Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student an old fish in a tin pan. There was only one instruction: ‘Look at your fish’. 


Agassiz checked in with students each day to ask what they had seen. Often not much. The instructions didn’t change: ‘Look at your fish’. This went on for days. As the historian and biographer David McCullough (who keeps the phrase ‘Look at your fish’ on the wall above his desk) explains: 

‘Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the ‘ordeal with the fish.’ After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, ‘Look at your fish’.’

This is an important lesson for writers and researchers of all stripes. At AIA Worldwide, this is how we introduce new recruits to the practice of research. Whenever we start trying to understand a new job type, or a new organisation, we want to keep looking at the thing itself. We treat it like a kaleidoscope. Everything we need to know is there in front of us; we just need to keep looking at it from different angles.

It’s often said that good planning (the use of research to set a creative brief or define a brand) results in a revelation. People don’t want mundane insights; they want epiphanies. All well and good. But true revelation, (literally the revealing of god to man), often only comes once to every life. While we should be trying to find a compelling new angle, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that ‘epiphanies’ are often sitting in front of us. If you go hunting for revelations, you might miss the discovery that’s hidden in plain sight in front of you. 

As McCullough says:

‘Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.’     

One recent project was like this. As is often the case with good research, the results weren’t news. Thankfully, we hadn’t discovered anything unexpected. But after a hundred separate qualitative research reports were coded and analysed, after we’d trawled tens of quantitative surveys, been to a dozen countries, spoken to people at all levels, sat in the lobby of HQ week after week watching people come and go, spoken to leaders, recruiters, receptionists and alumni, and spent two days in the corporate archive, we had looked at the fish. And looked. And looked. And looked.

And then we got our angle.

And it wasn’t news. But it wasn’t old news either. It was the first time it had all been written down, backed up by research, organised and structured and expressed properly. And now, for the first time, this company has rules for talking about themselves as an employer. They have a defined identity, not just a sense of their identity. It was the first time they had come to an agreed balanced position that covered the credibility of the brand, the emotions of the audience, the reality of the jobs. They will be more consistent, more propositional, more targeted in their employment marketing. And there was no revelation. Just a lot of people looking at a fish.