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The Imperative of Marketing Imagination

The Imperative of Marketing Imagination

J. Walker Smith

illustration of people arranged in bar graph

The future of insights lies in senior leadership’s imaginative capacity for empathy, provocation and activation

The imperative of imagination is the future of insights. The marketplace to come will require more expansive thinking and decision-making. To meet this challenge, business leaders need and want insights to step up to a leadership role premised on a new way of working, one that is grounded in the structures, processes and practices of a more imaginative way of doing business.

Imagination may sound like reaching for the stars, but it is actually back to basics. The legendary Harvard marketing guru Ted Levitt best articulated this in a handful of classic essays well-known to every marketer. Levitt wrote that the kernel of business success is not making choices but “thinking up the possibilities from which choices are made.” Imagination is something business leaders do every day when they put themselves in their customers’ shoes or when they think anew about the definition of their categories or when they choose one direction over another for innovation, advertising and purpose. Imagination is business 101. 

Business leaders need more of it now, and they want their insights functions to be the spark that will steward it forward. Not to own it outright—rather, to ensure its integrity and to put it into action. 

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Imagination is the overarching takeaway from Insights 2030, the 18-month project completed recently by Kantar about the future of insights. The purpose of Insights 2030 was to identify the critical contribution that senior business leaders want from insights and the associated playbook for action. The key finding is the imperative of imagination.

Insights 2030 builds upon foundational work that Kantar published in 2015 documenting the superior performance of companies built around customer-centricity. That earlier work played a leading role in recentering the corporate imagination around the core principle of putting the customer at the center of everything. Developments in the marketplace have made it clear, though, that there is more than one way to put the customer at the center. Customer-centricity without imagination is less than optimal. 

For Insights 2030, Kantar conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with business leaders around the world as well as a global survey among 1,700-plus senior business and insights leaders. Three themes emerged—empathy, provocation and activation. Each of these requires that insights adopt a more imaginative way of working that can spark and impel senior management toward a more expansive, more original way of apprehending and reacting to the marketplace. 

Empathy is the foundation. Future success necessitates a deeper understanding of the journey of people’s lives, not just more data about the consumer journey to the store. As one business leader put it, “Data are people in disguise.” Another said, “Eighty percent of our data is commercial; 20% is consumer. We lose sight of the people buying our products on a regular basis.” Insights must develop a richer diversity of data, resources and skills about the human experience. 

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The era of big data arrived several years ago with the promise of ever-more specificity about consumers in the marketplace. That promise has been fulfilled, but despite more knowledge there is not necessarily more learning. As big data piled up, the customer, the person at the center has often been lost in the haystack of data and information. Business leaders know more than ever about the “what” but no more than before about the “why.” What senior leaders fret over now are big ideas. Thus, the premium on empathy.

Upon the foundation of empathy rises a more assertive view of the marketplace. Insights must embrace provocation. One of the most frequent complaints expressed by senior business leaders in Insights 2030 was that insights teams only know the data, not what is best for the business. In the words of one, “Insights is traditionally quite comfortable stating ‘research says’ or ‘data show.’ This passes the responsibility to others. There is a need to express an opinion beyond what the research says—giving conclusions, implications and recommendations.” 

A critical part of provocation is looking ahead with foresight or looking beyond marketplace realities toward marketplace possibilities. Senior business leaders are unequivocal that insights leaders must be full-throated participants in the business. Several said they got the most value when insights dropped the scales from their eyes with a view of the future that completely redirected the business. This sort of lightbulb moment should be the metric of success for insights. 

Much has been made in recent years about insights functions telling credible and compelling stories about consumers. But in the Insights 2030 interviews, business leaders were clear that they wanted stories tied to activation. Insights must do more than advise on strategy. Insights must be involved in activation as well. 

Content analysis of the Insights 2030 depth interviews found that the most frequent topics brought up by insights leaders were about skills sets and lines of reporting. Marketing leaders, on the other hand, talked most about insights having an impact on business strategy. In other words, insights leaders are focused first on insights and only then on the business. The seat at the table coveted by insights leaders will come naturally when insights are better aligned with the priorities of senior management. 

Empathy, provocation and activation define the more expansive way of thinking and acting that business leaders want insights to spark within their companies. They want imagination from insights. 

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An analysis of the quantitative survey for Insights 2030 operationalized the dimensions of empathy, provocation and activation as a set of specific structures, processes and practices. A similar model was developed for customer-centricity. These two constructs were largely independent, except for four items common to both. Two were about customer-first; one was about distilling insights; the fourth was about building strategy. These four elements are the essential building blocks of an insights organization. Imagination adds the vital spark. 

The constructs of customer-centricity and imagination differentiate companies that focus first on customer-centricity, those with top priority on imagination, and those committed to a high level of both. Among companies with a primary emphasis on customer-centricity, 68% outperformed competition. This is strong, but imagination is more powerful. Among companies with a primary emphasis on imagination, 72% overperformed. Stronger still were companies high on both customer-centricity and imagination, with 87% overperforming. Imagination is a multiplier—the 19-percentage point jump from 68% to 87% is a multiplier difference of 28%. Insights 2030 also found that an emphasis on imagination greatly reduces the risk of failure. 

There is plenty of room for improvement. Only 14% of respondents in Insights 2030 reported that their companies were high on both customer-centricity and imagination. For the typical company, current success does not mean there is nowhere to go. Every company and every insights function can make measurable improvements in ways of working and thus in marketplace performance.

The marketplace has entered an era in which disruptions are the new normal, which is to say that disruptions will be a feature of the marketplace, not the exception. The period from the mid-1980s to 2007 was a relatively stable period that economists now refer to as the Great Moderation. Subsequent to the financial crisis, volatility and uncertainty have increased dramatically. The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in the realization that the events of this century, both good and bad, are the harbingers of a future of disruptions. 

Disruptions will be systemic things like climate, cybersecurity breaches and geopolitical turmoil. But they also include commercial discontinuities such as big data, e-commerce and AI, as well as next-generation discontinuities such as hybrid work, blockchain, mobile commerce, Gen Z, supply chain interruptions, continuing cheap capital, clean energy, biomedical advances and space exploration. 

Most of the standard ways of doing business were invented and perfected during a past that saw greater stability than will be true in the future. Disruption will challenge existing operating and business models. New approaches will be required, and that means the imperative of imagination is essential for the new normal of disruptions.

Business leaders turn to insights during times of disruption. There was a several-month stretch during the pandemic year of 2020 when business leaders lost the narrative of the marketplace guiding their decision-making. More than ever, they looked to insights leaders for guidance—a “lighthouse” in the words of one business leader; “mission control” in the words of another. The top two things that business leaders said they needed to know coming out of the pandemic were all about a deeper understanding of the new consumer, which means even more imaginative support and guidance from insights. Disruptions put insights front and center. 

Putting insights at the center is the secret sauce of success. Insights 2030 found that companies with insights at the center significantly out-perform competition and almost universally operate with customer-centricity and imagination at the heart of their businesses—87% and 97%, respectively. 

Disruption sounds ominous, but in business circles, disruption is always viewed as an opportunity. For example, in 1992, Jean-Marie Dru, then chairman of BDDP, later merged with TBWA, took out full-page ads worldwide to champion the idea of “creative disruption,” or progress by breaking conventions. Harvard professor Clay Christensen followed soon thereafter with his 1997 bestseller, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” that pioneered the idea of “disruptive innovation.” Most recently, in 2019, then-CEO of P&G, David Taylor, introduced the concept of “constructive disruption” that puts purpose, values and principles at the heart of business strategy. For business leaders, disruption always presents itself as opportunity, and with it comes a driving need for imagination. 

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To build imagination from empathy, provocation and activation, insights functions must benchmark themselves against a core set of structures, processes and practices. Insights 2030 identified 10 such things that define a transformational journey for insights functions, one that must be customized to each company. But there are a few takeaways relevant to all insights organizations across all types of companies and categories. 

Insights must put the human experience at the center, more so than customers per se. This takes a refreshed mission and a forward-looking market narrative along with a greater diversity of data, skills and expertise. Business leaders recognize this. One of the gaps found by Insights 2030 concerns leadership skills for insights leaders. Business leaders place more value than insights leaders on non-research skills that can make a difference in the business, not just in research. 

To fully embrace provocation, insights functions must deliver lightbulb moments by telling a business story rather than just a consumer story. A big part of this entails a new hiring profile that puts less emphasis on research skills and more emphasis on management or even consulting skills. Business leaders expect insights leaders to work more like senior management than like senior researchers. 

All of this leads to activation, which market-leading companies are institutionalizing with formal activation teams and with greater use of tools and resources to free up insights people to think and act more imaginatively. Leading companies use the power of AI and automation and the availability of high-quality outsourcing partners to refocus insights on strategies and activation. 

Management presumes that insights functions have unfettered access to the tools and data needed to deliver an imaginative way of working and thinking. By contrast, insights teams do not feel they have that level of freedom and empowerment. So, insights must be more assertive in leveraging this implicit permission by making it a rule to ask for forgiveness not permission. In years past, the call has been for insights to be more involved in creating company strategy. This is no less important, but the call now is for insights to be more involved in implementing company strategy. To do this, insights must step up and make itself heard. 

The future of insights is a stronger nucleus of customer-centricity that is supercharged and animated anew by the structures, processes and practices of empathy, provocation and activation. In this manner, insights can reenergize the ways in which corporate leaders apprehend and envision the marketplace. This is the imperative of imagination. 

J. Walker Smith is chief knowledge officer for brand and marketing at Kantar Consulting and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.​