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Are You a Left Brainer or a Right Brainer?

Marketing Success Comes From the Right

By Published on . 8

Your brain is divided into two completely separate hemispheres. Each hemisphere processes information differently. Your left hemisphere processes information in series. It thinks in language. It works linearly and methodically. Your right hemisphere processes information in parallel. It thinks in mental images. It "sees" the big picture.

One side of your brain or the other is dominant. In itself, that should not be surprising, since it's consistent with another well-known human trait: Some people are left-handed and some people are right-handed. In a similar fashion, some people are left brainers and some people are right brainers.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

What are you?

If you're the CEO of a major corporation, chances are good you are a left brainer. Before you make a decision, you want to be supported by facts, figures, market data, consumer research. It couldn't be otherwise in a world where the ultimate measurement is the stock price and the bottom line.

If you have a job in marketing, chances are good you are a right brainer. You often make decisions by gut instinct, with little or no supporting evidence. It couldn't be otherwise in a creative discipline like marketing.

Verbal vs. visual
Another striking difference: Left brainers have a strong preference for verbal thinking, while right brainers favor visual thinking. When a management type makes a speech, he or she usually stands behind a podium and reads a script or the words on a teleprompter (or uses PowerPoint slides with nothing but words). When a marketing type makes a speech, he or she usually stands in front of a screen and makes a presentation using dozens of visuals.

Because they are verbally oriented, left-brain people are usually good talkers. Salespeople, for example, are often exceptionally good talkers but notoriously bad at the paperwork or writing part of their jobs.

Right-brain people are usually good writers. Why? Because arranging words on a page is as much a visual challenge as it is a verbal one. In letters and e-mails, for example, right brainers will often arrange the words so that each line contains a complete thought.

Having met many of the creative luminaries of the "Mad Men" era, I was amazed at the time how conspicuously "nonverbal" most of them were in ordinary conversation -- David Ogilvy in particular. As Ken Roman writes in his book "The King of Madison Avenue," "In conversation, if he agreed, he would nod. If he disagreed, nothing. But he'd go back to his office and write a memo -- often fierce, sometimes vicious. Ferocious in writing, he tended to be cowardly in person."

Managers vs. entrepreneurs
Most managers in America are verbally oriented left brainers. Why is this so? Because of the way people move up the ladder in the corporate world. The general principle is: You don't get promoted, you get elected.

Management is like politics. Your fellow workers determine whom they would like to work for. A left brainer is an extrovert, particularly good at schmoozing with people. A right brainer is an introvert, totally outclassed when it comes to office politics. As companies get older and bigger, their upper levels tend to be staffed almost exclusively with left brainers. As a result, the innovators (primarily right brainers) tend to leave or get pushed out.

What saves the situation, as far as the economy is concerned, is entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Herb Kelleher and dozens of others. Entrepreneurs are invariably right brainers who often turn out to be exceptionally good marketing thinkers, too.

Take Steve Jobs, who at one time was fired from Apple. Jobs is a classic right brainer with a intense focus on a product's visual appearance and a disdain for the consumer's opinion. "Steve Jobs doesn't do market research," said venture capitalist and former Apple employee Guy Kawasaki. "Market research for Steve Jobs is the right hemisphere talks to the left hemisphere."

"People don't know what they want," Jobs once said, "until you show it to them."

Once again, what are you? While it would be nice to think you could operate both sides of your brain with equal facility, the facts suggest otherwise.

Ambidexterity vs. 'ambibrainerity'
Take ambidexterity, a condition that is extremely rare. Most people who are thought to be ambidextrous (switch hitters in baseball, for example) are really left-handers who, with a great deal of practice, have taught themselves right-handed skills, or vice versa.

"Ambibrainerity" is also extremely rare. While you can learn to exercise the less-favored half of your brain, working both sides equally is almost impossible. Depending on how you were born, you are going to have to live your life as either a left brainer or a right brainer.

Everyone knows whether they are left-handed or right-handed, but most people have no idea which side of their brain they favor.

Certainty vs. uncertainty
Logical, left-brain leaders often have supreme confidence in their ability to predict the future. Did you know, for example, that all print media, including Advertising Age, are going to be obsolete in just eight years? At least that's what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted in 2007.

"Within 10 years, the consumption of anything we think of as media today, whether it is print, TV or the internet, will in fact be delivered over IP and will be digital," Mr. Ballmer said. "Everything will be delivered digitally. Everything you read, you'll read on a screen."

As I remember, radio was going to make newspapers and magazines obsolete. TV was going to make radio obsolete. And now the internet is going to make everything obsolete? We'll see.

Certainty is the mark of a left brainer, whereas holistic right brainers are never quite sure.

I'm not suggesting a right-brain takeover of corporate America. Frankly, business needs both: logical, analytical left brainers to manage the business and intuitive, holistic right brainers to create the new ideas and concepts that will insure future success.

That means we need more diversity in the boardroom -- not just in gender and race but also in a better balance of left brainers and right brainers.

Reality vs. perception
Management deals in facts and figures, an analytical approach to a problem. Getting to the bottom of the situation is the goal. In short, management deals in reality.

Marketing deals almost exclusively in perception. What matters to marketing people are not the facts of a situation but what's in the minds of consumers, which may or may not correspond with reality. Since perceptions are extremely difficult to measure, marketing people have to use intuitive, holistic thinking.

Management people are aware of perception, of course. The problem is they believe perception is a mirror. It's just a reflection of reality. Change the reality, and you change the perception.

Marketing people disagree. Changing reality is easy. But changing perception is one of the most difficult jobs in the universe.

"This is our surest move ever." That's what a chief executive said before the launch of a new product that could make or break his company. That chief executive was Roberto Goizueta, former CEO of Coca-Cola, who confidently predicted the success of New Coke.

How could it miss? The company conducted 190,000 consumer taste tests that proved conclusively that New Coke tasted better than the original formula. And doesn't the better product win in the marketplace?

The universal answer to that question in the boardrooms of corporate America is: "Yes, of course. That's why we spend millions of dollars benchmarking our competitors. We won't launch a new product until we can develop a clear-cut competitive advantage."

That's reality at work in management circles. That's also why the vast majority of new supermarket and drugstore products are total failures.

Execution vs. strategy
"In real life, strategy is actually very straightforward," wrote Jack Welch. "You pick a general direction and implement like hell."

Most management publications are also focused on execution. Fortune magazine once reported, "Ninety percent of organizations fail to execute on otherwise well-planned strategies."

But if they fail to execute the strategies, how does one determine they were "otherwise well-planned"?

How do marketing people deal with CEOs who have the power to make strategic marketing decisions without the experience only a lifetime of marketing can accumulate? It's not easy.

"Nice presentation, but we'll do it my way," says the typical CEO, "and I'm counting on our marketing team to do a great job executing our new strategy."

Common sense vs. marketing sense
Marketing ideas are conceptually difficult because they contradict common sense. They deal with changing human perceptions, an enormously difficult task. Ask any psychiatrist or psychologist.

Guess who's winning the war in the boardroom. It's not the marketing side of the table; it's the management side. When a company gets into trouble, the solutions are always the same common-sense solutions: Improve the products. Cut the costs. Reduce the prices. Then hold employee meetings and talk about loyalty, enthusiasm and team building.

Also lining up with management on the common-sense side of the table are the lawyers and the accountants. They get along quite well. When management has a legal problem, it turns to its lawyers and invariably takes their advice. When management has an accounting problem, it turns to its CPAs and invariably takes their advice.

When management has a marketing problem, it turns to its marketing people and says, "We'll do it my way, because marketing is just common sense. And no one has more common sense than the CEO, right?"

But common sense doesn't work in business today. The only thing that works in business today is marketing sense.

Battle over? Or has it just begun?
Every year, management dogma is reinforced by some of the most important newspapers, magazines and TV channels in America: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Fox Business.

Seldom, if ever, do these media outlets present the marketing side of the story. Sure, they talk about marketing, but only in management terms: building better products, offering a full line, expanding the brand and especially the application of plain old common sense.

All of these concepts make sense. They just don't make marketing sense.

To sell a marketing concept to management, marketing people should keep this principle in mind: Left-brain management will never understand right-brain marketing. Why should it? Management has many other important things to worry about: production, finance, legal, employee recruitment, government relations.

Dialogue vs. dog and pony show
At one of his first meetings at IBM, Lou Gerstner was listening to a briefing by one of his lieutenants, who was using an overhead projector and transparencies. On the second transparency, Mr. Gerstner reached over, switched off the projector and said, "Let's just talk about your business."

Management is verbal and analytical. Yet most marketing presentations are visual and emotional. They sell creativity when they should be selling logic.

I should know. When I ran an advertising agency, we put enormous efforts into making elaborate, visually oriented slide and flip-chart presentations to sell advertising and marketing concepts. Every client meeting followed the same pattern: a one-hour dog and pony show followed by three or four hours of discussion.

Now I think that was a mistake. The presentations treated the management team as consumers rather than as "strategists." As a result, they reacted as consumers. They gave their approval on the basis of how they felt about the proposed advertising rather than whether or not the strategies were on target. What's interesting to consumers is often deadly dull to a company's managers, who know too much about its products, its markets and its competition.

In our consulting practice, we reverse the procedure. We start with the dialogue, not the dog or the pony. We have three or four hours of discussion before proposing solutions to a company's marketing problems.

What works in marketing today is simplicity, not complexity. But a simple idea can get lost in an overproduced, overdramatized marketing presentation designed to impress management.

A better approach might be to sit down with management and say, "Let's just talk about your business."

~ ~ ~
Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing-strategy firm he runs with his daughter and partner, Laura. They have a simple test at leftrightbrainquiz.com that will help you determine whether you are a left brainer or a right brainer.
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