When is an insight an observation?

I was sitting in a meeting the other day with an advertising agency in London and one of the agency team said they had a really good ‘insight’. After further discussion it seemed to me it was more of an observation rather than a flash of inspiration.

It got me thinking a bit more about the word because I have seen it used in job descriptions more frequently recently both on the client and agency side so I thought it was worth a bit of investigation.

My conclusion to date is that the word ‘insight’ is a fad and an over-claim.

One explanation given to me relating to a very large and famous client was that the Head of Insight worked in the research unit and his/her job was to trawl through all of their research looking for little gems that might affect their marketing and communication. Fair enough but I was thinking that is what a good planner should do in an agency for example.

I then asked a few leading practitioners in the ad world and they said they might have one genuine insight a year if they were lucky as mostly it already existed in the public domain.

So what is the difference between an insight versus an observation versus some good old fashioned digging?

Well here is one I would put in the insight box. In the 90′s HHCL were working on Ronseal, a DIY varnish product range. One of their planners spent time lurking in DIY retail outlets and observed that most people were confused about which product to buy for their job. They were picking up tins, reading the instructions and putting them back on the shelf. The observation led to an insight, quite simple and logical, Ronseal might sell more if the packaging was explicit in its role. This led to an advertising idea which has drifted in to the language in the UK – “It doe’s exactly what it says on the tin”. The packaging was changed to deliver this thought and by all accounts was a big commercial success. 

HHCL pulled another out of the hat for the AA. The thought was “The fourth emergency service”. When I saw this on TV I wished my agency had figured this one out but they did and well done to them.

According to the Collins English Dictionary insight means “the ability to perceive clearly or deeply the inner nature of things; a penetrating understanding, as of a complex situation or problem”. In all honesty I don’t come across too many examples of this definition whether it is with clients or ad agencies. In my experience these kind of light bulb moments are quite rare and also seem to be mostly in the hands of a few very intelligent people.

I think genuine insight mostly comes from other sources and people who are very smart. The word is an overclaim most of the time in the world of advertising and marketing, it is another buzz word trying to lend authority to something that is a lesser, more obvious thought. Back in time an agency I worked at had the Ariston account and focus groups told us that women’s attitudes to white goods were that they worked and never failed; so reliability was the key requirement, irrespective of the manufacturer. So we developed an advertising campaign that revolved around ‘Ariston on and on and on’. It was a winner and a smart jump from the research. I would never claim this was an insight, it was just good homework.

A great observation in my view is the Specsavers TV spot with the shepherd and the sheep dog. The man is a bit grizzly and older and squints quite a lot. As he finishes shearing one sheep he picks up the sheepdog by mistake and gives him a good haircut. The ad then says something like 30% off for the over 60′s. Apart from being shot really well, the observation of the eyesight challenges are so accurate; I find myself at home often walking around trying to find my glasses to read the instructions for food before I start cooking. Not an insight just good observation.

It is clearly very difficult to reach a conclusion on any brand where the output is genuinely insightful. Insight is rare - ”the ability to perceive deeply the inner nature of things” -  as in the mainstream of things numerous highly paid people are trying to find a different way of expressing similar ideas to their competition. Just think about banking as a category. The generic offering comprises products, rates and service. Differentiating a banking brand on any of these is points is virtually impossible so the solution lies in the how it is said, the advertising idea. All marketing and advertising in this category is devoid of any insight, not because smart people can’t figure one out but because it is very, very illusive.

Job titles are a bit of a curse because for the upwardly mobile young executive the race is for the title. Every account manager is yearning to be called an account director so we end up with senior account managers and junior account directors and so on. When I was in charge at Ogilvy I tried very hard to reduce the number of levels in account management, there were hundreds of them. Every client meeting would have at least three account management people in the room when one would have been good enough.

Returning to the Insight job title I would vote for it to be abolished because it is a fudge. People who do have amazing insights live in a different world, like splitting the atom or new breakthroughs in cancer cures, not about advertising for goodness sake.

Having worked with many outstanding creative teams over the years I can say with total authority that I have never witnessed a real insight arrive from a client where the creative teams leap up and down and punch the air. I have witnessed some exceptionally rare planners tease out the chink of light in the door that gives the creative teams a clue about where to go with their thinking.   

A great observation is worth a lot, that’s how so many stand up comics make a fortune doing gigs at the 02.

7 Responses to When is an insight an observation?

  1. Rob Campbell says:

    This post appeals to me for 2 reasons

    One. I was fortunate enough to start my career (& have all my training) at HHCL, which even now, remains the best agency I have ever had the pleasure of working at, including the companies I founded and later sold on.

    Two. I get vehemently angry at planners who claim an observation is an insight. More alarmingly, I hear senior figures in the marketing industry make the same mistake.

    An observation may allow excellent creative to be developed but an insight (though in reality, it is rarely one ‘all emcompassing’ insight or at least not one from the same process so many agencies and clients follow as part of their ‘proprietary process’) doesn’t just let a brand be built for the long term, it also let’s totally new opportunities be identified and born.

    Another great post

  2. Rob Campbell says:

    My wife has told me to add that the reason I loved HHCL so much is because after them, I chased after a woman (not her I should add) that turned me into a cynical, bad tempered, hard-to-please old man. She may be right, after all she is a saint.

  3. Good blog post, nice efforts. It couldn’t appear to have been penned any better. Reading this article piece of writing reminds me about my old boss! He usually kept babbling about this. I will email this post to him. Pretty confident he will probably have a high-quality read. Appreciate your posting!
    http://www.businesstraveltours.com is my blog.

  4. David O'Hanlon says:

    Thanks for the Ronseal mention, Paul. Honoured! I agree with your contention that insight is a greatly misused and over-used word. Also agree with Rob that when insights do happen, it’s rarely, if ever, as part of some step-by-step process.

    • Paul Simons says:

      It’s amazing how people pick up this stuff!!
      How are you?
      The Ronseal reference is a good one, just passed the test on being an insight from my pov!
      all the best.


      • David O'Hanlon says:

        I’m very well thanks.

        It’s all a bit serendipitous. We were en route home from Zermatt which is a long trip and someone had posted a link to your post on Twitter and that’s how I found the post, the Ronseal reference, and your blog!

        Ronseal campaign’s 20th anniversary coming up in Spring 2014!!

        Best wishes


  5. Chalisa says:

    Superbly illuminating data here, tnahks!

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