Imagination

The future of insights
Wall of post-its from Congress participants
Date 15 December 2021
Author J. Walker Smith

The imperative of imagination is the future of insights 

The importance of insights in business decision making has been clear for several decades. As more data and information has become available, organizations have demanded more expansive research approaches, with growth and success determined by how imaginative insights teams can be.  

This imagination imperative has been driven by a need for customer centricity. In today’s marketplaces, customer centric products and services are the norm, with growth and success reliant on how closely an organization can deliver to expectations. 

Introducing greater imagination into insights functions relies on embracing new ways of working. Insights teams and structures must be built from the ground up alongside processes and practices that enable business leaders to stop, understand and react to the marketplace in smarter, more original, and more impactful ways.  

Imagination is the overarching takeaway from Insights 2030, Kantar’s in-depth investigation into the future of insights and we believe this will be the competency to business success.  

We are not alone in this belief – our Insights 2030 research bought together an advisory board of industry organizations and leading companies, including Colgate-Palmolive; combined with a study involving hundreds of one-on-one interviews with business leaders around the world and a global survey of 1,700-plus senior business and insights leaders. 

Imagination as the competency to success 

Imagination is a competency used by business leaders each day when they put themselves in their customers’ shoes, think anew about accelerating growth in or select a direction for innovation, advertising, and purpose. Kantar research has demonstrated consistently over the years that imagination is the foundation for growth, and future success will require that business leaders significantly dial up their competency in and commitment to imagination. 

The same is therefore true of insights functions – particularly in today’s markets where disruption is the new normal. Volatility and uncertainty are quite clearly here to stay. The stability of the past, often referred to by economists as the Great Moderation, is in the rear view mirror. While disruptions will unlock enormous new opportunities, they will also challenge existing business models and operations. So, new approaches will be required, which makes imagination more important. To meet this challenge, business leaders should expect insights to step up to a leadership role premised on a new way of working. 

EMPACT from insights 

Our Insights 2030 research identifies three themes which businesses and their insights functions can draw upon to develop more imaginative processes—empathy, provocation and activation, or as we call it, EMPACT (for EMpathy, Provocation, ACTivation). 

Empathy is the foundation. Future success necessitates a deeper understanding of the journey of people’s lives, not just more data about the shopper journey. 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 business leaders worry that the human experience of the person at the center has been lost in the haystack of data and information. With disruption added to the mix, senior leaders believe that big ideas are needed to get full value from Big Data. Thus, the premium on empathy. 

Provocation is next. One of the most frequent complaints expressed by senior business leaders in Insights 2030 was that insights teams talk only about the data not about 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.” Senior leaders are unequivocal that Insights leaders must be full participants in the day-to-day operation of a business. 

Activation brings it all together. 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 connect the dots for strategy and carry a richer view of the marketplace into action. 

Imagination as the multiplier 

Insights 2030 research revealed customer-centricity as the foundation of success, with operationalized imagination a clear means to deliver customer focused services, products and solutions – making customer data central to everything. 

The combination of customer-centricity and imagination delivers a future-oriented focus that brings the human experience to the center of an organization’s goals. 

Among companies with a primary emphasis on customer-centricity but less on imagination, our study found 68 percent out-performed competition. Among companies high on both customer-centricity and imagination, 87 percent out-performed competition. Imagination is a multiplier, making the call to action for businesses clear: the future of insights is reliant on clear customer-centricity, supercharged and by the structures, processes and practices of empathy, provocation, and activation. In this manner, insights teams can reenergize the ways in which corporate leaders apprehend and envision the marketplace of tomorrow. This is the imperative of imagination.

J. Walker Smith
Knowledge Lead, Consulting at Kantar