The role of human insight in ad development

Your goal is to create advertising people love, notice and remember in order to change or reinforce what they know, think and feel about your brand. Accomplishing that isn’t easy, and it can’t be done without human insight. Everyone involved in your ad development process is too close to the brand, the objectives, the category and the work that’s been done on the ad — making it hard, or maybe even impossible, for them to truly understand how people will respond.

Using consumer feedback to to iterate, optimize and validate what you’re doing at each stage ensures that all your time, money and emotional energy is spent on ideas with genuine potential.

Here is a representation of a typical ad development process. Human insight can and should play a critical role at each stage.

A typical ad development process

But before diving into the kinds of insights that are most valuable at each stage, and how best to access them, it’s worth covering the stages of the process to make sure we share a common language. Often the stages have different names in different companies and agencies.

Human insight at each stage of the ad development process

Let’s revisit the Snickers example from earlier to bring these stages to life.

An example: Snickers

Now that we’re using the same language to talk about the stages, let’s turn our attention to the types of insights that are most useful at each stage.

Understanding the most powerful insights at each stage

Insight + brand’s take on the insight

At these early stages, you’re looking for a human truth to serve as the foundation for your campaign. Some of the best campaigns are based on an insight that feels universal and relatable, but that isn’t something most people have thought about before. In other words, it should seem obvious but not cliched.

Observation, ethnography and social listening can provide this deep understanding of people and their lives to unearth insights relevant to the brand’s moments/occasions/category.

Big idea

At the big idea stage, you need to check that your idea sparks enthusiasm, delight or surprise in people. It’s also useful to confirm the idea provides a realistic role for the brand.

You can use either qualitative or quantitative research at this stage, it’s just important that you get feedback that is diagnostic and deep enough to support the development of the idea. Open responses are critical at this stage to help you identify whether respondents fully understood the idea so you can make the right decisions about how to move forward.


Once you have a few ideas for storylines, you need to identify which ones resonate the most with people and which elements will be critical to land in the final execution. If there are aspects of the story that are unclear, it’s helpful to know that early on so you can clarify or pivot before you invest too much in the execution.

Qualitative or quantitative research (again with open responses) can help with this. Focus on getting granular feedback on the individual scenes and elements of the story so you can make sure the story is told and executed in the clearest and most powerful way.

Unfinished ads

Feedback on your unfinished ads can help you optimize, validate and feed your production brief. You want to make sure the ad engages people, connects with the brand, conveys desired associations and triggers emotions while avoiding missteps that could have a negative impact on your brand.

Quantitative research can help you put numbers and nuance behind each of these areas to identify where you can improve your ads.

Finished ads

Once you have a finished ad, you still want to understand if it engages people, connects with the brand, conveys desired associations, etc. — so you can lean on the same type of insights you used with your unfinished ad.

But in this case, you don’t have as many opportunities to improve the ad if you find one of these areas is lacking.

If you’ve leveraged human insights throughout your process, you shouldn’t learn anything surprising at this stage — you should simply validate what you already know. But you can still make a big impact by changing music or voice overs, making cuts to slower parts or editing calls to action at the end — so don’t get discouraged if you get negative feedback on your finished ad.

Final thoughts

There are many different people involved in putting together a great ad campaign, each with their own opinions about what will resonate with the audience. Human insight gives you a way to test things out, optimize and learn as you go — so your idea gets bigger and better over time. And if something doesn't work, you know exactly why and only have to go back one step rather than back to the drawing board.

The idea is that when you get feedback on your idea throughout the process, you will feel confident your ad will be a hit by the time it’s done!

Learn how Zappi can help you with ad development