Looking for insights? Data alone won’t replace intuition and empathy.

At some point in the late eighties a new role started to appear in the top London advertising agencies. It wasn’t an account handling position and it wasn’t in the creative department but, rather neatly, bridged both.

The Planner had arrived and they were set to transform the advertising business.

At its simplest, Planners were people who could get into the mind of the consumer and see how they might relate to the product or service that the agency was advertising. A good planner could be a stereotypical Audi driver in the morning and an MTV obsessed, Levi wearing student in the afternoon.

They were people with empathy. They were people who could get under the target market’s skin. A good Planner was like a mobile research group, a focus group that walked into your office, looked at the ads on the wall and told you, there and then, how the consumer would react to them.

It’s true to say that the best creative people had a bit of the Planner about them. Advertising creativity is often a translation service – taking what a client wants to say and translating it into a language that the consumer understands and an idea that will grab their attention and appeal to them.

It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and then walking a mile or two in them.

And then along came data

Marketing today, and particularly digital marketing, gives businesses and their marketing partners access to a resource that the Planner would have given their eyeteeth for. From Google Analytics to Facebook reports, the digital space is awash with numbers and the behaviours they represent.

A customer moving through the web leaves a tiny trail of ones and zeros that chart their movements in detail. Hotjar will tell you how long they hovered over a button and where they went next. Facebook pixels watch over your shoulder on almost every site you visit.

And then there is sales data. Don’t worry about what GCHQ have on you, Tesco knows far more about you than that.

One of the promises of digital marketing was that it is trackable, that it listens as much as it speaks, that it will deliver behavioural analytics to a dashboard on your laptop and you will become lord and master of all you survey.

And that is true. Up to a point.

 Theories before answers.

Data can support a theory, it can back up an insight but it can’t come up with them; at least not yet.

Planning looks at the emotions behind decisions, data can’t do that. No matter how much data and information you have, on its own it won’t tell you anything.

To generate insights from that pool of data you first have to use your Planner’s head to come up with a theory; a ‘what if’? Then you can take your theory and ask the data, ‘is this true?’ And if it isn’t, why not, and what can you learn from that?

It’s a method that blends creative thinking and empathy with science and technology and so I like to think of it as a craft – but perhaps that’s a bit too Bohemian for 2021?

But it is a craft worth learning.

Insights power business. Insights have transformed downturns and disasters into triumphs. Insights connect you to your customers and them to you.

Can you learn intuition and empathy? Can you take a Udemy course in them?

Possibly not, but you can practice them, and practice might make perfect and who knows where that might take you.

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