The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Who killed insight?

This agency/client AURA debate, a sponsorship first for AQR, revealed that insights are not yet an endangered species.

If philosophy is "a blind man looking for a black cat in a dark room…which is not there", you could substitute "insight" for philosophy. We are all looking for it and it seems to be within easy reach and yet it is very hard to identify or pin down.

For some reason, as I walked into the RAF Club on Piccadilly, my mind drifted to David McCallum as the Invisible Man. Was this an insight forming? Then I remembered that this was a client event so there was no time for such extraneous reflections.

My main takeaways from this most enjoyable session were:

  • Insight moves invisibly among us; it is not dead (phew!) but there are ongoing attempts to kidnap it.

  • We should get to know our clients" businesses better and trust our instincts more, to stay closer to the "Insight Thing".

  • More events like this debate would help, otherwise the cultural divide between client and agency could widen and we could become further estranged from Insight.

There were four short talks at this AQR co-sponsored AURA debate, memorably introduced by Alex Batchelor of Brainjuicer and amiably chaired by Duncan Mc Callum of McCallum Layton.

Christene McCauley, global consumer planning director of Diageo, revealed Diageo's definition of an insight: “a penetrating discovery about consumer motivations applied to unlock growth”. Christene's challenge was that insight does not come from a research debrief. Insights come from a variety of people and methods, including direct observation.

Sinead Jeffries of Opinion Leader then made a plea for greater collaboration and mutual understanding between client and agency. They need to trust and support each other, rather than simply "do their own thing". She suggested that researchers could interview the client to tease more out about the Brief and the business context.

Kathy Ellison, head of customer and market insight at Ecclesiastical defined insight as "embedding knowledge to truly understand" and stressed the need to dig deep, answering all the questions you need to make decisions. She said sometimes it's not insight but good old information that is needed.

Rosie Campbell of Campbell Keegan was the anchor leg and used props showing three "culprits" who threaten insight. "Izzy Insight" was the appropriation of insight as a badge or job title, as if insights were a commodity that can be produced to order. "Olly Online" represented the sheer superficiality and banality of online research. "Desmond Data" was the dealer of the data "drug", prolonging our pernicious infohabit which keeps us away from insight.

There was some polite discussion after the talks, before everyone headed downstairs to eat and drink or watch the Champion's League Quarter Finals, insightfully provided by Danny Russell of BSkyB. Good topic, great event, even better finale: even the Invisible Man (silently) cheered.


Kevin McLean
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011