Contrary to popular opinion and romantic notions of brilliance, creativity doesn’t just “happen.” There’s no lightbulb, no “Eureka!” moment, no lightning from the heavens.

Creative ideas are born from insight — a process that, especially in the creative agency world, occurs long before copywriters and designers ever touch a project.

What is insight? Simply: an imaginative understanding of an opportunity. Insight is noticing how a thing works and describing an interesting truth. You’ve heard the saying that comedy is just a funny way of being serious? Well, creativity is just an interesting way of noticing things.

But here’s the big problem: Spend enough time in marketing and you’ll realize that much of the information people refer to as “insight,” just isn’t.

Bigger problem: If brands don’t understand what insight is, they’re not going to appreciate the creative that arises out of it — or why they’re stumbling on the path towards innovation.

Insight is not simply data.
We need to put an end to the madness. Insight and data are not synonymous. Data can (and does) inform insight. But on its own, data is not enough.

For example, the fact that someone has taken 8,043 Fitbit steps so far today is a useless piece of data without context. It’s a number. A standalone fact.

Even if you aggregated the average number of daily steps taken by users — e.g., “Fitbit users on average take 8,043 steps per day” — that, too, is simply a number. And even if you cross-referenced the aggregate number of daily steps with aggregate weight loss (while controlling for other variables such as diet), you’d still only have a number. And that number tells you … not much.

There are many, many, many large organizations out there that consider themselves to be “data-driven organizations.” Data is good! But simply having data doesn’t grant you insight.

Insight is not simply an observation.
Data and observations: not the same thing. Data is quantifiable, observations are anecdotal. You may observe, for example, that Fitbit users are constantly announcing how many steps they’ve taken today to their co-workers. That’s an interesting thing to note…and you can combine that observation with data about the number of steps … but that’s still not an insight.

Insight examines why.
Being insightful requires asking a lot of questions — and the most important of those questions is, “Why?” Why does the data say X? Why did I observe Y? Good lord whyyyyy are Fitbit users constantly telling everyone in earshot how many steps they’ve taken? Asking why is important because it’s how you uncover compulsions, anomalies, extremities, and other important data points and motivators that inform smart creative.

Insight is an interpretation.
Most often insight is a previously unknown, undiscovered, or unspoken truth about a product, the audience, or some other relative thing. Sometimes it can even be an already-known-but-not-yet-leveraged truth.

Let’s say you reviewed thousands of users’ Fitbit data, made some observations, and then used what you learned to guide interviews with Fitbit users. And then during those conversations you heard several people mention how excited they were about their accelerated weight loss once they started using a Fitbit. So you made a connection between their excitement and a gradual increase in steps, and then interpreted that to mean that people who saw weight loss results early in their Fitbit use were motivated to continue increasing their step count and credit the device with their increased health … that would be an insight.

If you were in the business of marketing for Fitbit, that insight could easily ignite a creative idea — perhaps about how to encourage Fitbit users into their habit during their first days wearing the device.

The interpretation is key. It’s what separates self-evident information from insight. It’s what makes you say, “Wow. That is so right — that should be obvious but I’ve never thought about it that way before.”

Insight reveals opportunity.
If it’s not something that inspires ideas and informs direction, it’s not insight. Even inspiring ideas that can’t be acted on — that’s still insight. Insight is wayfinding, whether the way is a clear path or a dead end.

Insight is a starting point.
It’s important to remember that in creative engagements, discovering an insight is never the end goal. The insight is what helps the client understand the creative team’s departure point. The insight allows the creative team to say “We began from insight X and ______,” and that framing helps the client participate in the creative process.

An(other) example.
We have a client that sells credit cards for businesses. That client wanted to increase the number of businesses applying for a type of card they offer, but they were having a hard time generating interest and excitement for that card, despite good rates and terms.

We reviewed the market data they had already collected from potential customers and the more we looked at the survey results holistically, the clearer it became: the business leaders our client needs to appeal to are far more enticed by the status a card can offer them than the APR or terms of that card. The rates matter of course — but they aren’t as compelling as the client thought.

Based on that observation, we conducted additional research and interviews, and produced this insight:

Business decision makers are highly motivated to seek out more information about a corporate credit card based on the prestige, perks, and status that credit card can offer them because they want to feel important and successful in their professional life.

That insight was the basis of our strategy.

We implemented a new messaging hierarchy for all of the client’s creative deliverables — strategically emphasizing the status and perks of the card first (in the headlines) while de-prioritizing the terms and rates, which were presented as secondary messages.

Be the insight you want to see in the world.
The creative process is incredible, but as much as it may seem like it sometimes, it’s not magic. There is a lot of hard work and inspired interpretation that happens. That interpretation is insight. And that insight is the foundation of great creative work.