You may accuse me of being pedantic, but since we work in an industry dedicated to communication, I think it’s important to ensure we don’t loose important words through gross misuse. Marketing is rife with words that once had meaning, but through overuse cease to communicate what they once did. Insight is one such word. It should mean understanding — ironic given its widespread misuse would indicate a profound lack of understanding.

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of opinion on what constitutes an insight, as the word has been used so loosely and varyingly that it barely holds on to any meaning at all. The term has been applied to observed behaviours, statistics, category or market dynamics, and even brand attributes and RTB’s. This lack of clarity creates difficulty for those whose job it is to provide insight (planners), and also those who must judge insight (clients). Far be it for me to presume to fix this completely, but I’ve found that a shift in thinking can be incredibly useful when it comes to the use and misuse of the term ‘insight’.

Despite the divergence of opinion out there, it seems that at least in theory, there is some agreement that insights are not simple facts or observations about the world. And as such, are not something that can be uncovered through digging alone — though digging is a critical part of discovering insight.

The truth is, when we head off into the wild of the internet, or God forbid the real world, in search of insight, what we are actually hunting for is the raw material from which insight can be formed: the facts, the figures, the behaviours. These are the raw elements that we draw from, combine, and refine into insight, and because of this, insight has more in common with chemistry than archeology.

Using chemistry, instead of archeology, as the relevant framework when dealing with “insights” can be eye opening. Chemistry defines the difference between elements and compounds. In the case of “insights”, the facts, figures, observations, and behaviours are elements — they are pure, foundational, and self-evident. But when we combine elements we create insight. This is the critical truth about insight — it isn’t a singular phenomena. Insight is understanding, and because of this it must include more than the “what”. True understanding, true insight, takes the “what” and builds in ‘the why’, “the how”, and “the where”. You know you are looking at an insight when it is made up of multiple elements that illuminate a state of affairs in the world.

For example, the insight that “experiences are replacing things as social currency” is derived from the combination of the following facts and observations.

  1. a) Because the economy has forced the delay of many big life purchases like cars and homes, b) there is a greater cultural emphasis on the value of experiences.

But because experiences are ephemeral, people need a way to capture and share them in order for them to derive social currency.

  1. c) Enter a tool for sharing — the smart phone, with penetration at 56% in Canada, and 77% among millennials along with d) a platform to share – the meteoric rise of social networking with more than 75% of millennials active on social networks.

Insight: experiences are replacing things as social currency.




The confluence of an economic catalyst, the widespread adoption of new technology, and the emergence of new behavior forms the insight, and it is only through the combination of these elements that we develop the insight. However, more often than not, these individual facts and observations get passed off as insights.

It is incumbent upon us all to not stop at the elemental phase, but move beyond to craft true insight. And if we do this, if we adopt chemistry over archeology, we have a chance of saving “insight” from being discarded on the heap of industry jargon.

About Zeb Barrett

Zeb Barrett has written 1 post in this blog.

Strategic Planning Director @ Rethink