Stop Fetishising The Insight


“A healthy man is content with a woman. An erotic man is content with a stocking to get to a woman. A sick man is content with the stocking”

Karl Kraus

The case for insight

It barely needs to be made, but let’s do it anyway. 

There’s probably not an adperson in the world who isn’t familiar with the words of Bill Bernbach:

“Nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature, what compulsions drive a man, what instincts dominate his action, even though his language so often camouflages what really motivates him. For if you know these things about a man you can touch him at the core of his being.”

That seems fair enough. As human beings we only respond to that which we find interesting and relevant. As Wendy Gordon has put it, we only let brands into our lives if they are relevant. Insight therefore ensures that our starting point is the lives of other people, not our own egos and preoccupations.

Crucially, insight into the tensions, frustrations and needs that people experience (consciously or unconsciously) - helps open up new possibilities and futures for business and brands. It helps us be forward facing.

And as John Woodward has pointed out, insight is one of the most most valuable, and scalable assets of big brands.

So far so good.

The case against insight

But I can’t help wonder if the rhetoric of insight - Bernbach’s included - has become a bit of a millstone around our necks. Because it encourages the fetishisation of insight.

Fetishising insights leads to the belief that they should give us some visceral, thrilling sensation when we encounter them. It leads us to insist that they trigger some epiphanic ‘Aha moment’. Paul Feldwick elegantly debunks this received wisdom:

“If insight refers to a moment of illumination, it is a transitory experience. A new way of thinking about a problem is only new for a short term. Today's Aha! moment, if it is any use, is tomorrow's received wisdom. This should tell us that insight is not an important goal in itself, but a means to an end. All insight is provisional, anyway. One moment of it leads to another, and they should lead to visions, decisions and actions.”

Fetishising insights treats them as a thing, rather than a process, a way of looking and thinking about problems. It encourages us to get our knickers into a twist debating whether something is ‘merely’ an observation or a piece of information or whether it is a bone fide Insight. The fact that the majority of men’s bodywash is actually bought by women, not men would fail to fulfill the insistence that it evoke an exclamation of “ah ha!” There’s no profound wisdom here. There’s no deep psychological revelation. Yet this understanding has undoubtedly helped unlock growth.

Fetishising insights encourages us to try and be profound and clever rather than useful. It’s responsible for people passing themselves off as pseudo pyschologists/sociologists/anthropologists. No wonder so many creatives and planners squirm with embarrassment at the mere utterance of the ‘I’ word. It’s responsible for so much of the utter consumer psycho-babble that fills the pages of too many planning and marketing documents. 

Fetishising insights encourages us to waste money. The belief that insight must reveal deep dark secrets about the human psyche too often leads us to throw money at lengthy and elaborate research methodologies. When - given the obvious stuff that is invariably ‘uncovered’ -  just one conversation with a psychologist, anthropologist or social scientist (or indeed a moment of personal reflection) would have sufficed.

Fetishising insights can in some dreadful quarters of marketingland lead to the insistence that communications ‘dramatize’ the insight - relegating the creative department to the mindless and thankless task of simply colouring the insight in. And subjecting the hapless consumer to some unedifying and purported mirror image of his or her life.

Above all fetishising insights forgets that they have absolutely no intrinsic value and that they are no guarantee of anything. Unless acted upon and transformed by an idea of some kind, insight is worthless theory. 

Truth and honesty

Dieter Rams was the head of industrial design at Braun for over thirty years and his philosophy and work has had a profound effect on the world of design.  As an antidote to the rhetoric and fetishization of insight, we could do worse than take new inspiration from the words of Rams:

“Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.”

With these words in mind, let’s reclaim insight as a way of looking and thinking, and take it off its pedestal of unhealthy attention and worship.

If our efforts are to be relevant, we of course need an understanding of the outside world to be brought to bear upon the creative process. However, our measure of its value should not be whether this input is an Insight or not.

But whether it is a) true and b) useful.


Paul Feldwick, ’Knowing when you have an insight’, Admap, May 2010

Wendy Gordon – ‘I'll Have One Small Insight And Two Large Ones Please’, Admap 2002 

Sophie Lovell & Klaus Kemp, Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible

John Woodward, ‘Point of View: In defense of insight’, Admap January 2011