WTF is an insight? Why does it matter, and what would Salt Bae do?

I worked with an MD who banned what he called ‘the I word’ and screened planners in interviews by counting the number of times they said ‘insight’.

Nov 19, 2021

By Neil Davidson

The more often a planner did this, the less likely the chances of making it through the interview. (He also judged interviewees on whether they used the lift or walked up the stairs to get to the interview room, so describing him as the Ant Middleton of HR would be about right.) As you can imagine, recruitment for planners in this agency was tricky.

Salt Bae insight planning is the enemy

Those few planners who did make it through the SAS-style recruitment process often seemed tentative and ponderous in meetings, mainly because they were constantly trying to think of new synonyms for ‘the I word’. This is no small challenge when that word is liberally used by your profession and is at the heart of your job. (It was a bit like asking a butcher not to talk about meat or asking a Tory MP not to talk about second jobs. It’s what they and their roles are about.)

However, there was some truth in his crusade, he just took it to the extreme. The term insight is often used too liberally, and too loosely, which harms the power and potential of insights to transform businesses and their marketing. Insights are like prime steak in a restaurant. They can be done brilliantly or badly, there’s no in-between.  The danger is that we treat insights like Salt Bae treats meat; all show and little substance, generally messing about and not focusing on the quality of the thing itself. (At least that’s what I’ve observed, as I’ve never ordered a steak in a restaurant, with or without Salt Bae attending to it, and definitely never considered eating anything with gold leaf.)

Insights are like Christmas cake (honest)

I always start my Christmas cake at least six weeks before Xmas, and the alcohol mix that the cake is then fed until Christmas Day is constantly being topped up through the year. (Think of it as a Scottish version of a sourdough starter.) In the same way, it’s the work done before insights are generated that are the foundations of a great insight. Far too often the approach taken to insights is the equivalent to doing your mix and baking your cake on the morning of 25th of December, then slamming it on the table as soon as it comes out of the oven: we need an insight, and we need it now.

The anger directed at ‘the I word’, and insights generally is a reaction to quick and dirty insights that aren’t really insights, because they aren’t based on the core truths of what it means to be human and the true motivations behind what we do or don’t do. They are also often what a brand wants us to think and feel rather than what we genuinely think or feel. (It’s amazing how often you can kill an insight by asking someone to rearticulate it in their own words, as if they are articulating the insight from a personal point of view, and how dumb clever people then sound.)

Insight or human truth?

Things have moved on. We never judge anyone for using the word ‘insight’ in HeyHuman, but we also like to talk about ‘human truths’, because that is what insights really are, at least when they are at their best. It’s a good way to remind us of what lies at the heart of an insight and to stay focused on the people the brand wants to truly connect with.

It seems like we may have solved the legacy ‘I word’ conundrum, even though we weren’t trying to.  We even have an open-minded attitude towards lift users. Never let anyone say the world isn’t a better place than it was ten years ago.