You don’t find insight in a cabin in the woods

In 1845, sixty years after America declared its independence, philosopher Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin by the shore of Walden pond, deep in the wooded Massachusetts wilderness. He moved in and lived there as a hermit for two years. Thoreau hungered for a deep understanding of what it meant to be an American in this new, developing nation – and believed he could only gather a true insight through total solitude and introspection.

When he emerged, it took Thoreau another ten years to write Walden: Life in the Woods. Contrary to the revered status it now enjoys, it was a failure on publication. It only found fame years after Thoreau’s death when the romantic mythology around the book’s creation was appropriated as a symbol of escape from the modern world.  Considering Thoreau’s intentions, this story ironically became better-known than the book’s actual content. Not only that, the cabin was later found to be just a mile’s walk from his mum’s house, somewhere he visited weekly to drop off his washing and collect freshly baked cookies.

I think this is a reminder for us planners. Like Thoreau, our role is to devise methodologies to help us understand people. We then use insight to inspire the creative process that infuses our client’s brands with emotional relevance, purpose and a value that ultimately converts into sales. But sorry Henry, we can’t hope to do that without actually speaking to anybody – and we certainly shouldn’t be faking it.

So, it’s sad to read Ogilvy claim[i] that only 2% of industry creative briefs are currently informed by primary research, with 94% based on research from the internet and other secondary data. The internet is planning’s cabin in the woods. Although we call it an ‘echo chamber’ now. It’s not hard to understand why 89% of advertising and marketing isn’t noticed or remembered[ii]. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the political twists and turns of 2016, we can’t hope to have a true understanding of people unless we get out there and speak, observe and then interpret what we see and hear.

Ogilvy’s solution is to put their planners on a train and send them out of London and into “the wild” on a field trip every so often. They’ll visit the UK’s “remote rural outposts” and deprived towns to talk to real folk, doing real things. This is admirable, but planners getting out the office shouldn’t feel like a new initiative and, learning from Thoreau, let’s not let the methodology become the story. It’s what you do with the stuff you see and hear that counts.

A century after Walden was published, and motivated by the same need to understand his nation, Jack Kerouac spent four years gathering insight by crisscrossing America without a plan; in and out of Deep South dive bars and smoky Chicago jazz clubs, working the cotton fields of Mississippi and sleeping on floors of poets. Powered only by coffee and Benzedrine, he then spent just three weeks frantically writing On the Road on one continuous roll of paper, going to print virtually unedited. It was an instant hit that crystallised the churning anger and detachment at the heart of late 50’s America, and wrapped it in notions of choice, freedom and new horizons the road represented. It went on to inspire the counterculture movement that was to shake America for the next decade. Bob Dylan said of On the Road, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s”. The difference compared with Thoreau? A primary research methodology with people at its heart, and a creative treatment inspired by a deep understanding of how people think, feel and behave.  Insight moves people if it’s grounded in truth and expressed with imagination.

Insight isn’t something that comes to you spontaneously if you shut yourself away and think long enough. It’s not something found on the internet. And it’s not a fully formed object waiting to be found in the woods. Insight needs people. Many, different people. But that doesn’t mean insight pops out the end of a couple of focus groups or even an extravagant ‘ethnographic’ research methodology. Insight requires an understanding of context and a whole host of different strands of investigation. Insight is the result of thought, repeat questioning, collaboration, rethinking, adaptation, discussion, immersion, testing and evolution. Insight needs to be stimulated. Insight demands commitment. And in the end, insight means nothing if it doesn’t come to life with creative vision.

That’s how we think anyway. But then, we’ve never been ones to shy away in a cabin in the woods.

[i] Planning in the wild: How Ogilvy planners are getting out to connect with real people, Kevin Chesters, January 2017

[ii] Academic Advertising, Dave Trott, July 2014