An insight about insights

‘Insight’; another tricky bastard in our frustratingly word-reliant industry. The nice chaps from YCC were in Poke the other night talking about insights. Sadly I arrived only to hear the closing applause, but I’ve been thinking about insights and have something hopefully worthy of a post:

What I don’t like about ‘insights’ is the sensationalist expectation that they have to appear in a flash of light and make everyone’s trousers fall down. Some people question whether they even exist. And they have a point.

For me, insights (let’s assume they do exist for a moment) are ‘true, but new’. They are based on observations, but observations that provide a fresh (sometimes trouser-removing) perspective on something. Importantly, not all situations require a dramatic change of perspective. Sometimes the smart thing to do is already apparent. When it is, doing a more exciting but less valuable thing is just a bit silly.

But we love the Eureka insights don’t we. Here are a couple of my favourites:

When Nintendo launched the Wii, they had to contend with Playstation and its vastly superior graphics and processing speed. Their insight was “the action happens off the screen”. Nice.

When attempted to take on the big boys, they (M&C Saatchi) realised that they didn’t need to compete on everything. People tended to shop around before buying, so John Lewis’ helpful assistants could also help Dixon customers, so long as they came to Dixons to buy afterwards. This insight led to this famous work and the line “Dixons, The last place you should go.”

In Campaign this week, Russell Davies shared a lovely ‘insight’ from Mark Sorrell. As liberating as it is simple, he proposes that people are wrongly referring to mobiles, laptops and tablets as the ‘second screen’ to television. He observes that these devices absorb more of our attention on the sofa and that it is the TVs that barks on ‘in the background’. I.e. It is television that is our second screen. True, but new. A simple observation that completely rewires how you might think about a dual-screen strategy.

Something occurred to me when I read this last insight. 1. Insights are most exciting/dramatic when we’ve previously been looking at the wrong thing. 2. So caught up are we in sensationalising our industry and our accomplishments, we have completely failed to realise that we’re looking at insights wrongly as well. So here’s an insight about insights:

Insights do not elevate us to a higher plane. They fix our stupidity.

It’s well-documented that our brains are pattern-defining tools. We think we understand the world because we repeatedly reaffirm our misconceptions until they’re thoroughly hard-wired. When people arrive with ‘insights’, what they’re really doing is unpicking our ignorant misunderstandings and giving us a proper look at things.

Does any of this really matter? It’s just semantics, isn’t it? Yes. But semantics define how we see the world. And the more time you spend convincing yourself that you’ve just solved the secrets to the Universe, the less you will think to scrutinise your existing understanding, which is something we should all do constantly. Less sexy, but far more useful.

Jez kindly tweeted this post and queried about where/how insight informs creativity.  The answer is somewhat buried in the above, so I’ll clarify my pov: The brain is built to define patterns of understanding. It is these patterns that prevent creativity, because our brains tell us everything is as it seems. By Edward De Bono’s definition, ‘creativity’ is literally the act of breaking from these patterns (and in the process our cognitive lethargy). An insight that rewires the way we see something becomes the first creative act; the catalyst that leads to new patterns of thought. I agree with Michael, below, that it doesn’t really matter what you call it, or when ‘strategy’ turns into ‘creative’. I would break it all down as follows:

1. Acknowledge that our current understanding of anything is based on patterns of thought defined in the past
2. Fix this ignorance by scrutinising what we think we know (literally escape from uninspiring, established patterns of thought)
3. Use these new thought patterns to fuel creative alternative ideas

This is all getting a bit heavy. I’m going to have a cup of tea.

2 comments tagged: ,
  • Michael

    Not sure if this debate about “what is/is there such a thing as/should we care about” an insight is picking up steam or not, but I’ve come across a number of posts (in the past and present) about the topic recently and I think it is a very healthy discussion for the industry, not just planners alike, to be having. 
    My biggest take away thus far is that the “thought” does not to need to be an insight in the most semantically correct definition of the word in order to be taken seriously, and that is what I tend to struggle with as a planner when being the one responsible for delivering such things in the briefing. There tends to be knee-jerk dismissal of a very useful, true and relevant “thought” unless it is something everyone else in the room believes they could not possibly have come up with on their own. As if the “thought” never existed until it was spoken just then. Some might call the lack of an “earth-shattering” insight shared during a briefing as lazy/bad planning, and in some cases that might be true, but it is also lazy/bad design-creative-development-what have you when believing it is not worth ones time unless their pants have been done dropped. This tends to be the result of when people confuse “I knew that” with “I already thought about that.” If you (really) spent time thinking about this “thought” and got no where, fine. Let’s move on. But if you already “knew” this about our user/brand/context, sorry, that doesn’t give you the option to pass.That’s why Farrah’s Nike+ example is perfect. Nike+ is the most lauded case study in our industry, ad nauseum. We all agree it is brilliant marketing in today’s new-world of new-marketing. So of course, it must have been born from a just as brilliant insight. Wrong. It was born from very smart people working creatively, strategically and technically (not sure i’m using that word properly here) together from a basic, not-new observation – “people listen to music while running.” Of course there were more facts brought into play like “group support increases participation” and “people like to track their results,” but neither of those dropped my pants either. Yours?At the end of the day, no matter how utterly stupendous an insight is, we still have to do the work. Otherwise, it’s just words on paper. That’s why we are just wasting our time caring (myself included) so much that our digital experiences/marketing programs/advertising is based on “Insights, glorious insights!!!” (think Oliver Twist).  So what I’ve committed to is that no matter what it is called - observation, fact, statistic or insight – I’m going to *encourage* the team to stay with said “thought” for a bit and see where we end up as long as it delivers on the following:1. It is TRUE – as it relates to our user, brand or industry.2. It is RELEVANT – to the user context or business task at hand.3. It is USEFUL –  to the user, brand or both. I literally wrote this from head-to-comment, so please build-on or debunk at will.Thanks.  

  • Thomas Miskin