Finding Insight: Why a classic Pixar movie contains important lessons for marketers

—Finding Nemo is much more than a fish story, says VMLY&R’s Trevor Thomas. It demonstrates the power of finding a true human insight.—

As we watch a young father-to be triumphantly show off the new home he’s acquired for his doting wife, a sense of dread creeps in. The surrounding area has grown eerily quiet, and in the blink of an eye, the joyous scene turns tragic. When the father comes to, both his wife and future offspring have vanished.

Except for one precious, fragile egg that he names Nemo.

As a father, I experience Pixar’s 2003 masterpiece Finding Nemo with a sense of familiarity, a reinforcement of the father-son bond.

As a strategist, though, I look at the story of Nemo and his father Marlin with unbridled awe. Not for the storytelling, character development or artistic wizardry—as spectacular as they are—but for the insight.

In this opening scene, which sets up the film’s primary narrative, the anemone home of our protagonist is attacked by a barracuda, and a single egg is left undevoured.

Let’s say there were 100 eggs in the clutch. If that were the case, we could deduce that 99% of clownfish babies don’t survive gestation.

In our modern marketing world, we see findings like this all over. Stats, figures, verbatims: they’re in research and analytics reports, white papers and briefs. They’re often labeled as “insights,” but they’re not. They are information.

Thought-provoking? Probably. Valuable? Maybe. But not insights. So, what’s the difference?

An insight is a triangulation of learnings that marries existing information with human experience. When you get it right, an insight is a fresh perspective that feels both unexpected and obvious at the same time.

Some helpful hints to spot the differences:

Simply put, information tells us “what,” while insights tell us “why.”

Let’s return to Nemo. Due to the initial trauma he experienced, Marlin becomes afraid of the ocean and an overly protective father, rarely letting Nemo out of his sight. So when Nemo is kidnapped, Marlin is forced into an ocean-wide adventure to try and save his precious son.

Hopefully, we’ll all now agree that our initial “99%” thought is not an insight, so let’s go a step further. Start asking “why.” What does this stat—and the subsequent drama—tell us about the world, about life, about the ocean, about people or, in this case, fish.

We can reasonably deduce that the ocean is a dangerous place to raise a family.

Is this the insight we’re searching for? The thought that led to one of the most moving films of all time?

It is not. While it begins to explain the stat and provides more meaning, it still doesn’t tell us why. It’s what I call fresh information, and there is always a straight path between it and the information from which it’s drawn.

As an example, the US Census Bureau found that online shopping increased by 43% during the first year of the pandemic. A major contributor: shopping online allowed people to buy without leaving the safety of their home.

Both interesting, but both still facts. They’re undeniably true.

An insight, on the other hand, should never feel certain.

The path between information and insight should not be straight. There should absolutely be a clear connection, but it should feel like a stretch.

At the end of Finding Nemo, after searching most of the ocean—and a dentist’s aquarium—Marlin is ready to pack it in. He’s done all he can and is ready to accept that Nemo is gone. In the distance, he hears a faint voice call his name. Nemo! Before they can be properly reunited, Nemo leads a Herculean (Poseidonian?) effort to save a new friend, demonstrating to his father that he is more than capable of surviving in the ocean.

And only then is the true insight of the film revealed. It’s not about clownfish gestation or the tribulations of the ocean. It’s not about marine life at all. In fact, its humanity is what allows a computer animated film about fish to create such a profound connection with its audience.

Fatherhood is about facing your own fears to protect your children.

This level of deep human understanding is what makes Pixar the powerhouse it is. And while I would never suggest that we, as humble marketers, could create work like Pixar, I submit that we can think like them. And that begins with a simple fact: Insights aren’t found, they’re created.

Like all aspects of our business, insight creation takes practice and skill, but mastering it is the difference between good and great, or, more to the point, Shark Tale and Finding Nemo.

There are four keys to great insight creation that we can employ in our work:

  1. Go beyond words and questions, and observe human behaviour
  2. Dig deeper by continually asking “why?”
  3. While digging, keep a trail of breadcrumbs to keep your insight grounded in fact
  4. Integrate and aggregate diverse information to look for commonalities

With all that in mind, it’s interesting to consider what a film like Nemo would have looked like if Pixar had stopped at the “99%” stat, and used that as their “insight.” What if they’d gone one step further and employed the “dangerous ocean” thought?

Those extra steps in insight creation took them from what would have likely been a nature documentary to a modern-day classic. The same can be true for your next project. As you endeavour for that pearl of insight, just keep swimming.

Trevor Thomas is vice-president, strategy, at VMLY&R in Toronto. 

Top Photo: Disney / Pixar