How to gain insight vs. gathering insights (1 of 4 parts)

SONY DSCThis is a 4-part series about insights. It’s a journey that analyzes why insights have become weak in value—starting with 1. where many insights go wrong and 2. what insights are made of, 3. how they are sought, and finally, 4. something I’ve found that helps me combat the barriers that keep real insight from emerging.

This qualifies as what the web calls “long reads”— so thanks for advance if you stick around.


Business is in love with insights.

Insights, in their current state, love business back but hate the consumer.

Rather than presenting an authentic view of consumers—insights have become aligned almost entirely with company interests.

It is staggering to think that insights might be performing the exact opposite function of the original intention— fighting rather than aiding the interests of people. Deluding and lessening the impact consumers can have on company decisions, while reinforcing company decisions that come without consideration of people’s true interests.

Business is in love with insights because it has become dependent on the rubber-stamp role these insights have come to play.

Where the role of insights seemed to go wrong — or, a backstory about backstories

Companies everywhere fell in love with insights when advertising agencies (and other creative companies) realized insights could be milked and presented to sell creative work. As Russell Davies pointed out when writing about ad agency Crispin, Porter, and Bogusky during its hot streak, the “theater of the insight,” or the “creation story” had huge impact on success. Taking clients and potential clients on the journey of the insights were a less-frightening, more client-friendly discovery story than the work itself.

The allure is obvious if you are a client—insights were a neater and more buttoned-up presentation than, “so Jim and I were thinking and this is what we came up with.” Insights brought sureness to the subjective, messy creative roulette game, in which success was a shot-in-the-dark.

When the element of “consumer truth” was introduced, insights became a kind of proof the creative would work. If a large percentage of people agreed with an insight, the clients could sit back, absolved of the risk in making a decision, certain of the reward. (Or at least, assured of an airtight case as to why it was supposed to work, even if it didn’t).

Thus, the role of insights became more about a role that suited the process of making art palatable to clients, and less about the truths they were intended to shed light on.  The word “insights” became diluted in meaning as the original function was lost. Now, “insights” is a word referring to just about anything prior to creative work being shown. (Even if those words have a very loose connection to the work about to be shown.)

As Farrah Bostic pointed out in her now infamous “There are no such things as ‘insights’ “ blog post, “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.” As the insights became a bigger part of the narrative, the insights didn’t function as the true inception story but instead worked as grease applied to spools (in retrospect) to mollify clients and make the creative solution look smarter.

The more honest depiction of inception is so often “so Jim and I were thinking”. Creative, by definition, is made of departures—and requires lateral, not vertical thinking. Sometimes it seems those departures are deliberate or even fervent efforts to do without the consumer—but if the “insights” provided to creative people are made of half-truths and latter-proofs, then who should we blame for the final product having little resemblance to the truths people would recognize as their own?

How chasing insights perpetuated insights going rotten—or, too many of a good thing

As an account planner in advertising over the last decade, I sometimes felt my job was equivalent to that of a Golden Retriever, loping after the next round of insights on command.  I cringe to think how often these “insights” were skin-deep, made of basic snapshots of people’s lives as-contained within a Tumblr, a Google search or two, or a Tweet.

I cringe again thinking of the next step, taking this information and engaging in sizable generalizations to get to what might eventually be deemed insights. The deepest kind of insights might involve switching from inquiring about a product or category (“lawnmower”) to a condition (“pride in lawn care”) or emotion (“happiness”). Not exactly profound, but it might make for a good backstory—even if not a great stimulator for creative or business ideas.

If being brutally honest, how often did I feel insights really captured something true that would speak to a group of people in a meaningful way? Went beyond summing up a generalization, or beyond an observation that lay just below the surface?
There might be innumerable reasons (read: excuses) for that—not enough time, not enough budget, difficult clients. No matter the how tricky situation, no matter the battles, there was one thing that was never questioned: the assumption that more and more insights should and could be discovered quickly.

Which led me to wonder: when we go out and chase insights, are we bringing back something even close to real comprehension or appreciation of who people really are?

Or are we finding and collecting small truths, thereby missing the bigger picture?

Insights have become something to pursue, versus something to surface from the pursuit of understanding. What we may be missing in our search for insights is a fundamental understanding of people and what truly stirs them below the surface.

Business has traded real insight into people in favor of “insights”.

And in doing so, they are actually getting farther from, not closer to, their consumers.

Given this, it’s not hard to see why companies are struggling more than ever to make a connection with people, given they have reduced their understanding of people to a means through which to more confidently make difficult choices.


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