
There is a process to derive insights which may not be universal truths but always combine an understanding with a business opportunity
Insights are the off spring for creative thinking and succesful business initiatives and campaigns and I hope that your post reignites that relevance rather than confirm disbelilevers

Ole Langer
Insight Lighthouse (naturally ;)

19 Farrah Bostic May 12, 2011 at 7:59 am

I guess we’ll agree to disagree. ;) As an initial matter, it’s still poor English; beyond that, I’d say at least half those you’ve listed are observations or facts. The USE of those observations may have yielded something that demonstrates some insight into the meaning or relevance or implications of them. Noting these phenomena isn’t useless; but presenting them as work product is, in my mind, wasteful.

Of course, with a company whose name includes the word “insight” (and you are in good company!) I can see why you might disagree – it’s in our collective interest short term to be protective of this word; often it’s the one thing a planner gets to bring to the table. Still – I think good planners possess insight and know how to cultivate it. When clients or colleagues ask for “insight mining” or “insight generation” they are asking for – again, in my opinion – the wrong things.

Thanks for reading the post and taking time to comment!

20 OleLanger May 31, 2011 at 7:45 am

Without being defensive – thanks for your relevant picking on typos and grammar, and to clarify the examples were not work products – merely meant as illustrations of companies, who work rigorously with insights, and despite our “clashing disagreement” I actually think we do agree – insights are important and not to be taken lightly and the process of deriving one requires information, skills and often hard work

21 Ben May 11, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Brave article, would be great to see what you do on the overuse of the word strategy or any iteration thereof.
You throw a few hand grenades in your piece, laced with emotion (whether anger, frustration or bitterness it is difficult to tell). And in my opinion whether agreed with or not they stimulate intelligent thought on what we do for a living.
For me what sums up your piece is your below ‘reply comment’, it’s a reality check we should always come back to.
“more often than not, I’m asked for what amounts to a list of observations (called ‘insights’) that are used as justification for marketing programs, rather than as inspiration for them”

22 Joe Ray May 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm

I liked the part about how a drunk uses a lamp post, which is not for illumination. Good insight.

I’m in agreement that so much of this kills innovation. It’s as if the IT guys, the lawyers and the procurement wanks brainwashed the research people and planners into coming over to the Dark Side with them. I think insights are important, they’re the gray areas but they’ve been sterilized of any shades of gray and creativity that may have been useful to begin with.

It’s almost as if the key “differentiators” scare people sometimes.

23 Sam May 11, 2011 at 11:28 am

Semantics. Insights are observations into people. Observations give insight into people. Any brand would be foolhardy to make decisions without observing their audience and gleaning some simple, actionable truisms. Give me a brand and I’ll give you an insight.

24 Farrah Bostic May 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I understand where you’re coming from, but I disagree on a few levels. A great many brands do not observe their audience – I’ve had clients in the past who’ve told me they don’t know much about their audience, and others who’ve even told me they don’t think very highly of their audience. It’s been my job as a strategist and planner to help them get to know that audience better and, on occasion, I’ve even managed to get them to like their audience. In those instances, I would say that my clients have gained insight into their audience. But more often than not, I’m asked for what amounts to a list of observations (called ‘insights’) that are used as justification for marketing programs, rather than as inspiration for them. They’re seen as necessary ‘inputs’ into an assembly-line system of building a campaign. Or they point to that old saying about how many companies use research the way a drunk uses a lamp-post: for support instead of illumination.

The misuse of the language, in my opinion, obfuscates the role insight really plays in developing great campaigns and great brands. I think, ultimately, we’re saying we believe in the same things; where we disagree is that I think that ‘semantics’, in this case, matter.

25 Tim June 2, 2011 at 7:50 am

Two great comments; thanks for the brilliant article and subsequent discussion space. :)

26 x June 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

sam, only voice of reason here. it is a matter of semantics.

27 Quinoym May 10, 2011 at 11:24 am

Totally agree. Add to this the fact that with the all importance of Planning, other agency functions particularly client management and media no longer believe that being insightful is an important pre requisite of their jobs

28 Victoria Else May 10, 2011 at 10:40 am

Excellent points; my only disagreement is that I do feel that insight is an experience (“aha!); it’s internal and personal. Though not all insightful experiences are productive, the process of seeking for insight (the experience, not the data point) is crucial to all creative thought.

29 scott doniger May 10, 2011 at 10:35 am

Farrah, great piece. of the many points you shed light on, process is in many respects the most notable. rigor is what most ad people don’t employ to the work of developing strategies or campaigns. as you correctly point out, too often media people rely on statistics or observations without working through it to validate that there is truly something unknown. at wirestone, that’s what we look for before labeling anything an insight, or someone’s idea insightful. we painstakingly submit the stat, idea, observation, or piece of obtuse data to the kinds of questions that lead us to new thinking — why is it important; what does it mean; and again…why is it important. process is what births a new perspective from what was a raw thing in and of itself. from time to time a raw observation may actually qualify and truly insightful…but we only accept that when we strung it through the process. phil deusenberry had it right, one great insight is worth a thousand ideas. thanks for keeping us planners on track.

30 Paul Soldera May 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Amen to this Farrah. I think this is part of a wider trend, and a disturbing one – that good ideas only come from data.

Somehow the idea-generating process (be it in advertising or business) has been co-opted by data – all ideas need to come from a sold set of facts (‘insights’). These need to be clear and concise so it’s easy for anyone to follow along. And, the more data (‘insights’) we have the better the ultimate solution will be.

The PROCESS of ‘being insightful’ has almost been crowded out.

I wrote a post about this in regards to performance metrics (http://www.insightbydesign.biz/?p=321) a while back.

31 Kent Stones May 12, 2011 at 10:23 am

First, let me express my deep admiration for the passion you exude for your craft. You have thought deeply about the work you do and it’s meaning, something which we should all do if we want to truly master our profession. Your employer is fortunate to have you.

I agree with most of what you write, but disagree that any use of the word “insights” is poor English (based of your declarative statement). Rather–and perhaps this is what you meant–is that the word, as often used, is misunderstood and therefore not properly supported by critical thinking and the written word. We should not avoid using the word, but should strive to make sure our verbiage does in fact communicate the insights we’ve developed, not just listing the observations and facts we uncovered or that someone demands. Said another way, we should strive describe the patterns and meaning we uncover and why those are important to the problem we are trying to solve.

You raise another interesting and important point, the belief by many that “good” insights lead to “good” ideas. This, as you succinctly point out, is folly. I continue to find that my written insights serve more as basic communication vehicle for the client so they understand the direction the creative team is heading. True, these insights are part of the discussion I have with those who are going to design solutions, but most of that conversation (and it is a conversation, not a lecture from a powerpoint deck) is around why I developed those insights. And, we usually come out of those conversations with new perspectives because of the additional “data” collected from the team (based on the belief that everything is data).

Having said all that, you are correct. “Insights” are the reason we exist and the self-serving product we planners sell to justify our existence. But to be frank, I think any profession develops a concept or symbol that represents what they believe to be their value. The important principle, which you have demonstrated above, is to cast a highly critical eye toward one’s work, processes and perceived value. Doing so prevents us from becoming intellectually lazy and guards against complacency. I, for one, now have a renewed vigor toward making sure my insights are truly insights, and not just a recitation of facts and observations.

For that, I am very grateful to you.

32 Kent Stones May 12, 2011 at 10:28 am

I meant my response as a comment to Farrah’s original post, not a sub-post to Paul’s comment. Apologies.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: