The whole-brained CMO

Ben Hart

Right-brained or left-brained? Creative or analytical? With the increasing demands on the CMO in today’s digital environment, it’s increasingly being argued that a whole-brained approach is the only way forward. After all, both left-brained and right-brained marketers are feeling pretty uncomfortable at the moment. Here’s the problem:

  • Right-brained – Naturally creative, happy to design experiences that engage customers but less comfortable taking on the full mantle of technology and data analysis.
  • Left-brained – Analytical and data-driven, able to master technology to deliver value to customers, less able to create personalised experiences that delight them.

Today, all this needs to happen with the CMO. They’re being expected to walk a line between creative visionaries and research analysts. But is it realistic to demand this blended set of competencies from one person? Could it do more harm than good? Atmosphere have been looking at the arguments on both sides.

In favour of the whole-brained CMO

To drive digital transformation, a balanced mix of left and right brain will be essential. Failing to grasp the nettle of whole-brained thinking could risk organisational growth and further, may be personally risky to CMOs.

In their 2017 Predictions: Dynamics that will shape the future in the age of the customer, Forester predict that CEOs will exit at least 30% of their CMOs as a direct result of this issue. These left/right thinkers will be replaced by the whole-brainers - those who can design exceptional customer experiences and, at the same time, leverage the data-driven analysis of live feedback from the marketplace.

In the wider sense, fast-growing organisations are moving to shorter creative cycles informed by frequent testing, analysis and revision. As a result, their marketing is more engaging, better targeted and more agile. Using both right and left brain allows for a harmonious blend of art and data - the perfect combination for marketing. Emphasis on data spurs clear strategy and insight, artistry captures attention and drives change.

Today’s CMOs must understand the customer- knowing what they’ll do before they do it, listening to and reaching customers across multiple channels. There is opportunity in predictive analysis, in robust demographic and behavioural data and, equally, in the kind of information that can’t quite be captured in Os and 1s – the unexpected, idiosyncratic ways in which people experience a product or service. The key to understanding is the correct balance of left- and right-brained thinking. Rather than upsetting this balance, technology and analysis can facilitate creativity, quick-thinking and agile processes.

So what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t whole-brained CMOs become the competency standard for all organisations looking to propel growth?

The argument against…

Demanding the ideal balance of left and right-brained thinking in one person is unrealistic. Rather than expecting individual CMOs to become a Jack of all trades, marketing as a whole needs to integrate both approaches into the production cycle.

Marketing is a diverse multidiscipline and should remain so. Why should brilliantly creative people be forced to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable and inadequate? Their brains just don’t work that way. By the same token, why should valuably productive analysts be expected to excel at creative thinking? Asking them to do so risks setting up both groups to fail.

As Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line Group says in a recent issue of Marketing Week:  

Let people be the best they can be, and appreciate that there is diversity of thinking… The notion of innovation from the edges is what we need to pursue, both from a right and left brain point of view.”    

There is no reason to voluntarily constrain the latitude and diversity of thought. By supporting individuals on both sides of the spectrum, and embracing the extremes at either end, highly specialised skills can be delivered that are perhaps outside the natural abilities of the whole-brained thinker.

Isolating the two groups in marketing silos – creatives on one side, analysts on the other – has led to the prime movers of failed marketing programs: either long-cycle campaigns bookended with inadequate testing, or `analysis paralysis’ brought on by over-reliance on data.  One whole-brained individual cannot provide a solution. Instead, project leaders should co-locate analytic teams with their creative counterparts to work on multiple campaigns over time. These teams can provide the perfect whole-brained marriage of iterative testing and data-analysis with the creative insight that is essential to drive growth.

What do we think?

Today’s CMO has a lot on their plate. They’re expected to be leaders, visionaries, storytellers – and now data collectors and analysers too.

There is no doubt that the infusion of data presents a huge opportunity to improve marketing performance. Marketing requires technology. Putting it to good use, however, is a whole different scenario. In our opinion, there is no cookie-cutter solution because each organisation will have their own set of requirements. Some will thrive with an injection of right-brained talent, others will profit from plugging into left-brained thinking. Most, we think, will flourish with a well-balanced team of both.

The pace of change is fast. While tomorrow’s CMO will always need think ahead of the curve, surely the key to bolstering marketing performance is empowering people – supporting innate yet diverse skills and abilities as well as providing the framework for learning and adapting.

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