Insight teams must see themselves as business leaders

The insight industry is in need of renovation to position itself as a business leader agitating for consumer-centric growth.

insightI doubt any marketing leader reading this would disagree that, to be successful, our businesses need to be deeply consumer-centric. I doubt our CEOs and leadership teams would either.

And yet how many of us are content with how externally focused we are in our organisations today? How many of us would agree that increased consumer focus would lead to better growth?

Understanding consumers is critical to shaping the future – this has classically been in decoding motivations, attitudes, and behaviours, but also now in how technology and other factors influence these and the culture around them.

As part of my role at Diageo I hold myself responsible for how consumer-centric we are but recognise that accountability goes beyond me and must be ingrained in all parts of the business. We’re constantly challenging ourselves on whether we’re being truly consumer-centric in every decision.

To become truly consumer-centric as an organisation, you need to tackle the opportunity from two angles. The most important is driving a cultural shift which goes right across the whole business. Secondly, you need a more progressive type of insights or planning department to nurture consumer-centricity.

Even the most consumer-centric organisation can never be complacent. That is why we all need to recognise where insights sit in our businesses on the continuum from conducting research or being a business contributor, to being a strategic partner and ultimately seeking genuine competitive advantage. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Cultural shifts require senior sponsorship

To achieve a broader cultural shift, top-down buy-in and sponsorship are essential. Across all functions, not just marketing, there has to be a shift whereby the implications of consumer learning are considered in critical decisions, and conversations move from being primarily internally focused to including consumer perspectives.

Each individual needs to consider how they ensure they are aware of external changes – their competitors, market environment, innovation and technology, trends, and consumer motivations. If the business does not demand consumer inputs into critical decisions, change will not happen.

In addition, you need a bolder team of specialists to inspire and sustain the change.

A different mission and purpose

Traditionally, planning and insights teams care about consumer learning and data. Often, they describe themselves as the voice of the consumer, which drives me crazy. CEOs don’t care about these things.

A great planning team must align itself with the business’s long-term ambition. At Diageo, we articulate planning’s purpose as ‘leading the total business with ideas and insights that sell more’. We place the emphasis on our roles as business leaders first and foremost, on having a breadth of impact beyond marketing, and on being agents of change.

To become truly consumer-centric as an organisation you need to drive a cultural shift that goes across the whole business and a more progressive insights department to nurture consumer-centricity.

We do this through enabling the business to make the right strategic and commercially savvy decisions within the ever-changing world of our consumers’ and customers’ lives. Here we find that critical intersection between what the business needs and what we’re good at.

Not budget size but focus

Too often I hear peers in the industry citing lack of budget as a key issue. In truth, I don’t think it is about money but how spend is focused, and return on it measured and articulated.

Too high a proportion gets spent on standard tracking, product testing and so forth. This is useful in preventing mistakes, but not as effective as focusing on what matters to your CEO – long-term strategic planning, portfolio development, performance diagnosis, and understanding the value of capital investments and acquisition opportunities.

Not lack of resource but talent

Similarly, I hear concerns over resource levels, but believe it’s less about numbers and more about having a diverse team, motivated by business impact and drawn from a broader range of backgrounds than agencies.

Hire for mindset: curious, culturally connected, provocative, bold, innovative, objective, and collaborative.

Independent but integrated

Getting this balance is critical – you want your planners to act with objectivity but be integrated into decision making. You need them to act like owners and be accountable. ‘Independent’ must not mean being in a silo, acting like a consultant or being organised around insight specialisms, instead of business needs.

Innovate for better answers

It does matter that your insight teams focus on developing next-generation tools and approaches to gathering insight. Whereas in the past they needed to be research experts, now they need to embrace behavioural sciences, data and tech, and other emergent techniques.

This is still secondary to their ability to frame the highest-value opportunities, crack insights and influence change.

Importance of partners

New thinking about partners is needed – who they are and how to work in a business-centric way, rather than in a typical client-agency relationship.

The insight industry as a whole continues to be much in need of renovation and must assert the potential value it can bring. If insight leaders and their agencies saw themselves first and foremost as business leaders agitating for consumer-centric growth, the pace of change would accelerate exponentially.