OPINION15 June 2010

Insight – buried alive?

Opinion

A couple of weeks ago, Nick Johnson declared insight dead and heralded the era of ‘diffusion’. Anthony Tasgal recognises many of the symptoms to which Johnson draws attention, but says the diagnosis is premature.

Nick Johnson’s article ‘Insight is dead’ has clearly hit a raw nerve or two in the industry. In the spirit of these times of coalition I’m happy to acknowledge some truths in his critique: yes, insight has become a cliché. Yes, entire rainforests have been defoliated in the cause of hunting down suitable definitions. And yes, it’s often misused.

But I have to disagree with his post-mortem. As with so many of the fin de siècle pronouncements of death that we’ve heard in recent years (science, advertising, history) the death of insight is a misdiagnosis.

As an ex-ad agency planner who’d sell his own copy of Predictably Irrational for a good business-winning insight, I know the value of insight and I understand that usability is all. And as someone who spends much of his time now training research and ad agency folk, not to mention clients, about how to recognise and unearth insights, I have a vested interest.

Without getting tripped up in the semantic undergrowth, my first issue with Nick’s argument has to do with definitions. He is giving the word ‘insight’ too many meanings and choosing which ones to attack. He mistakes trees for the forest, data and information for insight and accuses the industry of wasting its time on something that has “zero intrinsic value”.

“Insight should be seen as a process, a way of working and thinking rather than merely an object that can be picked up and counted”

For me, insight remains the prime currency of our business. Information (or data) is fuel for the engine of what I call ‘insightment’. The reason I use that term is to emphasise that insight should be seen as a process, a way of working and thinking rather than merely an object that can be picked up and counted. And let’s not forget that it is rare to find someone who would admit that more information is better (just ask Oedipus).

Science and scientists have long understood this. Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Nobel laureate biochemist, said “discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different”. There is an inherent element of creativity and subversion here. ‘Insightment’ depends on the ability to perceive new and unexpected connections – information is to be collected, insight is to be connected. Nick makes no mention of some of the key elements of insight – surprise, simplicity and emotion, the link to creativity and the essential ‘aha-ness’ of it.

The second element I want to discuss is implementation. Nick highlights the importance of communication and the role of the debrief. I agree with much of his argument, but it is a savage indictment of our industry that we are still having to argue about how to deliver findings to enable the greatest commercial benefit.

He talks of “taking the business to a higher level” as if this is something extraneous to insight. But that is the very point of it. Any planner or client who sees the enormous business advantage gained from the insights behind Orange, Pot Noodle, Sainsbury’s or Marmite appreciates that insight is about the end not the means.

There is a small but significant straw man I want to attack too: the “purity of research”. We all now know (don’t we?) that we are in the business of constructing meaning, not delivering a ‘truth’. Clients, as a sub-species of humans, are what I term ‘semavores’ – devourers of meaning. As such, let’s banish the traditional ‘broadcast’ model of the debrief in favour of something that trades in meaning, not ‘truth’ (let alone objectivity or fact).

This is why I preach the metaphor and practice of storytelling to reframe how we present, in order to access the human emotions that allow us to tell tales and thereby create conversations. We should stop mistaking catalogues for explanations, and think of the debrief as a dramatic event with an audience rather than a one-way, fossilised lecture.

Then there is the issue, raised by one of the commenters on Nick’s piece, of the difference between a research manager and an insight manager. The short answer is about £20K, but more seriously this goes to the heart of the insight question, and will be familiar to those of us who endured the researcher-planner wars of the 80s. Planners have always instinctively understood the need to make research actionable.

Diffusing the insight through the client culture, making it stick and demonstrating its financial worth is essential in these days of high accountability. Researchers are having to adapt to this reality so that they can collectively advance on two fronts at the same time: the spectrum of creativity, in order that they can be primed to alight upon insights that dig deeper and explain more; and the commercial ladder, so that their insights can be considered commercially viable.

So it seems to me that Nick’s conclusion – “Insight is dead – long live diffusion” – is based on a false dichotomy. Both live on. By all means let’s bury some of that data and the traditional ‘broadcast’ debrief. But if he believes that means insight’s dead, I fear he has buried the wrong body.

Anthony ‘Tas’ Tasgal is a former ad agency planner who has spent the last 10 years running POV, a brand, communications and training consultancy. He is also a course director for the CIM and a lecturer at Bucks New University

7 Comments

10 years ago

Nicely written and well said Anthony. Much of my work with researchers these days is leadership development and helping them realise that leadership is a journey not a destination. Pre-enlightenment, they are all looking for insight as objects. Post-enlightenment, they have insight as a way of thinking.

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10 years ago

Insight is the most misused, bandied about term in research. All from RE to AD, jr insight managers to Directors parrot it, like there is no tomorrow. The truth of the matter is (well, according to me) a debrief is supposed to be insightful and offer some sort of a resolution. Insights are developed basis these insightful debriefs through debate, discussion, thinking and pushing yourself just-a-little-bit-more. A good debrief will always have insights in it. Insightful thinking is what one should focus on and not insights as the end goal

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10 years ago

Thanks Paul-I do think the "process" vs "thing" -however you dress it up- is crucial. Akshay, I agree but I also believe that insights can/should exist independent of a debrief if researchers become more like Planners, and are more integrated and respected members of the "top table".

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10 years ago

Insight is a team sport! Nick Johnson (Volante Research) sparked some good debate with his “Insight is dead” article http://www.research-live.com/features/insight-is-dead/4002803.article. Anthony Tasgal (POV, a brand, communications and training consultancy) fired back with “Insight –buried alive?” http://www.research-live.com/comment/insight-–-buried-alive?/4002925.article. Others weighed in, and now it’s Cambiar’s turn! Both articles have great quotes, such as Nick’s “A two-hour meeting that consists of a researcher reading a deck of 80 PowerPoint charts and then fielding a few questions is a very poor way to turn research into decisions” (amen!). But he also says “Insight managers have so much information coming at them that insight itself has ceased to be an issue”, and here he is totally off the mark (IMHO). I like Anthony’s “Insight should be seen as a process, a way of working and thinking rather than merely an object that can be picked up and counted”. What’s been missing from the debate is a framework to think about insight. I organize it into three parts: o What is meaningful Insight? o What are the necessary conditions for Insight? o What practices enhance Insight productivity? What is Meaningful Insight? I break this into four components: o New knowledge or a new understanding that connects to a business outcome o Brought about by thinking outside our comfortable paradigms The next two bullets make the insight meaningful o Communicated effectively in the context of synthesized information and knowledge of the business o That influences organizational behavior and creates business impact In other words, meaningful insight leads to a “holy s**t!” reaction from the client that changes the way the organization thinks and acts. What are the Necessary Conditions for Insight? o Insight must influence behavior – or else it is just nice to know o This will only happen if it is communicated effectively, connecting at an emotional level o For this to happen, communication must be in context (i.e. a product of synthesized information and business understanding) What Practices Enhance Insight Productivity? o An environment that encourages and rewards curiosity and creativity o Immersion and synthesis o Collaboration o Storytelling o Ownership. The researcher’s job doesn’t end when the presentation is finished – it just moves to the phase of making change happen! One final thought. If this sounds hard, it is! Meaningful insight doesn’t happen when it’s left to one person to do while crunching the PowerPoint deck. It’s a process, and it’s a team sport.

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10 years ago

More violent agreement from me, Ian, especially when defining Insight as hard. The myth that insight is just research with better PR is an enduring one. I also share your feeling that researchers need to learn to communicate more effectively, otherwise the insight remains unseen and unloved.

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10 years ago

My sympathies are with the "Researchers". To earn their fees they have to do a 2 hour + "debrief". And at every significant "chapter heading" if not each table, they have to come up with something that can be labelled an "insight". Imagine the pressure of a two hour presentation with several "insights" all of them required to get a response of "Holy S***" from the client. Planners have it far easier. They can go for a meeting and concentrate on selling the "actionability" of just one insight. However, sometimes they forget to do that preferring to stay with the "purity of the breakthrough insight". BTW, great framework for insights, Ian.

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10 years ago

I share your sympathy for researchers, Sumit, as I do an awful lot of insight training for them. But I think the bigger issue is not "One Insight Per Chart" which even the most demanding client would (hopefully) assume to be unrealistic. Instead, I preach Storytelling as a way of building a "Golden Thread" which can lead to any of the key insights. So each 'Chapter heading" as you call it becomes part of the whole, as well as enabling all present to see the process, development and sequence that lead to the "aha" in question. As for Planners getting it easier, I may need to draw breath before replying to that one.. Tas

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