Over 50 years ago, neurobiologist Roger Sperry theorized that all people have one half of their brain which is more dominant and determines their personality, thoughts and behavior. Sperry’s theory laddered up to the assertion that left brained people were more analytical, logical and detail oriented, whereas right brained people were more creative, free thinking and intuitive.
Sperry’s original research has been called into question, with subsequent studies demonstrating that there is no overall dominant side. However, there is evidence to support the theory that the left and right sides of the brains interpret the world differently.
Building on the work of Dr Iain McGilchrist, Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at System1 surmised: “It’s not that they do different things, as we used to think, it’s more that they do things differently.”
The left brain is more narrowly focused, preferring things to be abstracted and presented without wider context. The right brain has a broader attention, a preference for living things and how they relate to each other.
According to Wood, we’re currently living in a period of ‘left-brain dominance’ in advertising, with fewer displays of human connection, cultural references and emotion evident in ads today (despite these being tied to stronger performance). This is to say, that the perceived golden age of advertising technology is moving us further away from a golden age for advertising creativity.
For the history buffs, Wood argues we are now in a cultural Reformation, a proverbial ‘stripping of the altars’, removed from the creative Renaissance of the latter 20th century.
What does all of this mean for advertisers? How can creativity be brought once again to the forefront of the conversation, while acknowledging that data and technology are here to stay, and can’t be ignored?
Last month Rob Campbell and Martin Weigel ran a re-run of their wildly successful Cannes talk: Strategy is Constipated, Imagination is the Laxative.
The session focused on reclaiming strategy (when done well) as the first creative act. While we have become almost obsessed with creating strategy cheats and hacks, in ever more digestible soundbites, these have committed us to seeing only what’s immediately in front of us. This prevents us from seeing, let alone solving, bigger problems (further evidence of left brain dominance).
The duo argued that we need to remember that strategy is a future creating process, referencing Succession screenwriter Jesse Armstrong. For Armstrong and the Succession writers: “the most exciting idea wins and we work back from there.”
What were their top tips? Firstly, to focus on “Insiders not Outsiders'. Identify people who are passionate and committed to something, be that gardening or street culture. Enthusiasm means these people have the power to evolve categories faster than the categories evolve organically, changing how broader culture looks, acts and lives in the world. Strategists should take note. Secondly, strategists need to get comfortable with sacrifice. Not allowing the context of the times to overshadow where you want to go, and letting the idea reach its full potential.
Their prime example? Boaty McBoatface. While the UK population was quick to jump on the opportunity to clown the UK government, the government missed out on the opportunity to use ‘Boaty McBoatface’ in the fight against climate change, instead scrapping the plan altogether.
With the strategy sorted, attention can turn to ads themselves. Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at System1, recently made his third appearance on the Uncensored CMO podcast with Jon Evans. Wood’s book Lemon: How the advertising brain turned sour, explored the shift towards ‘left-brain’ advertising from 2006.
The shift was precipitated by a number of factors, including the increased pressure put on agencies to create easily repeatable processes, the wider impacts of globalization, and the struggle to get to grips with a new digital world. The end result was a shift towards ‘left-brain’ ads, focused on performance based marketing.
‘Left brain’ ads, forefront the product, and lack characters, narrative and emotion. They assume the viewer is already interested in the product, and that the product’s ‘relevance’ will be sufficient to hold the viewer’s attention. But System1 analysis determined that “the greater the number of left brain features in the ad, the less likely it is to achieve a strong star rating.” To create an emotional response and sustain attention, ads need to appeal to the right brain.
Wood returns to the Renaissance when discussing how to create an ad with ‘right brain’ appeal. ‘Moto e azione’, which describes the emotion expressed through the body and face during an emotional turning point in the action, was the key focus of some of the period’s most celebrated works. This attention to drama and emotion help creative works achieve maximum impact, and while it was frequently employed by British ad agencies in the 1970s and 80s (think Heineken and Hamlet cigars), in recent years its presence has waned.
So called ‘fluent devices’ - repeatedly used characters or human scenarios - have also been superseded by an (almost obsessive) focus on shapes, fonts and logos. But brands need to create living assets to create lasting memories. As Bill Bernbach said: “To succeed an ad (or a person or product for that matter) must establish its own unique personality, or it will never be noticed.”
Creating ‘right brain’ ads is possible. But with a focus on digital tools and data here to stay, how can they be employed to more creative ends? Speaking at DMEXCO last month, Aude Gandon, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Nestlé described marketing as “a blend of science and art”. For Gandon, “The science of the new digital tools, the science of the new data, is in service of the thing we’ve always known and we’ve always done, which is the art of creativity.”
Similarly, in an interview with CreativeX, Bayer’s Chief Marketing and Digital Information Officer Patricia Corsi explained “There is a little bit of science, and a little bit of magic in creativity.”
Brands need to embrace technology for where it could take them, not just what it could optimize. Gandon went on to describe the impact of launching CreativeX technology at Nestle. "It has enabled our brand builders to get completely free from the digital checklist that they were using constantly to make sure that their YouTube content, their Instagram content, their TikTok content, was actually answering the requirements of the individual platform. As a result, we saw a 66% increase in ROAS on Meta."
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