5 Tips for creatives about ´the creative insight´

Set up a beauty contest to choose who's most creative.

Why do ad agencies always get painful pitches? One of the main reasons is that agencies have convinced both themselves and their clients that they´re ´all about creativity´. So the most obvious step for any client is to set up a beauty contest to choose who’s most creative.

But what is the economic value that gets an agency a place at the table? Many say it’s creativity. If you ask me, that’s nonsense. Creativity as an added value creates two big problems:

  • Since there’s almost no way to determine how much money creativity has brought in, clients hardly ever value creativity from an economic point of view.
  • Creativity is easily exchanged.

I said, before that, our added economic value should be a deep insight into human behaviour. Our insight into human behaviour is the source of our creative ideas that will generate business profits for our clients in the end. We make insights work, we bring them to life and give them swing.

In this post I want to give young creatives five tips. Tips about how to use human insight as raw material. And how to protect yourself against those who don’t appreciate this, or less than they should.

Tip 1: Fight the strategy pecking order

Why, oh why, did we ever leave the search for insights to rationally clever people? A whole industry has created itself, delivering insights to marketers: research agencies, consultants, big data groups, media agencies… everyone is giving insights to our clients and it’s all taken seriously.

As a creative, be aware that your job is much more vulnerable. You must decide which insight to work with. You’ll learn to see the difference between strong insights and weaker ones. You’ll have to fight against clients who want to see every single insight in your creation. And your creative expression of the best insight has to be so good that the insight is actually delivered.

The legendary ad man Bill Bernbach once said: ¨If nobody sees your advertising, then all the rest is academic.¨ If a campaign is successful and the success is ascribed to the brilliant strategy or insight, this can only mean that your creativity has been brilliant. The marketing world is full of people who think that strategy is much more important than execution. But insights are just the ingredients. You are the chef.

Tip 2: You have private access to loads of insights

I think there are five levels of insights to use for your creative work. The strength of a good agency is that it will have built up know-how and methods to introduce all these levels of insights into the process.

These insights are:

  1. Psychology and sociology

At the highest level there is human psychology and sociology. Insights into behavioural economics. How can I understand people and their motives, fears, desires and feelings of insecurity? Concepts such as Anchoring, halo effect, social proof etc.

  1. Trends

On the next level down you have insights into trends: how is human behaviour changing? The trend from owning towards sharing, for example. For these you can read trend reports, watch TED talks, etc.

  1. The market

Next you have insights at market level: how is the market developing? Who are the new players? How is technology changing the market? Are there any threats by new players, going by new rules? Like the Uberisation of every industry? Any market can be disrupted any time by digital players who connect supply and demand in smart ways.

  1. The client and his brand

Then try to gather qualitative and quantitative insights into today’s client behaviour. When you talk to consumers, what do they tell you about the brand?

And you don’t need to be a geek to demand access to your client’s web analytics. What do user data tell you about the website, the communications, the sales figures, you name it?

  1. Technology

This is a separate category. You need to know what technology can do. But at the same time you need to know where this technology stands within the tech adoption curve. Advertising boys and girls tend to jump on every hype straight away. 3D printing is still a hype, YouTube has ceased to be a hype long ago.

Tip 3: Give every insight a chance

Which insight do you choose? Actually, the answer is: all. A good idea is a good idea if it works on all levels. The London-based creative director Dave Trott calls creativity ´asking silly questions to come up with new and unexpected answers´. Creativity is letting unexpected insights open unexpected questions, which make you look at the problem from a new angle.

That´s why it’s so important that all insights get a fair chance in the exploration and ideation phase. And that you let various people do the exploration. Because if a strategist or creative team start the creative process on their own, you lose 90% of your capacity to harvest better insights.

Tip 4: Have mental models

The secret of super-investor Warren Buffet and his right-hand man Charlie Munger is that they have – and use – some 70 mental models to analyse a situation. They are knowledge-guzzlers. They gather their insights from psychology, economics, biology, engineering and management.

For me, mental models such as The Lean Startup, Behavioural Economics, Motivational Psychology and Conversion Optimisation are all equally crucial when looking at client´s problems. But psychoanalysis, economics and philosophy deliver huge insights as well. Or network theory.

It doesn’t matter which mental models you have on your mind, as long as you have several. You learn mental models by reading lots of book summaries. Every book can be reduced to an interesting mental model, think of Hooked, Thinking Fast and Slow, the B.J. Fogg Model, etc.

Tip 5: Develop speed. Look for confirmation or rejection of your insight

In my experience, the fastest way to the best insights is through conversations with consumers and observations of their behaviour. And that is where mental models come in very handy if you want to spot an insight at a distance.

Research is brilliant. Research reports are worthless. The role of an insight is to activate creativity. The best way to kill both insight and creativity is to let them shrivel in a Powerpoint presentation or report.


There are two important reasons to give all insights a lot of attention. One: you get more fruitful ideas, and two: your client will take you much more seriously. Clients find it really hard to buy an idea because it was so creative. They don’t dare trust their own creative judgement. But convince them of the powerful insights underneath, and they’ll see that your creation will work.

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