I was meeting with an advertising agency and one of the team members talked constantly about new insights. After we explored his insight, it seemed to me he was talking about an observation not an insight.

I’ve seen the word on job descriptions, data aggregators claim to produce insights, clients request them and agencies claim to produce them.

The word ‘insight’ is a case of over-promising and under-delivering

One explanation for the insight inflation is organizational: The executives responsible for producing insights are often located in the research and data aggregation department, trying to find small gems that may affect marketing. This can be on the client side or done through planners in the agency.  The other reason is that people believe everybody can observe but not many can be insightful

So, what’s the difference between an observation versus an insight?

Determining that new homeowners are more likely to buy a new car is an observation.

Understanding that putting snacks at the checkout register will increase sales dramatically because parents want to calm down/reward their kids is an observation.

According to Dictionary.com, an insight is an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding. I’ve been working in advertising for more than 15 years and I haven’t encountered many insights. I don’t mind it because I’d rather reserve light bulb moments for science.

I worked with a global airline the last two years and they wanted to understand why they had problems attracting business class customers. We looked through all the data, did focus groups, interview prospects one-on-one. We had many observations and no insights. The breakthrough came when we observed passengers in the business class lounge. They were more concerned getting to the lounge than getting to the final destination. Once you’re in the lounge, you’re in the luxury bubble that protects you until you pick up your luggage. This observation led to an insight: If you can extend the luxury bubble from the usual airport to airport to home to hotel, business class passengers will be more willing to buy your product.

Observations are rooted in data. Insights are rooted in outside sources.

Insight is rare ,“apprehending the true nature of a thing”, since we often have to find a different way of expressing similar ideas to the competition. What’s the difference between Chase and Wells Fargo? Toyota and Honda? Goodyear and Pirelli? There’s no insight that can make a difference, the solution lies in how you say things, the advertising idea. Trust me, a lot of brilliant people try to find insights for these brands and markets, they are just as rare as hitting the $800 million jackpot.

There are some extremely rare planners and creative’s out there, hitting the jackpot once in a blue moon. Millions wait for jackpots, just to end up a few bucks poorer. Maybe it’s time to elevate the importance of observations. A great novelist makes a living with observations, stand-up comedians do. Just like observations bring a brand to life.