Google Firestarters 30: The Brilliance and Brutalisation of Insight


Last Wednesday we had a properly fascinating Google Firestarters for the planning and strategy community, tackling a much discussed but perhaps often misunderstood theme – insight. We had three brilliant, and brilliantly different, speakers who all took different takes on the theme.

Rob Campbell, EMEA Head of Strategy at R/GA (and ex W & K Shanghai and Deutsch LA), kicked us off by saying that insights matter because people matter, so perhaps the real question we need to ask is why do we have so much bad work out there? Poor work happens when we become lazy, and look for the convenient answer rather than the real directional insight – too many observations, too much generalisation, too much desk-based judgement and not enough getting out in the world. He spoke of a great insight being like looking for the dirty little secret, and the value of conflicting people’s views rather than always trying to get them on your side. He talked of relevance and resonance (and not just the former). He talked about how insight should inspire, and not dictate. He talked about missed opportunity – like the Boaty McBoatface episode where a competition to name the new National Environmental Research Council vessel operated by the British Antarctic Survey resulted in the NERC ignoring the result of the poll and naming the ship the RRS Sir David Attenborough. What a missed moment, he said, to create a creative platform that could spread knowledge of the work of the NERC and the threat of climate change. He spoke of (using a rather good Yoda analogy) the danger of planners always wanting to be the smartest person in the room and celebrating their intellectual shrewdness rather than the effectiveness of the output. It almost feels like an injustice writing it up in this way because the talk was delivered in a way that only Rob can (lots of passion and a healthy bit of swearing) but it was a brilliantly astute and powerful talk.


Dr Helen Edwards, Marketing Week columnist and founder of PassionBrand, structured her talk around answering three key questions on whether we over-rate insights, under-define them, and can even work around them. We certainly rate them, she said – witness the growth of insight consultancies, the inclusion of an insight box on every creative brief, and yet many innovations or breakthroughs (like the iPad, Yakult) have arrived without leveraging an ‘insight’. Sir Tim Clark who oversaw the spectacular turnaround of Emirates airline never commissioned a piece of research. The turnaround was instead based on the principle of bringing little luxuries to economy passengers in multiple small ways like footrests (the idea for which came from the attentiveness of cabin crew to customer behaviour). There’s a lot to be said, said Helen for proximity, and weaving a ‘close web of understanding’ to create a well crafted campaign (she used GE’s great recruitment campaign which increased applications to the company by 800% as an example) rather than always needing a single point of insight. Helen decried the kind of vague platitudes and generalisations that can often pass for insights (‘when my hair looks good I feel good’), saying that we need to work harder to define what a great insight is (like ‘little secrets hidden beneath the surface’ or ‘something that is wierd-normal’). Her working definition is:

‘A revelatory breakthrough in your understanding of people’s lives that directs you to new ways in which to serve your customers’

The four key areas that make up a great insight therefore, are that it should be revelatory (it needs to tell you something non-obvious), it should be directive (obvious what to do, can support not just comms but product and UX), it should be about them not us (avoid retro-fitting an insight because it’s convenient), and it should be currently unaddressed and therefore a ‘new way’ to serve customers better (she referenced Pampers work that led to the design of a new nappy to help babies sleep through the night). Finally, Helen’s provocation was that we can actually work around insights if we need to (through the collision of consumer observation/proximity/web of understanding and category/culture/academia.

Mark Pollard from Mighty Jungle flew in from NYC to join us and gave a wonderfully creative talk that was half performance, half wisdom-bombing. When Andrea Pirlo played soccer in America he described it as ‘A lot of running, too little play’. We spend too much time, said Mark chasing (money, self-respect) and we’re in danger of becoming too myopic. Insights are gossip and gossip helps us survive, but you don’t take all gossip seriously. People take insights seriously because they take themselves too seriously. Yet insights can change us and reinforce us, give new meaning to ideas that are new or that have been with us for a long time. They can, he said, give better words to hunches and new words to things we’ve never contemplated. They can open doors, offer common ground. They can be either historically new or psychologically new. They can take us to the edge of our domain, which can take time.

Like the structure of an idea a good insight combines things that don’t usually belong together. Like the statement ‘I don’t feel accomplished enough to be bald’. Something that has truth at its heart and yet is a new way of expressing the idea. What would it look like if you originated a point of view that agreed or disagreed with that thought?Good insights can create stress and tension. Look for the opportunities where you can say ‘people believe x but y is true’.


Mark’s talk was full of fun, quirkiness but also depth of understanding and wisdom, and it was a brilliantly complementary build on Rob and Helen’s talks.

My thanks as ever to Google for hosting, to all those that cam along on the night, and to Scriberia for visualising the talks in their inimitable way. You can see the full Scriberia visualisation here. As we move into planning for 2019 Firestarters, I’m keen to get input into subjects or themes that you think we should tackle next year. Firestarters has been going now for over seven years and it’s been a fascinating discourse on the evolution and future of the ad and media industry but it’s always been an ongoing conversation with our community.