Earlier this month I went to the APG Strategy Conference: On the Contrary which sought to bring together speakers on ‘the power of contrarian thinking to challenge convention’. Rather surprisingly they all came with one very similar observation, writes Clémence Lépinard, Strategist at BBH London.

That observation?

If you think you know people, if you think you know your consumers, and if you think your opinion, intuition or gut feeling can be the foundation of a good strategy, you are wrong.

Think about it. When was the last time you met with consumers and listened instead of asking? When was the last time you bought your product the way anybody else around the world would? When was the last time you built a deceptively average persona whose wildest ambition is to navigate their sea of incertitude, hoping to make the best decision they can with the little information they have?

Despite this ironic consensus, each speaker had a unique and powerful perspective on this issue that made for a thought provoking conference;

1. Nick Chater: the choices we make follow patterns. In the words of Professor of Behavioural Science Nick Chater “the mind is flat”, so don’t waste your time and resources trying to explore what goes on below the surface. To understand how your consumers make choices, focus on what you can see and identify patterns.

2. Tor Garnett: understand the cause rather than the effect. Tor Garnett founded Police Now on the idea that you need to diagnose a problem clearly to do something about it, and that diversity is a blessing. To diagnose your problem: go on the field, and bring someone with you. Take your time to discuss, challenge, and confront ideas.

3. Nils Leonard: connect with real people in the real world. Really knowing your audience is the first step towards designing anything that can solve a problem, meet a need, react to a tension, bring happiness or entertain, says the man out there building “brands that people in the real world actually wish existed”.

4. Clive Stafford Smith: give people a voice. Clive Stafford Smith’s whole profession (and dare I say purpose) revolves around uncovering people’s true story, exposing it and giving them a voice. Be more like Clive: look for what’s hidden, ask what wasn’t asked and wonder why it wasn’t. Question what was said and use what was ignored.

5. Margaret Heffernan: look for the missing piece. Resist wilful blindness by stress testing your ideas with people you don’t necessarily agree with and by always assuming there is something more to what people let you in on. Look for the missing piece both where you think it should be and where you are convinced it is not.

6. Mark Ritson: become a vacuum. Mark Ritson reminded us of the first rule of marketing: “when you sign your employment contract you leave something behind – the world of the customer”. Our perceptions of brands and consumers – how they think, choose, buy, consume media- are biased and untrustworthy. “Your personal opinion about your brand is not just incorrect” he says, “it is dangerous”.

7. Martin Weigel: stop relying on your intuitions to build strategies. Forget consumer safaris and start listening to people instead. Make them talk about what matters to them, spend time with them without any expectation or prejudice. Burn down labels, read a book, flirt with truths and reality, get out more, and restore the link we have severed between marketing and consumers.

So what does this mean for advertising?

Hopefully it’s a loud and clear wake up call to put in much more effort to understand consumers, starting by grounding our thinking in neutrality instead of what we think the answer should be.