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BrainJuicer’s John Kearon digs deeper into the findings of its WFA Future of Insights Project to see what insights needs to do to build its consultancy credentials.

Last year we teamed up with the WFA on a landmark study, The Future of Insights Project, launched earlier this month. We got 300 top, client-side senior marketers and insight professionals to talk candidly on how they felt about their insight teams, about which methods were really helping the bottom line, and about fundamental marketing philosophies.

The project presents some stark conclusions. At its heart is a gap between what people want the insights team to be – a ‘strategic consultant’ role, being proactive about major business issues – and where people feel it is now. People saw insights today either as a ‘caddy’ (a trusted resource plugged in to the business but not taking the lead) or ‘librarian’ (a valuable information source but not part of major decisions). The consensus on where insight teams need to be was much broader: it must work towards consultancy.

This is easy to say. How do we get there? The project identifies three steps – better organisation, bolder thinking, and brighter methods.

Step one is sorting out the organisation. Only a minority of respondents felt happy about their insight team, and the number dropped in firms where insights and marketing were siloed. Where they sit together, though, happiness rises. It’s a lesson for the insight function as a whole – closer integration with the business means more respect, greater authority and more useful contributions. Physical integration is a necessary beginning.

Step two is greater understanding and bolder thinking. Separate from marketing but closely connected with it, the insight function has a unique opportunity to act as an informed but critical friend. Marketing knowledge is continually changing and we know more all the time about what drives not only decision-making but brand growth.

In the project we surveyed various commonplace beliefs about marketing – from the role of emotion in advertising, to the value of loyalty and differentiation in branding. Some old beliefs have been overturned – only a third of people feel a persuasive message is more important in advertising than making people feel something. Others remain strong – only one in six marketers disagrees that differentiation is key to a brand’s growth, despite push-back from influential voices like Professor Byron Sharp.

All change takes time to filter through. But the insight function is consistently a little bit ahead of the game here – happier to question received marketing wisdom. Part of being a strategic consultant is the ability to ask the right questions and apply the right knowledge to the answers. Staying on top of the latest marketing science is crucial.

Finally, Step three involves methodologies. We live in exciting times for insights – constant turnover of new methods. It’s tempting, but too easy, to play amateur futurist – instead we asked which methods were proving their value now. With ethnography, behavioural data, behavioural science and storytelling leading the pack, the results were a reminder that insight is a human-centric business. The most useful techniques are ones which zoom in on real behaviour, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

But yet again there’s an insights/marketing divide holding back integration. Marketers tend to value methods dealing with big, unstructured data streams – like big data analytics and social listening. Insights professionals meanwhile rate focus groups more highly than almost anything else. This is a worrying gap – insights teams need to learn the value of large scale data and social insight. Not just to avoid being left behind – the human understanding insights brings will enrich newer methods.

The road to becoming strategic consultants is a hard but hopeful one. The will is there – there’s no disagreement that it’s what insights teams should be doing. Closer integration, challenging thinking, and human-centric methodologies are the three steps to get there, and make sure the future of insights is bright.

John Kearon is chief juicer at BrainJuicer

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