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An Insight By Any Other Name

Steve Needel argues for a restructuring of what we understand to be insights, to instead be outsights. To understand data and how it is presented, he believes we must look beyond our own experiences, and push towards the creation of new ideas.

Editor’s Note: One of the things that have bothered me for some time has been the relative lack of real debate in market research forums.  Whether in the GreenBook Blog, or others read, I don’t see a lot of comments or replies.  I think many people tend to shrug when they read a POV they disagree with and just put it aside. Steve Needel is not one of those people.  Below, he takes strong issue with something he’s read, and explains why, without making it personal.  I hope that more would do the same; it is through debate that we get closer to the truth.

Back in 2006, I gave an ESOMAR talk (1) about what, I thought, was one of the more insidious trends of those times – the transition from being marketing researchers to consumer insights providers. The years have shown that I was not that far off in expecting an industry decline. In the search for elusive insights we have given up a large chunk of data analysis territory to Big Data interlopers and foisted numerous nearly useless tools on our clients, tools that do not help them sell more stuff.

Now, after more than a decade of wrangling about the definition of what is an insight, with no resolution, Vijay Raj of Unilever has come up with the solution. His idea (discussed in a 2/12/2019 RBDR video) is to pivot away from insights and towards outsights. What is an “outsight”? You won’t be surprised if I tell you he doesn’t provide much of a definition, but he does provide some examples that will let us get close to one. But here’s what’s more important in his discussion – the rationale for dumping insights in favor of outsights is pretty thin – no offense Vijay.

Herewith his claims:

1. With a faltering global economy, growth will (a) be more difficult and (b) predicated on truly differentiated insights.

Vijay goes on to bemoan the fact that we don’t really know what an insight is and we can’t agree on its definition, so let’s replace it with something else (e.g. outsights). Apparently outsights are really what we meant when we used to think about insights. So we will rename insights and then recognize that we need good outsights in order to grow businesses in increasingly difficult markets. It’s 2006 all over again – renaming things doesn’t make them better unless you’re in advertising.

2. We need to feel consumers rather than just read data reports about them.

Vijay presents lots of examples that combined go to show that some marketers are stupid. However, he blames their “warped perceptions” (his words) on a lack of empathy, suggesting that we can’t go beyond our own geodemographics to understand our markets. Of course he’s correct that we need to empathize with our customers, but to suggest that as a rule we can’t or we don’t is unfair to our industry. I don’t need to hang out with 15 year old girls at the mall to understand what they like to eat, and I’m sure the 15 year olds are happy about that. Yes, getting out of the office to do “outsights” is always a good idea, but it is not a constant requirement of everyone. Indeed, I might suggest that if his suppliers aren’t painting a good enough picture of his customers for him, he needs better suppliers.

3. We need to go beyond insights to translating those insights to growth.

This is not the first time we’ve heard this opinion and I’ve written about my opposition to it before in this space (3). My argument is simple – as marketing researchers it’s not our job to design the activation strategy or oversee the tactics dictated by an insight (or even a research finding). That doesn’t mean that we can’t have ideas based on the results of our research and that we can’t bring up those ideas. If we do, great. If it’s backed further by some of the data we’re seeing, even better. But it is over-reaching to lay the responsibility for growth on the researcher when that is someone else’s specialty. Indeed, it smacks of “well they don’t respect us for the job we do, so let’s change the job”. And apparently, while we’re changing the job definition, he’d like us to do marketing’s job too.

Outsighting means we see things that aren’t obvious, that we go outside our experience, and that we go beyond data, information, and insights, into ideas.  I’m trying to decide if I can’t disagree more with this conception. Sometimes it’s the obvious that needs recognition and reiteration, sometimes there’s a brand new nugget – go where the data takes you on this spectrum. If you are so biased in your view of the world, as Mr. Raj suggests, this probably isn’t the right business for you – marketing research requires nothing if not an open mind. If you want to do marketing, go do marketing; the researchers I’ve known who’ve switched into marketing have been great at it (shout-out, Jay Sullivan). Finally, we’d probably be better off if we spend less time coming up with new names for what we do and just do it well.


1 “When Good Researchers Go Bad – Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines”. In Mouncey and Wimmer (eds.). Market Research Best Practice: 30 Visions for the Future. Amsterdam: ESOMAR, 2007.

2 Vijay Raj’s post can be found at:

3 I talked about this problem in a Greenbook post on 2 July 2018 called “It Was the Best of Times”

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