Column: Insight -- Beyond the Focus Group

By Graeme Hutton

Sporting the potentially ambiguous job title of director of consumer insights, I'm fascinated whenever I see anyone else in the industry with insights in their title. I always ask them what it means for them. After all, someone can't walk into my office and just ask me: "I'd like two insights, please!"

Our industry often confuses interesting facts with real insights. One man's insight is another man's blindingly obvious fact. So what distinguishes an insight from a fact?

Facts are events or items which are universally or widely accepted and understood. In the context of marketing communications planning, a fact becomes an insight when it unlocks the puzzle or challenge of an elusive problem. At one level, an insight reveals a unique understanding or perspective to an issue which evaded you before.

Yet we work in a business which is driven to achieve profit by creating for our clients and ourselves competitive, differentiating ideas. At a second, higher level, a true insight fuels and underpins a communications solution which not only differentiates you from your competitive set, it also helps secure additional revenues and profits that your competition does not enjoy.

Essentially, insights for advertising and marketing communications can occur in four areas: consumers, brands or client businesses, messages and channels. In our turbulent media world, we're used to the first three but not the last one.

Insights have always been important to provide distinction and differentiation. In the hyperactive media cosmos, they gain a paramount importance in the campaign-planning stage. Ten, maybe even five, years ago, you could buy your consumers' share of mind simply by buying your share of shout. Yet as media increasingly fragmented that became ever more difficult, if not downright financially irresponsible. Insights provide the cut-through that advertisers often strive for and crave.

Arguably, our media industry has founded its reputation on quantitative research. Research by the numbers was critical since the numbers represented audience size which in turn represented dollars. Consequently for most of the 20th century, the media research business largely focused on quantitative research methodology at the expense of many other media communications considerations, both here and abroad.

One impact of this fixation is that, until quite recently, qualitative research has been relatively underdeveloped. With the result, for example, that for many people in our business, qualitative research is simply synonymous with focus groups. At Universal McCann, we've gleaned key insights with qualitative research that employs techniques such as individual depth interviews and ethnographics but also group creativity sessions. One study we did for the spirits market aimed to find out how 21- to 30-year-olds learn about new drinks, what channels resonate with them and how they would have a spirits brand talk with them. From this study, several key channel insights emerged:

>> TV massively polarizes this social, outgoing audience but is still powerful. The great TV debate is not just exclusive to advertisers and marketers.

>> Web and viral unite the entire audience and they instantly realize and value new and exclusive ways to communicate with them.

>> Social media are outstanding in their ability to breed and accelerate intimacy - but if you push social media too far, you end up with clumsy contrivances. For example, one respondent was "dumbfounded" that others on MySpace, would make friends with brands ... "Who's friends with Toyota!"

The search for insights can be likened to the quest for creativity - not just in the creative department but elsewhere in ad and media agencies. Last year, I attended a conference where three creative directors proudly presented their latest work. For two of these large agency creative directors, creativity seemed to represent the fulfillment of anarchy and chaos in their desired messaging. But true commercial creativity comes from insights and being able to express the solution provided by those insights in new, invigorating and inspirational ways.

Graeme Hutton is senior vice president and director of consumer insights at Universal McCann (

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