Why creativity without insight is doomed to fail

This article was first published on AdAge.com, on March 30, 2019

I had a professor in Sociology 101 sophomore year whose name I can’t remember, but whose class still stays with me.

He had absurdly high standards and was ruthless when it came to evaluating how much of the material you understood. His tests were impossibly hard; he would have failed some of them. When asked why they were so difficult, he said, to paraphrase, “I could make the test easier and you’d all get 4.0s, but I wouldn’t know if you knew the material. I’d rather give you hard tests, grade on a curve, and have a better sense of what you learned.”

It was harsh, especially for an (admittedly) lazy college student like myself who was studying fine art and just wanted to paint and sculpt all day long. Thankfully, I took it “Pass/Fail” and survived by the skin of my teeth.

I hated that class and couldn’t wait to forget everything about it, yet here I am, 20-plus years later, remembering it like it was yesterday. Why? I recently was asked to judge the Health Effie awards and found myself in my professor’s shoes.

Put in a position to judge my peers and work that was submitted as “top of its class,” I found myself being a very tough critic. With each case I reviewed, my standards got progressively higher because I was getting more and more frustrated with one thing in particular—insights.

Or should I say, the lack of insights.

Call me a stickler, but if there’s one thing that’s an absolute “must have” when it comes to best-in- class work, it’s demonstrating how an insight serves as a springboard for creativity.

A quick Google search on the definition of an insight tells us that it’s “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep, intuitive understanding of a person or thing.”

Deep: It lurks below the surface, is not plainly obvious.

Intuitive: It feels natural; you mentally don’t have to jump through hoops to get it.

Understanding: It demonstrates comprehension of what you’re talking about. You’ve done the work and have credibility.

Needless to say, if that was the criteria, what I saw was lacking. An interesting data point? Not an insight. An unexplained cultural phenomenon? Not an insight. Describing a highly stylized and idealized “path-to-purchase” and calling it an experience journey or an empathy map? Also, not an insight.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the work I reviewed was excellent—breakthrough, compelling, beautiful. IT was work worthy of being finalists, considered for awards and, more importantly, left me with my favorite emotional response to great work: envious that my name wasn’t on it.

But we owe it to each other, as practitioners of the craft of marketing and communications to set a high bar, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as insight development.

If you manage a brand, know thy customer as deeply and profoundly as possible and hold your agencies accountable to know her, too. Just when you think you understand her—what makes her tick, why she does what she does and feels the way she feels—keep digging. Stay curious. There’s gold in them hills.

To my peers, my advice to you is that you’ll never go wrong being the one in the room that knows the customer better than everyone else. Clients hire us with the expectation that we’ll challenge them, provoke them, and have an insatiable appetite to learn about their business and the people they rely on to be successful. Challenge what you see and hear. Ask why, a lot. Push back on generic briefs that lack insight, and please, don’t insult your creative teams by asking them to generate breakthrough work from one.