The Value of Whole-Brain Thinking
By Mike Carlton

Great ideas are not enough
Marketing by the numbers is upon us

A Couple of Days in Utah

Many years ago, in Salt Lake City, I attended a three day seminar on right-brain/left-brain thinking. It was a real eye-opener.

Some weeks before the meeting each of the attendees – most of whom did not know each other – was asked to complete an extensive psychological test. As I recall, it took me a number of hours to do it. It was so comprehensive, and I thought somewhat invasive, that when I was done I felt almost naked. Then I sent it off to the meeting organizer. By the time the meeting rolled around I had pretty much forgotten about it.

A Normal Start

The meeting itself started very much like most seminars. Some introductory stuff. Then a few lectures on the subject by learned psychologists. It was all mildly interesting. But not very exciting. Maybe we’d ask a few questions now and then. But nothing very intellectually challenging. We were sort of like uninvolved observers. Attentive, but not really engaged.

I was settling in for a couple of passive days of listening and note taking. And starting to question if it was even worth my time to be there.

Then the Surprise

Suddenly, we departed from the agenda. The meeting leader announced that we would be breaking up into a series of pre-assigned teams, each given a small project to complete within an hour. And then at the end of the hour we would all switch teams and get new projects to do.

This was a refreshing change. The projects were not very serious. Some seemed almost silly. But they were quite challenging.

The first team I was on was an enormous amount of fun. Great people with bright minds. We thoroughly enjoyed each other. Some really neat ideas surfaced. Including some downright outrageous ones. We told stories. We laughed a lot. But, we never accomplished the assignment.

Enjoyable, but no results.

Then, to my amazement, the second team was as frustrating as the first team was fun. Right from the start we just didn’t hit it off. It was like we were all speaking different languages. And we couldn’t even agree on how to begin addressing our task.

And so, we didn’t finish it, either. No fun. And, still no results.

The third team was different, again. Very interesting people. With quite different points of view. And very different ways of thinking about our task. We clearly were not the same. But remarkably, we addressed our assignment quickly, and quite effectively. We worked well together. And at the end of the hour, we were all quite proud of our collective solution.

Enjoyable and successful, too!

An Epiphany

By now it was clear that the meeting leader was manipulating us.

She had our psychological profiles. And she assembled each team based on those profiles. She knew how each of us thought. How we processed information. How we interacted with others. And how we arrived at decisions.

She knew what our brains were like and how they worked. And she was mixing and matching right-brainers and left-brainers in different ways for different results.

Knowing all the while that the outcomes from fun to frustration to success were quite predictable. She was controlling function and dysfunction.

This was a revelation. At least to me. She then handed out our individual profiles and for the remainder of the meeting helped us not only understand ourselves, but also how the brain patterns of others influence our relations with them. And our success in working with them.

And ultimately how building teams with complementary brain strengths effects outcomes. How inclusion triumphs over exclusion.

I was amazed. In a couple of hours she had demonstrated the power of whole-brain thinking. And its importance, no rather its absolute necessity, to successful agencies.

A Step Back

Before proceeding, it might make sense to review some basics of left-brain/right-brain concepts.

For almost everyone, one side of the brain dominates the other. This is natural and normal. And probably has its origins in our DNA. And each side of the brain has a different way of thinking.

The way each of us perceives and assimilates information, processes that information and then makes decisions is largely influenced by the way the dominant side of our brain works. And that controls, or at least heavily influences, our entire thinking process.

Here’s how Wikipedia contrasts the two brain hemispheres:

linear algorithmic processing
mathematics: perception of counting/measurement
present and past
language: grammar/words, pattern
perception, literal

holistical algorithmic processing
mathematics: Perception of shapes/motions
present and future
language: intonation/emphasis, prosody
pragmatic, contextual

Right vs. Left

We must remember that there is no good or bad here. Just different. For some tasks right-brain thinking is most suited. For other tasks left-brain thinking works best. That’s just the way it is.

However, each of us is most naturally attracted to people with like thinking patterns. This too is natural. Our understanding and empathy is higher with people like ourselves. It is easier to be around them. It is also easier, and usually more natural, to work with them. This is also just the way it is.

However, as the Salt Lake City seminar demonstrated, too many right-brainers together or too many left-brainers together is usually not most productive. That is also just the way it is.

The best chance for success is when teams or organizations are populated with both. And mutual respect abides.

This leads to whole-brain thinking. And whole-brain solutions.

An Agency Tradition

I’m a right-brainer. And I thoroughly enjoy being around other right-brainers. They’re fun. And if I didn’t know better I would probably avoid left-brainers.

Most agencies are heavily populated with right-brainers. This of course makes sense. Values like simultaneous, holistic, imagistic, intuitive, futuristic, contextual, are fundamental to the creative process. The generation of big ideas and the ways to communicate them come most naturally to right-brainers.

Yet the implementation and management of those big ideas usually needs left-brainers, too. And the sequential, analytical, logical, linear values they bring to the mix. Without the left-brainers an agency can have a lot of fun but make colossal mistakes and end up going broke.

However, the glory and the driving force of many agencies often reside with right-brainers. Thus, it is not unusual for an agency to be right-brain biased. Just as it is not unusual for accounting firms to be left-brain biased.

And this agency right-brain bias has historically worked ok.

Marketer Shift

But things are changing. The pendulum is swinging to the left.

Academia and a chorus of consultants are preaching left-brain marketing. Forrester Research and other highly regarded business oracles are espousing a fundamental change in how marketing success is to be achieved and measured. They are calling for a significant move to left-brain thinking.

Marketing by the numbers is upon us.

Corporate pressure is on marketing. CMOs are feeling intense heat. In fact, the life expectancy of the typical CMO is now hovering around just a few years. Far too short a time to build long-term brand value. Management wants tangible, measurable results. And it wants those results now.

ROI has become the mantra of the corporate world. ROI that must come fast.

Marketing accountability is in its ascendancy. The fundamental fact is, like it or not, that accountability is usually measured in numbers. Numbers that are the currency of left-brainers.

And agencies that want to work with left-brain clients must be able to speak their language.


Now, we need to be careful here. At its core, marketing is about behavior modification. Ultimately marketing is charged with changing the behavior of people in the marketplace. So that they act in ways that benefit themselves, the marketer and society.

Change in consumer behavior is the end result that marketers are paying for.

But these behavioral changes are rooted in human psychology. Something far too complex to be reduced to a mathematical formula.

And stimulating these subtle behavioral changes is the stock in trade of advertising agencies. It is what advertising is really all about. Based on creativity that is driven more by intuition than by numbers. Driven more by feel than by fact.

That being said, while creative intuition is needed today more than ever, it alone is not enough.

Linking the Two

There is an old saying that the two most important academic subjects to study if you want to succeed in advertising are psychology and statistics.

On the surface these appear to be strange bedfellows. Yet the marriage of the two makes perfect sense.

Psychology, which is primarily right-brain, helps guide us in understanding how people think, respond and behave. And how to motivate them to change behaviors.

And statistics, which is primarily left-brain, helps us to understand the probability of message and media relevance to that audience; and the likelihood of the desired change taking place. The odds on accomplishing the objective.

While it may not have been articulated in quite this way a review of advertising greats reveals that they keenly calculated the odds of behavioral change by carefully balancing the psychology of the medium and message with the statistics of probable results. Results that were measured in numbers.

Great Ideas Are Not Enough

Survivors adapt to change.

And marketers are surely changing. They want more than great ideas. They want marketing accountability, too. And agencies that want to survive must deliver that marketing accountability.

And while great ideas alone are not enough; number facility alone is not enough, either. It takes a skillful blend of both.

That means making your tent big enough. Expanding the brain width of your agency. Making it home to a wider range of brain types.

It means bringing in mathematicians. Statisticians. Marketing accountants. People with left-brain tendencies. People who can gather and interpret the numbers. People who can communicate easily with left-brain clients.

And people who can understand and appreciate the value of big ideas, too. People who can work effectively and happily with right-brain agency folks.

All in an agency culture that consistently celebrates the contribution of both right-brainers and left-brainers.

The Whole-Brain Agency

Remember the lessons from the seminar in Utah. The best work was done when there was the right balance between left-brain and right-brain people. In an environment of mutual respect.

An environment in which the differences were valued and supported. And celebrated.

Clients need help solving vexing marketing business problems. But they want them solved on their terms. Together your left-brainers and right-brainers can work as a whole-brain. Making a major contribution in helping solve those problems.

And in today’s business climate if the numbers are right, great intuitive advertising ideas can really soar.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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