What is an insight?

Why is a good insight like a refrigerator? 
Because the moment you look into it, a light comes on. 

So goes the best, and as far as I’m aware, only, joke specifically about insights.  It was written by the great sage of advertising, Jeremy Bullmore, as part of a wider piece on the value of high potency insights in marketing planning and research, which is well worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing.

I’m fascinated by the incongruous perfection that comes from a well-defined high potency insight that is both beautiful and simple, yet holds the immense power to unlock a complex problem.

They’re tricky little things though, insights.

We’re all agreed they’re vitally important to the development of good marketing communication (amongst other things).  The uncovering of insights is a component part of every agency planning process, and most businesses have people with the word ‘insight’ in their title, if not entire departments devoted to seeking out the elusive little blighters.

Which is hardly surprising given Bill Bernbach’s assertion that “nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature… what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action… if you know these things about a man you can touch him at the core of his being.”

So if we’re all agreed that insights are vitally important, how come they’re so difficult to define, let alone find?  It seems there are as many definitions of an insight as there are people looking for them.

There’s a lovely little Slideshare deck here, which compiles a list of insight definitions from a large selection of the greatest comms practitioners currently working in the industry.

The Account Planning Group also held an evening devoted to this exact topic.

As you’d expect from such a talented bunch there are some fantastic thoughts on the subject, and some common themes do emerge, but still no single agreement on what an insight actually is.

That staple fallback of the planner, the dictionary definition, is also of little use in this context, sadly.

“An accurate and deep understanding of someone or something” seems too factual a description, and as Wendy Gordon observes, “insights are not facts: people do not tell you them and statistics do not identify them”.

A great insight can explain a fact, but a fact will not in itself necessarily lead to insight.

Or as Einstein put it, “we will not get any major insights by gradual, incremental logic. First we must make the intuitive leap, then we must build a bridge of logic back to where we started.”

For me, any useful definition of insight must incorporate both logic and intuition as core elements, which is why an article I read last week in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Where To Look For Insight’ caught my attention.

As well as offering some very useful and practical insight generation techniques, the authors also offer the most compelling definition of insight I’ve seen yet, describing it as “an imaginative understanding of an internal or external opportunity that can be tapped to improve efficiency, generate revenue, or boost engagement.”

‘Imaginative understanding’ is a beautiful little phrase.

For me it perfectly encapsulates both the art and science elements that combine to create a great insight – the intuitive leap which is fuelled by an in depth knowledge of the subject matter.

Right, now that’s settled I’m off to look into the refrigerator.  I do hope the light comes on.


What is strategy?

Last week I started a new job as a communication strategist.  So a recent Forbes article entitled Here’s Why People Don’t Get Your Strategy immediately grabbed my attention.

The article’s author, Russell Raath, argues convincingly that the word ‘strategy’ is one of ‘the most used and least understood terms in business’, with the term often being ‘simply slapped on to make “plan” sound more sophisticated’.

It seems that anything that isn’t either implementational or administrative must now be labelled as strategic to indicate its elevated status, even when it isn’t warranted.

As a strategist I would argue passionately that having the right framework in place is vital to ensure success, but I’m equally very conscious that Strategy Without Execution is Hallucination!

Ultimately the activation output is all that people see.  It’s what businesses (and industry awards) are primarily judged on.  So in some ways it’s odd that strategy often seems to rank higher in the pecking order.

I don’t believe the confusion is deliberate though.  I think the majority of the problem with strategy is simply that most people don’t really know what it means, or how to create one.

Raath advocates three steps to avoid this confusion.  The first is to create a shared definition within your organisation of the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’, and be specific about their use.

That makes a lot of sense.  Anything that creates a common language and culture within an organisation has to be a good thing.  But it doesn’t actually answer the question: ‘what is strategy?’

Over the years I must have read hundreds of books and articles on this topic, but for me the best explanation is also the simplest:

In his beautifully concise video, Roger Martin advises that we “think of strategy as the intersection of two critical dimensions: where you will play and how you will win there.”

Where you will play is the set of decisions you need to make about where you will focus your efforts (and equally, where you won’t).  This includes factors such as regionality, target audience, product, and category.

How to win there is about understanding where you have a competitive advantage over your key competitors, then maximising that advantage by choosing specific activities that are different to the ones your competitors engage in.

Once these choices have been made it’s then a case of matching the two dimensions to create a single strategy, toggling between the two and iterating as necessary until you find the perfect blend.

I love the simplicity of this approach.  Just four steps in total:

  1. Choose where to play
  2. Find a distinctive way to win
  3. Match your choices
  4. Iterate as needed

As with all the most simple approaches though, putting it into practice is the hard part.

That’s when the fun starts.

That’s when you need a strategist.