At least on one reading, the creative heart of the advertising industry was recently knifed; violently, and by one of its own.
The Guardian ran a piece on the results of a two-year study undertaken by neuroscientists at the University of Utah who — shock horror — have come to the conclusion that the right-brain/left-brain dichotomy that has underpinned so much of agency-land for more than half a century is no more than a myth.
Having scanned the brains of 1000 different people, Professor Jeff Anderson, the study’s lead author, said that not only had the ‘neuroscience community…never accepted the idea of ‘left-dominant’ or ‘right-dominant’ personality types’ but also that: “it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.”
For those who are interested in the science, it’s all set out in the journal Plos One, but — on a practical level — where does this leave Bill Bernbach’s classic creative team?
According to the received wisdom, this was all about marrying the left-brain, iterative ability of copywriters with the instantaneous, right-brain flair of art directors. However, if the scientists of the Beehive State are to be believed, this is a gross oversimplification.
But probably only that, because the issue is not that there aren’t different types of thinking. We know that there are.
Nietszche famously identified what he called ‘Dionysian’ thinking or creativity on the one hand, and ‘Apollonian’ creativity on the other. Dionyisan creativity, or thought, is that flash-of-insight, the three-drinks-in (and it is no accident that Nietszche relied on the Greek god of booze to make his point here) ‘Eureka!’ moment.
But of course, in and of itself, in isolation, Dionysian thought is pretty useless. Because we know that without the hard yakker, the honing, the polishing, of that wine-inspired moment, we don’t, to borrow from the brilliant Bob Hoffman, have an ad, we have an idea. And ideas alone, whatever the politicians might think, don’t get the baby bathed.
Therefore, according to Nietszche at least, there is a second type of creativity, or work: the labour of love, the hard graft, the elbow grease, the midnight oil, the harsh realism of practicality, of perfection. Apollo, the god of the sun, is the perfect emblem of this type of work or thinking. He is the sober, cold light of day that reminds us that no matter how ‘inspired’ last night’s conversation in the pub, we’ve now actually got to something about it.
If Dionysian creativity was JK Rowling’s sudden, delayed-train-inspired thought about a boy attending wizard school, Apollonian creativity was all the penniless days, weeks, months spent writing, honing and perfecting The Philosopher’s Stone in dingy cafes.
Great work needs both.
And that’s not just great work in the arts, by the way. The work of the distinguished American physicist Thomas Kuhn suggests that science develops along very similar lines. Every now and then, according to Kuhn, someone has a truly transformative idea; think Newton as the apple landed on his head, Copernicus when he realized that the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. The resultant paradigm shift (and he was really the first to bring that now achingly overused phrase into the common lexicon) is then verified, peer-reviewed, honed, perfected and brought into common, everyday usage until it, in turn, is exploded by a new flash of insight that turns the world upside down.
In drawing on these human truths, Bernbach’s genius is undeniable — and unaltered by the research completed in Utah. Yes, his mechanism might have started to look a little démodé, based as it was on the ‘science’ of the time. But in recognizing and harnessing these different types of thought and creativity, he was able to bring together people who, as one unit, were far more than the mere sum of their parts. As a result, DDB enjoyed a significant competitive edge which led to what was, arguably, one of the greatest blossomings of creative output that our industry has ever seen.
Today, our job must be to understand what these different types of thought might mean for our industry now. We need to develop structures, teams, partnerships, whole agencies that reflect the marrying of these two types of thinking.
The right-brain/left-brain dichotomy may be dead. But Bernbachism most certainly is not.
We just need to reinvent it for the modern age.
Nick Jefferson is the managing director of gyro London.
Follow Nick @nickjefferson