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.


2 thoughts on “What is an insight?

  1. Another thought provoking piece you have enlightened us with this morning Jon. Have a good day – I’m off to find a fridge!


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