25 Feb 2019


Are insight specialists peddling attractive yet half-baked truths that bear little resemblance to the real world? And have clients become wise to their tricks?

As an insight professional, how do you feel when someone asks you what your job is at a party? Maybe you’re proud because insight’s about cracking challenging problems in short timeframes. Done well it’s no mean feat.

Or perhaps you break out in a metaphorical sweat because insight doesn’t usually make the difference between success or failure, as System 1 Agency’s The Future of Insights project suggests. This begs the question: what’s wrong with the insight industry? 

The trouble with insight

Numerous industry insiders (System 1 Agency, Insites Consulting et al) and relative outsiders (BCG, Martin Weigel et al) have exposed our flaws.

Let’s start with some conclusions from BCG’s The Consumer’s Voice: can your company hear it?

  • Only 35% of executives in companies with insight departments describe their insight capabilities as best-in-class
  • Line managers express disappointment with consumer insight results. They also aren’t aligned with insight teams regarding what constitutes high-quality output
  • Of four stages of insight capabilities running from traditional (insight teams as order-takers) to advanced (insight as a source of competitive advantage), in 2009 over 90% of companies surveyed were at stages one and two

In 2016 System 1’s The Future of Insights project revealed:

  • Only 30% of senior marketers are happy with their insights function
  • Almost one in four marketers feel sadness or contempt when thinking about their insight colleagues 

Both studies reveal a startling disconnect between in-house insight teams and their internal clients. Ouch.

Suppliers aren’t faring much better. According to Insites Consulting, most research merely confirms executives’ thinking – we rarely deliver new news.

The above mightn’t be new and we generally admit to our shortcomings. But what are the solutions? System 1 Agency frame the problem as communications and organizational issues, at least in part. And they’re optimistic: we will lift our game if we became better storytellers, hone our consultative capabilities and – surprise! – use more innovative methodologies.

Yet we tend to look for causes of our underperformance in our ways of working and our toolbox. As if everything will be fine and dandy if we’d just drop focus groups and questionnaires. 

What if, fundamentally, insight’s effectiveness is hampered by the following flawed beliefs:

Belief 1: Ordinary people are the source of all commercial wisdom

Blindsided by the people-centricity paradigm, leading thinker Bas Heijne believes we’re looking for commercial advantage in the wrong place:

“It’s a fallacy that we only need to ask people what they want. That the masses can cough up something that you’d only need to execute. Of course, it’s nice to hear that you’re being listened to, but it’s fiction. Bas Heijne, Marketing Tribune, 2006

Politicians are afraid of citizens and companies now fear consumers. A fear that’s morphed into the belief that ‘the consumer’ is the centrepiece of policy and marketing. This is underpinned by the assumption that people know what they want and have stable opinions.

Behavioral and Neurosciences have refuted these claims. Yet, while the insight community recognizes this, it fails miserably in applying this relatively new thinking. We take note, but for the most part it’s business as usual (System 1 Agency is a notable exception).

Belief 2: You only need to look inside people’s brain to discover the ‘why’

We think of reality as either objective or subjective. However, Yuval Harari states that there’s a third, more powerful level: the intersubjective reality.

Intersubjective realities (e.g. culture, shared stories, values) depend on communication among many humans rather than individual’s beliefs and feelings. According to Harari, the most important agents in history are intersubjective. We invent these stories to further the cause of very practical realities, such as agriculture or writing. Ultimately stories give life meaning.

Therefore, if we want to understand people, we should examine these stories rather than, or in addition to, simply studying individuals and behavioral data, which reveal little about the invisible higher-level stuff that influences what people do, think and feel. 

Belief 3: Interrogating people in isolation tells us something about the real world

Only studying people in laboratory conditions is like studying dolphins in captivity. It isn’t real life. It’s people ripped out of the contexts of their daily lives. At best it provides us with a distorted version of reality” Martin Weigel, Global Head of Planning at Wieden+Kennedy

This example from qualitative research (my world) can be applied to quantitative research too. We do treat people like dolphins in captivity and ask stupid questions like ‘will you buy it’? The answer has little predictive value. It’s bollocks. But clients want answers, so we choose our battles and pop the question.

If the insight’s industry’s problems are the result of the above fundamental flaws, insight is an arduous task at best. At worst, it’s an exercise in make-belief. How, then, do the wheels of the insight industry keep turning, albeit a little squeakier than before? 

The Benign Conspiracy

We’ve seen that many clients think unfavorably of insight yet continue pay for it, even when it doesn’t drive success. The Benign Conspiracy hypothesis explains why:

Without reliable ways to assess marketing’s effectiveness, and confronted with fast and fundamental change, the insight industry and business world have a silent agreement. If we keep it simple and deliver quickly and reasonably cheaply, businesses will continue to use us, although they may not believe we add much value outside of validation or political ammunition. That’s what clients often buy, not the deep and meaningful insights we purport to produce. 

It seems easy to argue that, as an industry, we have largely failed at providing real insight, and we are rarely the force for growth that we want to be. This is of course a sorry state of affairs.

Part 2 reveals where we go from here.

1. According to Esomar, in 2017 the traditional market research sector grew at a lackluster 1%, and the rate of growth has fallen since 2016 when it was 2.3%. Growth is much higher when data analytics is included.


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