Real insights are truly hard to come by – the best most ‘heads of insight’ can produce are observations

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 than a flash of inspiration.

It got me thinking a bit more about that particular 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 good planners do routinely in an agency. But is that insight?

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.

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 1990s HHCL was working on Ronseal, a DIY varnish product range. One of the 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 which quite simple and logical. Ronseal might sell more if the packaging was more explicit. This led to an advertising idea which has become part of the language in the UK – ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin.’

HHCL pulled another such 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 instead 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 whether it is with clients or ad agencies. In my experience these kind of light bulb moments are quite rare.

I think genuine insight mostly comes from outside sources, usually people who are very smart. The word is an overclaim most of the time in the world of advertising and marketing; it’s 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 thought white goods should work and never fail. 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. But 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 per cent off for the over 60s. Apart from the ad being shot really well, the presentation of the eyesight challenge is just 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. But in the ad this is not an insight, just good observation.

It is clearly very difficult to get to the point with any brand where the output is genuinely ‘insightful.’ True insight – “the ability to perceive deeply the inner nature of things” – is rare. What you tend to get are lots of highly-paid people trying to express the same things in different ways.

Just think about banking as a category. The generic offering comprises products, rates and service. Differentiating a banking brand on any of these points is virtually impossible so the solution lies in the ‘how it is said,’ the advertising idea. All the marketing and advertising in this category is devoid of any insight, it’s just too elusive, even for smart people.

Job titles are something 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, splitting the atom or making new breakthroughs in cancer cures, not 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 – whether they’re called ‘head of insight’ or not – where the creative team leaps up and own and punches the air. I have witnessed some exceptionally rare planners tease out the chink of light that gives the creative teams an important clue about where to go with their thinking.

And great observation is worth a lot, that’s why so many stand-up comics make a fortune doing gigs at the 02. Insight though is something different.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.


  1. Avatar

    So bloody true. Way back in 2000 a very experienced planner told me that there was no such thing as an ‘insight’ any more. Later in my career, a client who was very honest said most of what he deals with are observations and never insights.

    Of late, other words that seem to be bandied around the planning sphere is ‘gems’ and ‘nuggets’… as if planners have found some kind of magical treasure or something. I think simple common sense is best practice.

    Great article.

  2. Avatar

    Great article.
    A few years ago a journalist mate of mine left her job on a national to work as a planner at a huge agency group on a market-leading instant coffee brand.
    Six months later she had left. She said she had spent that time working on insight for this brand and after reams of polling, focus groups – the whole shebang, many many thousands of pounds charged to client… they had come up with the “insight” that people like the smell of coffee.
    She said: “I can’t work in a profession where people, with a straight face, actually charge for that bollocks.”