Seeking insights? Start by forgetting what you think you know

One of my key tasks as a creative strategist/planner in an ad agency is to generate insights to spark great ideas. Whether that’s uncovering consumer, cultural, brand or category insights –  it’s human nature to want to be seen as being experienced, smart,  in the know – so you often see planners jump to a solution without really exploring.

The reality is that 90% of briefs flying around most agencies today are not based on deep insight or understanding of the human condition, they are merely general observations, which is maybe why there is so much ordinary work out there.  If your insight doesn’t generate at least a bit of an ‘aha’ moment, it’s not an insight. If your insight doesn’t pass the ‘so what’ test, you don’t have an insight.

I’ve noticed a generation of what I call ‘Google planners’ – young planners and suits who believe that the consumer insight will come from a quick Google search.  What they forget is that the planner across town working on the competitor brand also has Google and also has the same search results.

Don’t get me wrong I love Google. They’re the most innovative company in the world and a current client of mine here in Australia. But information from a Google search or YouTube video will never ever replace the gems that can come from face to face interaction, conversation even observation in peoples natural habitat.

In a data fuelled world, I think the same can be said for social monitoring tools that many brands use to gain insights from brand conversations on the web. They’re useful and they give you rational understanding of the conversation, but must be taken with a grain of salt in my mind as they don’t uncover feeling.  As great BBH planner Jim Carroll states in this post ‘it’s far more about empathy and feeling than logic and understanding’

As a planner it’s dangerous to assume that you understand why a person feels and behaves the way they do without actually spending a lot of time with them. Quite often we don’t even understand why we ourselves feel and behave as we do.

Finding insights is not about finding the right answers.

It’s about asking the most interesting questions.  Trying to find tensions in culture, fresh angles in on the way people interact with brands and each other.

One of the best pieces of advices I ever received was from a great Saatchi & Saatchi planner, Mike Canterbury who sadly passed away about 5 years ago.

He believed the best way to uncover a powerful consumer insight, was to assume that there is only 5% you know from scratch. It’s a far better starting point than going in thinking you have the consumer profile sewn up.

Then assume that there is perhaps 15% you know you can easily find out – who is the key brand user, their demographics, when/where/how they use., who they influence/are influenced by, how they feel about the competition etc. Things that traditional research cover and most likely other brands have as well.

Which leaves 80% you don’t even know you don’t know.

80% of child like ignorance which you can turn into deep revelations, those kind of simple striking human truths that make you think, wow…I never thought of it that way.

So, spend your time playing here. Go to work every day with a curious child like mind. Get out of the office, seek inspiration from a variety of sources, not just digital ones.

Asking WHY should become your favourite question as this will provoke you to try and reframe the consumer issue or look at the cultural landscape in a slightly different way.

It’s here you’ll find those transformative insights which unlock opportunity and growth for a brand.

Don’t be lame

I’m always getting asked what the Do’s and Dont’s are when it comes to engaging with todays youth. One of the first and most obvious things I always say is…’Don’t be lame’.  Now this probably sounds quite vague and generic, but when you think about it, it’s the most critical part of your engagement checklist.

Brands today trying to engage young people must understand that young people (in particular) have fiercely guarded ‘personal brands’ and identities that they spend years creating (both on and offline) and they just aren’t willing to associate with anything lame. Think about it, they spend hours each week on Facebook uploading pics of the parties they’ve been at, their holidays and life in’s all about showing off online and earning status within their tribe. They are super quick to judge anything that’s lame, so basically ideas only get a short period to ‘sink or swim’..the incubation period for ideas to light up is now far shorter than a few years back. If they aren’t willing to socialise the idea on their own, your pretty much dead. Conversational currency is gold within their tribes.

 I overheard some 20yr olds talking the other at the train station and they were talking about a brand (I won’t name names) who they feel has become totally lame…”XXX has just become totally lame, as if i’d ever associate myself with them in any way..they just don’t get me”.   The ‘they just don’t get me’ is the critical thing here, most brands forget to do immerse themselves in youth culture, beyond the focus group room and really understand the heartbeat of youth culture at that point in time. Rarely are you going to get a culturally relevant insight or truth or understand a cultural code to break, from listening to some kids in a paid environment. You have to strap your backpack on and get amongst it. That’s what I always try and do and I’m constantly judging my work and the creatives I work with on the ‘Lame’ test.Capturing their imagination and creatign a new reality for them is a good place to start.