PureSpectrum - Schedule A Demo
Qualtrics: Here to Help

Fast Forward: 5 Things We Learned From The Future-Of-Insights Report

On the whole, the Future of Insights Project offers optimism – on closer working, better methodologies, and fresher thinking. But it’s not unbounded optimism. Regular Greenbook readers will know exactly how difficult and exciting these times are for the industry.

the-future (1)


By Tom Ewing

Before you can understand the future of something, you have to understand its past. The Insights industry is no different. At its root, insights is about spotting patterns, and looking over a hundred years of insights, a pattern begins to emerge. The history of Insights is all about challenge. A way of understanding and predicting human behaviour arises. It works perfectly – until it goes wrong, and a better way is found. From scientific sampling replacing write-in polls in the 30s, through the rise and fall of the “hidden persuaders” of motivational research in the 50s, to the current ‘world without questions’ of behavioural data and analytics, the ground rules of Insights keep on shifting.

So the future of insights has always been about disruption. But it’s also always been about adaptation. Once identified, the need for insights into people’s behaviour has never gone away. We don’t necessarily know who will supply them in the future: agencies, start-ups, in-house teams, robots…? But the need isn’t going anywhere.

The Future-of-Insights study, conducted by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and its research partner BrainJuicer, set out to understand where the next big challenge is coming from. What is and isn’t working about the way Insights work is done now? How do companies want their Insights departments to function? And where is the next big shift going to happen?

It might be an organisational shift, towards different ways of working. It might be a technological one, born from new methodologies. It might even be an intellectual one, as people reconsider some of marketing’s fundamental assumptions. It might be all three.

The full Future-of-Insights Project report was published this week by the WFA. It’s well worth a read. . To give you a taste of the report, here are five things we learned about how insights works now, and how to make it work better.


We’re used to hearing about agency-client divides. But even among research buyers and users, there’s a genuine split between how the insights team sees itself and how marketers use it. Insight teams are happier about their performance, and see themselves as challenging and inquisitive, though hate the way they’re shoved off in a silo. Their senior marketer colleagues are a bit less impressed, with higher levels of negative emotion. They feel that insight teams aren’t commercial enough and aren’t up to date with modern methods.

This final complaint may be on the money. When we asked which new methods were most useful, marketers were way more likely to talk about big data or social media analytics. Insight teams preferred a rather less radical technique: the focus group. There are two ways to think about this. One is that marketers are closer to the cutting edge. The other is that insight professions see through hype better. But while that may be true for some very new methods, big data and social media are well-established insight tools. If Insight teams aren’t getting commercial value out of them, maybe silo culture isn’t giving them the chance they need to do that?


So bringing insights and marketing teammates closer is a crucial goal for any organisation – break down those silo walls! Before you start drawing up integration plans though, quickly check: are your insights and marketing teams sitting together? Physically together? In two-thirds of firms they are, and their working relationship is noticeably happier. If you’re in the third where the teams are kept separate, your first big insights win is just a desk shuffle away.


I just talked about the big gaps in perceived usefulness between insights and marketing over methods like big data and focus groups. But the single most useful method, according to the study, found favour among both groups – and it doesn’t need any technology, just good old skill. I’m talking about ethnography – the art of observing behaviour and finding meaning in it is more valuable than ever in a data-drenched world. Ethnography can be done badly, of course, but it was up there with behavioural data and storytelling as tools that deliver genuine value in a complex world. With mobile and video tools making ethnography ever more accessible, this is its moment to shine.


The WFA report does more than just look at methods. A method is only as good as the assumptions you bring to it, so we asked about those assumptions as well. We selected a number of statements about how marketing works and asked the simple question: true or false?

For those of us that have been fighting for a decade to get marketers to recognise the power of emotional communication, the results were very encouraging. A whole two thirds of people disagree with the idea that persuasive messages are more important than “simply making people feel something”. 63% don’t believe that the role of advertising is to communicate brand superiority. This feels like a watershed moment: the dominant persuasion-based model of advertising is finally crumbling away.


On other beliefs, traditional ideas held sway. There’s a body of marketing science work which has spent decades debunking ideas like differentiation and the primacy of loyalty. These ideas find their most eloquent current champion in Professor Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. So have marketers begun to accept the ideas in Sharp’s masterpiece How Brands Grow? There’s still a long way to go.

Take the idea that it’s distinctiveness, not differentiation, that matters – a key principle of the Ehrenberg school (and one I happen to agree with!). Only 18% of the WFA’s study participants disagreed with the idea that “differentiation is central to a brand’s growth”. On branding the old ideas continue to rule. Marketers and researchers who don’t believe them have plenty of work ahead of them.

On the whole, the Future of Insights Project offers optimism – on closer working, better methodologies, and fresher thinking. But it’s not unbounded optimism. Regular Greenbook readers will know exactly how difficult and exciting these times are for the industry. Research and insights have always developed through challenge and adaptation, and new challenges must always be welcomed.

Please share...

3 responses to “Fast Forward: 5 Things We Learned From The Future-Of-Insights Report

  1. great commentary Tom. My one niggle would be in the strangeness that anyone thought advertising was not about emotion first, foremost and always. All those famous product value campaigns were really playing to the potential consumers desire to feel superior in some way after all. and pride is one heck of an emotion.

  2. Good point Dave. Damasio’s already taught us that there’s no such thing as a rational only decision, nor an emotional only decision yet this separation continues in the minds of marketers and others.

    But a question for Tom Ewing; in this paper Brainjuicer cite a methodology that claims to be an ‘implicit association test’ that accesses system 1 responses by putting respondents under time pressure to answer within 3 seconds. Everything I’ve read about implicit testing (and there are a lot of papers) and heard from behavioural scientists would suggest that this response latency is invalid for measuring the automatic, reflexive mental processes of system 1 because it’s too long (i.e. there’s enough time for system 2 to control the response). I have seen mean response times of 800 milliseconds in an implicit test. 3 seconds would be classed as ‘fast explicit’ but it’s certainly not implicit.

    So have Brainjuicer had the 3 seconds peer reviewed and validated as an implicit response latency? If not, maybe Brainjuicer should edit this paper because otherwise it could mislead the reader.

Join the conversation