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What is an Insight? The APG in combative and revelatory mode

Last night the APG brought together six of the industry’s best minds to answer the question: ‘What is an insight?’ From poptarts to the importance of truth, we covered the lot and all left enlightened, wondering how our agencies would change their briefing template, and a little merry from the bevvies kindly supplied by Google (thank you!).

First up was the APG’s newly appointed Chairwoman and CSO of JWT London, Tracey Follows. Tracey began by sharing her view that an insight is not how it is often described; a flash of inspiration or a revelation depicted by the light bulb. It’s a much slower process. Her argument further described an insight as not just the result of noticing something (presumably this is purely an observation) but, contrastingly, it’s in the noticing that you’re noticing that the insight is formed. It’s easy to see the similarities between this description and the regularly quoted definition of consciousness as ‘awareness of awareness’.

Is an insight the product of consciousness? This all left me wondering whether a commission was on the cards for a new APG logo and what, if anything, could graphically convey this description of insight?

Tracey went on to talk about the artists Gilbert and George who noticed that all other artists were tended to be weird to the point where they weren’t being allowed to dine in restaurants. To avoid this, they consciously decided to be normal. In doing so, they found that they became ‘so normal that it was a bit strange’ leading them to define their identity as ‘weird normal’. Tracey proposed that using “weird-normal” to unlock creativity makes original thought possible. She pointed to echoes of this in Lewis Carroll’s premise of “looking for meaning in the unfamiliar” and many popular TV show’s interplay of weird and normal such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. With both of these programmes, it’s the juxtaposition of normalness and weirdness that make you laugh. As Seinfeld states in his ‘anatomy of the poptart joke’ video:

“the wronger something is, the righter it is”. I hope that in using this line of thinking our industry can use more “weird-normal” to make more interesting work.

Our second speaker was Andy Davidson from Flamingo who believes that our lack of understanding of insight is holding us back. We can only hope that after last night this is no longer the case. His analogy was to describe laughter (spontaneous sounds and movements of the face and body) as the same as describing an insight: unbefitting for such an emotional and intangible thing. The one definition Andy did land on was as ‘an insight as a disturbance in discourse’; using Persil’s Dirt is Good campaign as an example of how ‘dirt’ disturbed the pre-existing discourse of whiter than white whiteness. He argued that in finding these disturbances we are able to express what was previously inexpressible. Andy’s next, and most contentious point, stated that ‘the truth is less important than you think’.

When working with a category that has been around for donkey’s years, you’re unlikely to find a novel insight. Equally, the competition will already have it; it sends you down the wrong track and makes you believe what comes out of people’s mouths in research. I would argue that by making this point, Andy wasn’t actually discrediting the ‘truth’ but actually what research participants falsely believe and convey as the truth. An alternative way of mining insights, he argued, was to imagine what would be really interesting if it were true and then think about the context that would have to exist in order for it to be true. Additionally, insights do not necessarily come from consumers; so he suggested looking at packaging, competitors, and other places. Andy’s final frustration was with the obsession with ‘depth’ of an insight; as if it comes from only the darkest subconscious of consumer’s minds. This, he argued, is problematic and exemplified by the small box on the brief that requires the deep, pithy insight. To counter this, he proposed the simply giving creatives several inspiring thoughts and working together to investigate the merits and creative opportunities of each.

Nick Hirst from Dare followed on almost seamlessly from Andy by highlighting that insights, as they are currently used, do not allow for change. We use them too literally; obsess over their form; and value ‘new’ over ‘right. We seek a ‘revelatory quality’ in our insights – and much in line with Tracey’s argument, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of what will lead to the best work. We have become slaves to their form, and we assume that insights are essential. As an alternative, we may be better off to simply sell a generic benefit in a new way or look for a need, rather than an insight.

Unlike insights, ‘needs’ need a solution. They give your brand a right to talk to people and interrupt their lives. Equally, needs aren’t always new, and that’s OK. The need for Facebook, for example, wasn’t new. It was simply a new solution to an age-old need for human interaction (or maybe just being nosy). Needs can also change over time. For example, a 17-year-old’s need for a car may differ drastically from his need if he finds himself with a wife and three children one day. So forget insight, figure out the needs and you’ll always be relevant and useful.

Our fourth speaker, David Wilding from PHD gave the media perspective started off with a bit of self-deprecation, light-hearted-insult, and comedy (which I unfortunately cannot do justice in this write-up). He then went on, like Nick, to state that we have fetishised the insight and that the old form of: ‘Issue, Insight, Idea, Implementation’ could be re-written to: ‘Background, Why we did what we did, What we did, Results’. In re-defining an insight as ‘the thing that tells us why we’re doing what we’re doing or did what we did’ we don’t need to worry if it’s too obvious.

Caitlin Ryan of Karmarama was up next to represent the creative position on ‘insight’, reflecting Nick’s view that often insights are very black and white and set in stone. She said that for a creative, you often get better work if there is flexibility within the insight. Caitlin went on to categorise creative people as either creationists or evolutionists. The former tend to be more traditional creatives who like to work with an insight to craft a perfectly formed concept. Contrastingly, she defined herself as an evolutionist creative who likes to use insights from data to evolve creative work over time. Like Andy’s she argued that insights can develop and change. She went on to describe the benefit of data over instinct as driving brands to act, rather than just communicate. Using the analogy of the comedian who stands on stage and says ‘I’m funny’ versus the one who stands on stage and tells jokes, Caitlin again echoed Nick’s view that the power of finding needs for brands to actively address, whilst championing a ‘do, don’t tell’ philosophy.

Our final speaker for the evening was the Barefoot Insighter, John Griffiths, who was the only one to stick to the pecha kucha challenge and deliver his 18 slides in 20 seconds each (owing to my significant lack of notes, for which I apologise). John began by likening insights to bubbles in coca cola: you cannot predict where they will show up even though you know that they will. John’s main point of view was that it is not enough just to know your consumers to develop insights that lead to effective communication. It is also vital that you have an understanding of the organisation and broader context. John’s talk was so fast and furious you need to watch it to it justice. His and those of the other speakers will shortly be available on our YouTube channel @apglondon.

Overall, a lively evening with surprising consistency of views about ‘the insight’ as a term that possibly drastically limits the output of our work.

Brand Planner JWT

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