Bridging the Great Divide in Marketing Thinking

How CMOs and Agencies Are Bringing Together Business-School Basics With Creative Dream Schemes

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It's a divide and a dilemma as old as modern marketing: How do chief marketing officers get the classically trained marketing executives at clients to communicate effectively with the creative types at agencies? Everyone understands the best campaigns result from a meshing of the minds. But often there is a disconnect between advertisers' left-brained thinkers and the right-brained specialists they hire.
Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Someday, an ethnographer may help pitch an account or with a product during the 'fuzzy' part of development.

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More CMOs and their agencies now are hitting that obstacle head-on because they recognize how crucial it is to eliminate it, and they're employing tools ranging from gap-bridging personnel strategies, to curricula specifically designed to get the two sides to think alike long enough to assemble the optimum campaign.

"You need to get executives on both sides to recognize that both emotion and logic are key in good advertising," says Dan Stiff, president of marketing consultancy Leadership Performance Development. "You need to get both parties to connect on both sides of their brains."

Strategy vs. creativity
No one disputes that this gap long has existed or that it persists. Seventy percent of CMOs said strategic thinking is the most important criterion for the success of a marketing executive, according to a recent survey by Forrester Research; other left-brain skills, such as quantitative analysis and business acumen, also ranked high. But only 10% of CMOs identified creativity as the most crucial skill, ranking it last.

"There is an absolute schism," says Jim Schroer, president-CEO of Minneapolis agency Carlson Marketing and former CMO of DaimlerChrysler. "Folks on the client side tend to have MBAs from Kellogg, or wherever, and be very smart and analytical. People on the agency side tend to have design degrees or journalism degrees and live, breathe and die for attending and winning at the Cannes Film Festival. It's just a very different set of skills."
Jim Schroer, Carlson Marketing
Jim Schroer, Carlson Marketing

While at Chrysler, Mr. Schroer took the initiative to make sure right-brainers at agency BBDO, based in Detroit, embraced the automaker's objectives. Mr. Schroer applied Six Sigma analysis -- a favorite domain of left-brainers -- to determine the factors that really made for effective marketing communication, including whether it drives watercooler conversation and whether it creates a "bragging right" for customers.

Then he gave the list to Bill Morden, BBDO's chief creative officer. "We said, 'You can be as creative as you want to be, but you have to deliver all of these things,'" Mr. Schroer recalls. The result: campaigns, including the Hemi engine effort, that were some of the most memorable in recent industry history and that helped give Chrysler a great run from 2003 through 2005.

What 'exciting' means
Clients and agencies owe it to their mutual success to apply systematic, left-brain thinking to the right-brain creative process. "If the client wants something 'exciting,' you need to quiz one another about what 'exciting' means," says Lynne Hambleton, a business consultant and co-author of the book, "Six Sigma for Marketing Processes: An Overview for Marketing Executives, Leaders and Managers." "Otherwise you can see a lot of time burned up on both sides of the house with nothing to show for it at the end."

Agencies can avoid this by bridging the gap internally. Donat Wald partners Amir Haque, a Yale M.B.A., and Lucas Donat "start with financial modeling of a client before we even attempt strategic and creative solutions," says Mr. Donat. "Ultimately, our work is accountable to those numbers." is a client of the Santa Monica, Calif., agency. And Neil Clark Warren, the psychologist and statistician who founded the matchmaking website, appreciates their left-brained approach. "Yet he's a very emotional person, and his advertising ultimately is more emotional than most other advertising out there," Mr. Donat says.
Erin Patton, Mastermind Group
Erin Patton, Mastermind Group

Strategy dragnet
Erin Patton learned the power of right-brain thinking while CMO for the Air Jordan brand at Nike. But he's also a Southern Methodist University M.B.A. So he was ready to deliver when Steve & Barry's, a discount sports-retailing chain, was looking for an agency to launch a low-price sneaker and apparel brand endorsed by New York Knicks star Stephon Marbury.

"I understood that everything in their business is based on ROI, and that would be especially true with a $14.98 sneaker in a business where early adopters are willing to shell out $200 a pair," says Mr. Patton, now principal of the Mastermind Group, in New York. "But we knew we couldn't rely on a big brand bomb. We knew that every dollar we spent had to translate into customer acquisition or retention."

Steve & Barry's Howard Schacter agrees with Patton's self-assessment. "We had our execution capabilities in pretty good order," says the chief partnership officer for the Port Washington, N.Y., retailer. "What we really required was an understanding of that audience and [the sneaker] business, and that's what Erin brought to the table -- as well as creative capabilities that could supplement our own."
Howard Schacter, Steve & Barry's
Howard Schacter, Steve & Barry's

Communication and indoctrination
At the same time, effective communication and even indoctrination also can overcome the divides that complicate many client-agency relationships. Siemens Home Appliances, for example, makes sure that its agencies understand overall strategy for the parent of upscale appliance brands such as Thermidor.

"We want them to have as clear a picture of our strategic situation as possible so that they know heading into a project the limits within which creativity can play," says Michael Bohn, director of brand marketing for the U.S. arm of Siemens, the German conglomerate. "It should make it easier to come up with creative ideas, because you're not allowing the entire world of possible ways to sell a home appliance to be presented."

Kohnke Hanneken is a small Milwaukee agency with a strategic-planning division whose principals recognized the problem of the left-brain, right-brain chasm a few years ago and systematically attacked it as they developed new clients.
Michael Bohn, Siemens
Michael Bohn, Siemens
They crafted a mini-course -- a strategic-marketing planning process based on "brand DNA" and other principles of David Aaker, vice chairman of Prophet, a branding consultancy, and author of books including "Building Strong Brands" -- for top executives and marketing staffers to take along with agency people. Such a dragnet ensures that the variety of thinking types within the client as well as the agency are all brought along.

Organic understanding
Over the course of one to three days, "everyone develops the same organic understanding of what it means to be this brand and why it's relevant to someone and how you build on the equities that it has," says Denise Kohnke, president and managing partner of Kohnke Hanneken. The agency used the course when it took the job of recasting GHX as the brand for complete handling of hospitals' supply-chain needs, now that the Westminster, Colo., company has emerged on top of the consolidating industry.

"Each step built on the previous step, and you gained a little more insight with each one into our business and products," says Cheryl Flury, CMO of GHX. "Then we took a similar presentation and crossed all the different facets of our organization to make sure people can relate the work they do to the corporate messages that resulted from the rebranding." Namely: GHX is helping hospitals with overall management of supply chains, beyond its initial business model of facilitating only e-commerce.

Mike Love says that Kohnke Hanneken's brain-bridging exercise was crucial in creating Nurture, the new Steelcase health-care-industry brand of which he is president. "Some agencies will just say, 'Let me show you brochures,'" he says. "But this strategy showed me that [the agency] understands the challenges in marketing health care the way we do."

Dale Buss is a journalist and author based in Rochester Hills, Mich. His work appears in publications including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chief Executive and Advertising Age.
Dale Buss is a journalist and author based in Rochester Hills, Mich. His work appears in publications including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chief Executive and Advertising Age.
CMOs employ other tools to make sure that the left-brainers and right-brainers on their own staffs approach their jobs holistically, sometimes borrowing techniques from HR. Ventana Medical Systems, for example, used a test called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument to sort sales and marketing staff into four basic personality types, each signified by a color.

"It helps communication," says Jim LaFrance, international VP for the Tucson, Ariz., maker of cancer-diagnosis products. "When you understand how each type thinks, everyone can examine a problem or an opportunity from that different perspective to make sure everyone is thinking broadly enough instead of going naturally where their disposition is."
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