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The Diagonal Brain

Patrick Collister
May 13, 2021

Originally posted on New Digital Age:

In 1981 Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for identifying that the two hemispheres of the brain can work independently.

In essence, the left hemisphere is where logic and organisation reside. The right is more colourful. It’s where there is music and spontaneity.

Left-brained people like making lists. They deal with problems by proceeding in an orderly manner from analysis to answer.

Right-brained people, by contrast, are more intuitive. They leap to conclusions. Not always in the right direction.  

The classic film “The Odd Couple” stars Jack Lemon as a fussy accountant sharing a flat uncomfortably with Walter Matthau, who plays a bumbling, chaotic but brilliant sports journalist.

They discover, to their horror, that they need each other.

A bit like media and creative.

The one can’t exist without the other.

It’s a binary view of the world and it’s not very helpful right now.

In fact, it encourages conflict.

There is an assumption that marketing is a science. Not an art.

You can see manifestations of this gross over-simplification wherever you look.

AI, for instance. Either you’re for it, because it frees us from menial tasks, or you’re against it, because it’s taking jobs.

The tech giants. Either they’re Big Brothers and scary. Or they’ve democratised business, allowing small companies to be noticed and to thrive.

The trade press is full of it: technology has taken over advertising at the expense of creativity.

But, you know what? Maybe it hasn’t?

Maybe there’s a middle ground when you can be both mathman and MadMan.

Where, as a marketer, you can rely on logic in the pursuit of magic.

Maybe you can have a diagonal brain?

Why not?

The IPA in London commissioned a research study into Diagonal Thinking some fifteen years ago.

They found that the best marketers were able to combine different and sometimes contradictory thinking styles. They could combine linear reasoning with lateral speculation.

The IPA’s intention was, I believe, to create Diagonal Thinking tests which would help companies recruit and train the stars of the future.

So why didn’t it catch on?

What happened is marketing got shunted rapidly and dramatically into left-brain mode by the financial crisis.

It’s been there ever since. Along with zero-based budgeting, the invention of a particularly left-brained CFO at the time.  

Media agencies, tracking their clients, took the numbers route. Indeed, Zenith Optimedia has branded themselves the ROI agency.

Personally, I think it’s time for recalibration, a time for diagonal brains.

What’s persuaded me of this is the inexorable rise and rise of programmatic advertising. Despite Covid, the predictions are that advertisers will spend $127 billion on programmatic by the end of 2021.

That’s a lot of money buying a lot of ads. Arguably far too many.

I have no idea how it works, except that it does work.

Bidding and placement take place in a nano second, theoretically in order to serve the right message to the right person in the right place and at the right time.

The diagonally-minded Seth Godin predicted that ads would be personalised, relevant and welcomed.

He got that wrong, didn’t he?

I blame the numbers racket for this.

If you’re a marketer, you can buy a zillion media impressions for comparatively little investment.

Even if you get a lowly 0.05% CTR, which, by the way, happens to be the average across the Google Display Network, then it doesn’t matter about the 99.95% of people you failed to engage.

Human nature being what it is, if you don’t spend much on inventory, you don’t value it much either.

I think that’s the problem with digital. It simply isn’t valued. By anyone.

Evidence for this is the almost complete absence of specifically digital-first ads at creative awards shows.

But I think this is about to change. The deprecation of the cookie is going to come as a shock to the system.

Marketers are going to have to wade into their data to slice and dice their audiences into smaller, more tightly defined groups. This is left-brained thinking, creating personalised messages at scale.

The challenge is going to be in getting the messages noticed.

The numbers reveal an ever-increasing drop-off in average click-through and view-through rates. The exceptions to the rule are the campaigns that are interesting. Which have a creative idea. Which have impact because of right-brain input.

This is Diagonal Thinking for you. Realtime data informing the creative team so they can change and improve their work on the fly; the results persuading the media people that better work is in their interests too; and marketing itself regaining some respect.

Any advice for would-be diagonal brains?

Avoid polarisation. Embrace the middle ground. Grey is a balance between black and white.

Pursue media efficiency and produce more effective campaigns.

Remember, marketing is an art and a science.

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