The Firestarters series of events took a sharp turn in our direction this week, with insight, and its role in the planning process, under investigation. Crowd DNA’s Andy Crysell took notes.

Three great speakers, and a mix of both singular and overlapping perspectives were on show at Google’s London HQ for the Firestarters’ Brilliance & Brutalism Of Insight event. It was wonderful to hear ‘the insight’ held in such high esteem, but also a firm reminder of how often that term is used wrongly, or there in name but not in reality.

First on stage was…

Rob Campbell, head of strategy EMEA, R/GA

Rob enjoys swearing and, now that he’s back in the UK, after lengthy stints in China and the US, he’s hoping he’ll get away with way more of it than ever before.

For him, the question of whether insight is important or not is pretty absurd. Of course it’s important. To do good work, he says, you need to understand wider culture; not just zoom in on your category.

Helpfully, he also came up with fives ways not to be as boring as fuck.

1. Don’t State The Obvious

A recurring theme through the evening really, and where research work can really lose its way. Stop asking the same people the same questions. Get out in the real world and get to the ‘dirty little secrets.’

He recalled the time that, for a car brand who mistakenly thought they were held in similar esteem to Mercedes Benz, Audi and Lexus, he interviewed sex workers, who make a call on the financial status of a potential client based on the motor they’re driving. Said car brand was in no way seen in a similar light to the prestige marques mentioned. This changed the conversation.

2. Play In The Jungle, Not The Zoo

Great work needs to come from inside of culture – so get inside of culture. Get to the nuance and the texture. There’s meaning everywhere. Get stuck in.

Don’t try and appease people with insight – provoke them, create conflict. This was certainly one of the louder messages of the evening; just as it should be. There really is no excuse for tame and timid work.

3. The Work is The Sun

…Meaning insight doesn’t have to overpower all other parts of the process. Insight is never meant to be a literal dictation – it should inspire.

Slight tangent perhaps, but he commented that the folks behind the boat that was almost called Boaty McBoatface missed a trick – if they’d have gone with that name, the scope to build a narrative around the topic (cartoons, toys etc) that kids would connect with would’ve been massive.

4. Stop Thinking You’re Yoda

Don’t think that insight will solve everything. Insight can provide the directional plan but you’ve got to then add the context. The challenge is to show you’re culturally engaged, not – as too many assume – to simply aim for intellectual victory.

5. Anyone Who Says Insights Aren’t Important Is A Giant Cockerel (you get what he means)

Henry Ford was an idiot, says Rob, referencing the Detroit mogul’s famous/apocryphal “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” quote.

Rather than this being an argument for not seeking the view of others, anyone with their insight faculties switched on should be taking from this that people want to get from A to B faster – and therein was the opportunity for the automobile, not a speedier horse.

Culture is texture and nuance
Culture is texture and nuance

Dr Helen Edwards, founding partner, Passionbrand

Helen starts her talk from the angle that not all successes, whether great or small, are necessarily derived from insight, citing a number of examples (from Apple to Emirates).

By this she was largely meaning the ‘killer’ consumer insight, the singular game changer. But while, in part, she was clearly here to be the dissenting voice on the importance of insight, what she was suggesting instead, ‘outsight’, could be argued as simply other forms of insight. Such as drawing from your own team’s understanding of their customers, or from academia, or from broader cultural understanding.

As per Rob, she noted the underwhelming qualities of many so-called insights. Choice examples: “When my hair feels good, I feel good.”/“I prefer my kids to eat healthy snacks between meals.” Shudder…

We clearly need to set the bar higher, and here’s the model she works to:

Revelatory: an insight should, of course, not just be plain obvious – but it should be surprising and a little obvious at the same time. An ‘of course!’ moment, because it feels fresh, but is also in line with what you already understand about human nature.

Directive: everyone across the business knows what to do with the insight; it doesn’t just live in the abstract.

About Them, Not You: as in that too many insights are shaped from the business perspective (either in the sense of taken from stakeholder experiences or based on what the business feels it can solve) rather what’s truly coming from the audience.

Serving People: there’s only real value in an insight if it addresses an issue that’s currently unaddressed, and from the point of view of the customer.

Helen gives the example of the Golden Sleep work from Pampers. Where previously the comms message majored around issues of averting leakage and offering better movement, the insight – which then shaped the campaign – was that what people (parents and baby!) really crave is sleep (wetness being a barrier to it) and that this is where the emotional energy can be found.

Pampers, Golden Sleep
Pampers, Golden Sleep

Mark Pollard, CEO, Mighty Jungle

Mark begins, amusingly, with hip-hip, lounge jazz, Chevy Chase and Andrea Pirlo. A little hard to explain in brief, in a blog, but somehow we get from there to some well-formed views on the role of insight (again, the lens here seems primarily about the role of insight in creative development work).

Insight, he says, works in one of two ways –

1. It gives language and shape to things we kind of have on our minds already (the ‘I wish I’d said it like that’ moment).

2. Or it’s ideas that seem brand new, but that you can immediately relate to (much like Dr Helen Edwards’ point).

Mark also leaned heavily on the role of insights as sources of conflict and friction. It’s okay to tell the client they have a problem to solve. That’s not being negative – not it you are then willing to take on that problem and reach solutions.

An example of a charged, provocative insight was an interviewee telling him: “I don’t feel successful enough to be bald yet.” You don’t need to know much about the brief, or the objectives, to realise that’s the type of thing you can work with; that’s going to change current thinking.

Mark also spoke of the need for craft. To really work at shaping an insight, capturing the tension it packs in a way that others will empathise with (thus, this is most definitely not about plonking fairly random consumer quotes in a PowerPoint and thinking your work is done).

Insights, he concluded, are really important; life and death stuff. But we also take them too seriously. We’ll get more from them with a greater sense of mischief and play.

You can read more about Google Firestarters here