FEATURE28 February 2023

Ready, engaged, fire: agile insight that gets to the heart of the matter

Features Healthcare Insight Alchemy Public Sector

If the essence of ‘insight alchemy’ is turning base data into golden nuggets for decision-makers, it begs one huge question: what on Earth do they need to know? Happily, annual conference has you covered…


If you’re looking for a magic bullet that will help insight projects survive uncertain times and ensure they can grow fast when the world finds its feet again, Viki Cooke’s session at Insight Alchemy 2023 might be the place to look. 

Entitled ‘Being indispensable to the top table', the co-founder of Thinks Insight & Strategy (recently rebranded from Britain Thinks) has assembled a crack panel that will thrash out the best ways of getting to the heart of decision-makers’ more pressing questions.

“The big question around engagement with leaders is whether we’re addressing the urgent issues they have at the top of the to-do list – or the important ones, that will make a lasting difference,” she explains. “As insight practitioners it’s vital that we have a clear view of what’s considered important around the top table.

“But it’s also a two-way street,” she adds. “We have to be able to reflect back up to them what transpires as ‘important’ from the work we’re doing.” And that means building trust with senior decision-makers.

One panellist who knows all about that is Catherine Hunt. Until recently, she was head of insight and evaluation at the Cabinet Office – and top tables don’t get much higher than that. (Her new role is no less critical: she’s now head of analysis for information threats –helping protect us from cyberattacks…)

“How we do research and how we report it make a huge difference,” she says. “In many cases, you’re looking for a trade-off between speed and rigour. During Covid, for example, the insights we generated made a huge difference to top-level decisions – so knowing what they needed to know, and sharing that insight quickly, was essential.”

Viki’s second contributor has been supporting a new executive team charting relatively untested waters. James Sallows is Global Head of Transformation & Capability, Consumer & Business Insights & Analytics at Haleon – the business GSK spun out last year to handle all its consumer healthcare brands. That’s mean supporting a new CEO and CFO as they get to grips not just with a standalone business – but also performing through a global consumer and healthcare crisis.

“To some extent that helped us be right at the heart of that top table conversation,” he says. “We’ve been on this four-year journey to flotation, where we’ve been visible and shown added value – we’ve punched through in terms of connection with the senior leaders. That’s really strengthened the hand of the in-house insight team – that trust means we have been able to own more of those territories internally.”

Stuart Bluck, head of research and insight at Cinch also brings his experience of helping a start-up (albeit a huge one) punch into the market – and his lessons on agile insight to support that brand insurgency reinforce that crucial idea that senior leadership needs speed, responsiveness and proactivity to feel comfortable with big spending and dramatic decisions.

Then rounding out the panel will be Fraser Hardie, senior adviser (and former chair) at CEO consultancy Teneo. Fraser will bring vivid insights into the mindset of the most senior chief executives from his years advising them – and he stresses that the uncertain times we find ourselves in are, in fact, an opportunity to share telling insights that are laser-targeted on the board table’s to-do list. In the past, businesses might occasionally go through stressful, uncertain transformation projects. Today, ‘transformation’ is fast becoming business as usual for many organisations.

“So that conversation with the CEO is key,” he says. “You have to understand their perception of the problems the organisation is facing. How do they see the transformation mission? One of the reasons research struggles to cut through at the top is that it starts at the wrong level – it stays with middle management, or it’s a very basic information process. It needs to be really hard-nosed, commercially based, business case-driven projects that answers strategic questions.”

During the session Viki and the team will be exploring how you get access, understand the top table’s priorities, and ensure insight projects are capable of delivering that ‘a-ha’ moment at a board meeting – the moments that ensure CEOs see your agency or in-house team as crucial part of the conversation. Get that right, even every crisis is a chance to help – and every upturn an opportunity to optimise performance. Don’t miss it.

See the full programme for Insight Alchemy 2023 – MRS Annual Conference.