Mike Anthony @ engage consultants

Mike Anthony on Shopper Marketing

Data is destroying insight – Marketing’s biggest problem

with 18 comments

Data Is Destroying Insight

I’m more than a little worried. One of the core foundations of marketing seems to be wobbling, and this wobble is extremely prevalent in the shopper marketing space. My concern? We’re forgetting what an insight is.

As more and more data reaches marketers’ desks you’d think that we’d see more insight, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. Across the globe jobs are advertised as “Shopper Insight Manager”; yet the job description is more of an analyst’s role – a number cruncher. “Marketers” are so busy crunching the data they don’t seem to have time to be insightful. The word insight is now so misused that perhaps it should be retired, and replaced with some other word which actually means what insight used to mean.

Can there be too much data?

Unfortunately more data does not necessarily mean more insight. Worse: If that data is misinterpreted, taken in its purest form, or there is no ‘overlay’ of insight to understand what that data actually means, then the data is worse than useless: it gives a false sense of security that what I am doing is ‘supported’ by the data.

So what is driving this worrying trend, and what should marketers do about it?

Big Data: digital, social, retail –  we have more data than ever before. But crunching through all of that data takes a lot of time. So much time is being spent ‘getting through’ the data, nobody has time to dwell on what it might mean. When we (link to engage) work on projects, we habitually use existing client data or reports that have not been referenced since they were created. Why? Clients were too busy analyzing ‘new’ data!

In this world of data, everything now has to be absolute. Surprisingly people seem to think that if something comes from data, it satisfies this requirement. The data doesn’t lie – true. But the stories we allow the data to support are nothing more than that – stories.

The brilliance of insights is that they aren’t absolute. That is where competitive advantage comes from. It doesn’t come just from crunching data – it comes from the leaps we make from that data – that connect things that are apparently unconnected.

So how to become (or remain) insightful?

Don’t use data as a crutch – It’s OK to make a decision which is not completely supported by data. More than OK – it’s essential to great marketing. If the story is all in the data, then there is almost certainly something missing. Get comfortable with ambiguity. Trust your gut sometimes. Great marketing existed before big data; whilst great marketing often relies on data to some extent, it  is not a pre-requisite for great marketing.

Allow time – Staring at charts and tables is an essential part of the insight process  – but so is NOT staring at the data. Crunch data to a deadline for sure, but allow insight time to percolate.

Ban the word insight from your business – Until we learn how to use the word properly, at least! Call it an idea, call it a supposition, call it analysis, call it thought. Anything – but not insight, please. When people use the word – ask if that is really what they mean!

Go looking for questions, not answers – Data is crunched to produce an output – to track a trend, to fill in a chart. That’s fine – but sometimes we should look at data with no specific purpose. Ignore the headings the agency might have put on the chart (or better still get a deck that has no headings). Go look at the data tables and just see what you see.

Remember qualitative – Qualitative research isn’t just something we do as a prelude to quantitative work: nor is it something we only do when we can’t afford a full quantitative study (“I can only afford a couple of focus groups…”). Qualitative research doesn’t always have to be quantified to be valid. It is this qualitative work that often gives us the key triggers needed to change behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I love data. I really do. When it is used correctly it creates massive value. But it isn’t everything. Analyzing data is not the same as creating insight. Both are valuable – let’s just not get them muddled up. And if your team needs help creating insights – just let me know.

Image: Flickr


Written by Mike Anthony

April 25, 2013 at 1:15 pm

18 Responses

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  1. Thanks Mike! A critical point for the cooperation between the advertising/shopper agency and the brand owner; Insight is intertwined with the creative process and the good agency seeks to stay focused on the insight driven creative output. If focus is lost then the agency can get sucked into the trap of being analysts along with the brand owner.


    April 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    • Hi Kenan,

      Thanks for commenting and for the valuable build. I think agencies are in danger of being stuck – either they (as you say) get sucked into the analyst trap, or they end up working in an insight vacuum – with nothing other than gut feel and ‘creative’.

      It would be a serious worry if shopper planners ended up being a replication or a substitute for client analytics… on the other hand the opportunity for agencies to fill this (insight) need could be huge. I’d hate to see brand owners outsource insight (what an awful thought) – but as a value add agencies who are adept at being insightful should seriously thrive!

      Thanks again!


      Mike Anthony

      April 25, 2013 at 5:23 pm

  2. Reblogged this on Let's talk shop(per) and other fascinating topics and commented:
    A critical point for the cooperation between the advertising/shopper agency and the brand owner; Insight is intertwined with the creative process and the good agency seeks to stay focused on the insight driven creative output. If focus is lost then the agency can get sucked into the trap of being analysts along with the brand owner.

    Kenan -Shopper Boffin

    April 25, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  3. Interesting thoughts – we’ve just implemented an Insights training programme that actually talks more about the process you should go through to get to the insights – from truly understanding your stakeholder’s issues and needs, the hypotheses, analysing the data, through to pulling out the killer insights in a succinct and clear way. While I have been doing data analysis and insights for nearly 14 years, I still learnt something which supports your point – ensure that at the end of the project you have a few killer insights and a tight summary deck – not hundreds and hundreds of charts that don’t get to a point.

    Caroline Davies

    April 25, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    • Hi Caroline,

      Thanks for sharing – sounds like a great program! Most programs I see on “insight” are actually on analysis – so its great that you have something which goes much further.

      In particular I like your point – insights are about quality not quantity!!!

      I hope the program makes a difference – one question – who in your company goes on the program? Is it limited to the insights community, or do marketing, trade marketing, category, sales people go too?

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      April 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm

      • It’s only just started, so at the moment it’s the Insights team, Category Planners, and then it’ll be rolled out to the Ops Marketing team. I’m asking for our agencies to go on it as well!!

        Caroline Davies

        April 25, 2013 at 7:28 pm

      • Hi Caroline,

        Thanks for coming back to me – great idea about getting the agency guys to go too!

        All the best,


        Mike Anthony

        April 26, 2013 at 7:49 am

  4. Mike, you have hit on something that although not dear to my heart but part of my marketing challenge! The Data collectors use what I term “Lemming Marketing” do it and the consumer will follow (until they fall off the cliff) and the numbers will for the most part always protect this path (even with Zero population growth).

    joe underwood
    Area Code Shopper
    Titan Fence, Inc.

    joe underwood

    April 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    • Hi Joe,

      There seems to be an unhealthy obsession with scorecards – so much so that people cease to look at the world – just at their dashboards! This approach is flawed because often the dashboard is tracking the wrong data – and after all it only contains KPIs – indicators (see last post) of performance – not the actual performance.

      Dashboards are great but really are no substitute for what is actually going on!

      All the best


      Mike Anthony

      April 26, 2013 at 9:15 am

  5. Nice Blog. I think that you raise some really pertinent points about the perception of data and numbers as a whole; The whole concept of “Big Data” has literally come thick and fast with the outcome being that for the most part advertiser brands and their agencies are poorly positioned to actually turn this mountain of data into actionable information. And to be fair, by giving marketers data to crunch you are effectively giving someone a completely new job description of which they have no training in and had probably thought/hoped they had seen the last of when the finished their maths GCSE’s / SAT’s. We are still in the early days of digital data.

    This normally results in two reactions that you touch on nicely: Firstly, that the data is taken literally and used as the final word with little additional insight provided above the numbers (the data doesn’t lie!) or alternatively that it is completely bypassed and marketing decisions are made based on direct experience and blissful ignorance. These are two textbook examples of human response to change; one only has to look at the present polarised responses to any new scientific data for the environment to see something similar. Everyone has an opinion but no one can explain the data (because they are probably not qualified to).

    One area where I think we do disagree is to summarise this issue of data destroying insight for the whole of marketing. I think this is a little misleading. Perhaps this is the case for shopping marketing; where I bow to your greater expertise and which employs more qualitative and quantitative research.

    However for online brand and/or performance marketing, where there is no excuse not to provide quantifiable visibility on your marketing so you can send the most effective message to your audience or better optimise and effectively increase your ROI against spend. It’s almost criminal not to save money and increase efficiencies. The data provides actionable information and the marketer provides the insights from this.

    In Asia (which is still some way behind EMEA and the US in online analytics) we are seeing that rather than taking on data as a useful tool to send a better message to customers more easily, there is still a tendency for some companies to hide under the covers and expect that Google Analytics will provide all of the insight they need. The fact is this alone will not provide you with data or insights or need. However, you might as well do this if you don’t have trained staff looking for the insights in the first place.

    I guess that if you really want to use data then you need to be doing what Caroline Davies is doing, which is to build an in-house skill set against the data requirements. And that means serious commitment from within the organisation to take this approach and provide investment and accept change. It might also involve changing job titles / descriptions.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks so much for your detailed and thought provoking comment!

      I don’t think we necessarily disagree at all – there is only so much that can be covered in an 800 word post that some of the subtleties of an argument might get lost.

      In all marketing there is no excuse for not using data that exists to create clarity – this may be especially true in Digital (I’ll bow to your greater knowledge and experience!) but is also true elsewhere. As you say for every marketer who is crushed under the data weight, there is another denying it completely.

      In all areas data can inform better decisions, and can provide an excellent platform for insightful marketing. In the right hands it is incredibly powerful, and in the digital realm it gives us a phenomenal opportunity to observe behavior at a level of detail previously undreamed of.

      Perhaps my headline is a little misleading. Data isn’t killing insight. Bad marketing is killing insight. Bad marketers are killing insight. Lots of data makes it easier for lives to be lost in data hell: make it easier for decision paralysis to set it: make it easier to abstain from accountability (but the data told me to do it). Businesses too obsessed with score cards may miss the big leaps that lead to innovation.

      Data is a bit like nuclear fission. Brilliantly powerful but dangerous in the wrong hands (maybe I should have used that as the title!)

      Thanks again,


      Mike Anthony

      April 26, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      • Mike, I like your simile: “Data is a bit like nuclear fission. Brilliantly powerful but dangerous in the wrong hands.” I will also compare the endeavor of collecting, analyzing and understanding Big Data to drinking from the fire hose. Rather than taking the full brunt of the stream in the face, it’s best to divert the flow and take it in a bit at a time. Marketing, after all, is a balance of art and science, something I have come to appreciate through my years in account management, strategic planning and marketing research with agencies and suppliers alike. Thanks to you and the other responses!

        Jason Frankena

        May 17, 2013 at 1:03 am

      • HI Jason – thanks – and I like yours too! Data needs sipping at the best of time – like wine it tastes of something as it enters your mouth but as you swill it around, new things begin to emerge. In another approach I advocate a similar idea – check it out! https://mikeanthonyengage.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/the-secret-behind-creating-quality-shopper-insights/

        Thanks for your kind words – and thanks for sharing,

        All the best,


        Mike Anthony

        May 17, 2013 at 4:45 pm

  6. Great post Mike. It is amazing that for almost 20 years we have been speaking about insight development, but most organisations are still not walking the talk. Bravo Caroline for getting yours on the journey – for it will take many years to get everyone on board.
    Mike, I like your reminders, especially the first one. With all the buzz about BigData, many will forget that more data doesn’t mean more insight and analysis alone is insufficient.
    It is time we spent more time thinking rather than just analysing data.

    • Hi Denyse,

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts…

      Of course the big danger with more data, is that there is less thinking time.

      As data becomes ubiquitous, competitive advantage will not lie in having more data, it will lie in what is done with it!

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      May 1, 2013 at 8:03 am

  7. As has been touched on several times, too often people comb through data looking for insights, or worse, expecting an insight to jump off the page from the data. Scientific method needs to be employed. Do the thinking up front by forming hypotheses then use the data to prove or disprove the hypotheses.

    On volume of data, more depth of data is essential for today’s advanced predictive models to perform. Prediction is never perfect, but a greater volume of data helps models learn and become more accurate. I believe the issue you’re touching on, and I agree, is that the increasing breadth of data can be distracting and often leads to immense time being spent crunching data in an attempt to draw insights where there is little or no causal impact to the behavior being studied.


    May 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for this – both the thoughts you hit upon are things I come across every day in my consulting practice.

      research is commissioned without proper objectives or hypotheses. Try googling “research brief examples” and see how many have a hypothesis section.. Not many. Some people seem to believe that having data somehow makes it scientific – yet unfortunately this isn’t so. Many I meet simply take the agencies PowerPoint charts as ‘the insight’ and leave it at that….

      As for the volume of data – this is I think the biggest problem of the day. Many marketers spend their days filling out dashboards – crunching numbers. I love data, I love big data, and I think it adds massively to the marketing experience. But in many cases, the way it is used, and the things (such as insight) which are sacrificed in its name – unfortunately the costs often outweigh the benefits.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to contribute – it is most truly appreciated.

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      May 27, 2013 at 10:12 am

  8. BIG DATA! 15,000,000 people in geographical defined area. More than 600 defined cities. More than 600 fence contractors. Not one major manufacturer of fence material has Brand recognition?

    BIG DATA, internally supports no way for manufacturer to accomplish B2B – B2C – C2B? But BIG DATA does support C2B – B2C – B2B if internally the thinking is “Partnering” and understanding the myth of Brand?

    If internal thinking is “YES” and “PASSIVE” the manufacturer will be another Kodak, Circuit City, etc. Disruptive or innovative thinking is always overlooked.

    joe underwood
    Area Code Shopper
    Titan Fence, Inc.
    Woof Woof Roofs

    joe underwood

    August 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

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