Wood urges advertisers to think differently

John Fanning on Look Out, Orlando Wood’s new book which claims to be the advertising guide for a world turning inwards

Reviewing Orlando Wood’s Lemon for www.marketing.ie in April 2020, I recommended that everyone should familiarise themselves with the book’s thesis. Wood has now published a sequel piece of work, Look Out, (IPA 2022) and once again I believe this to be an extremely valuable contribution to how marketing communications can be made more effective in these turbulent times.

Lemon was based on Dr Iain McGilchrist’s masterly and rather lengthy study of the different characteristics of the left and right sides of the human brain; The Master and his Emissary (2009). McGilchrist’s foremost contention was that the two sides of the brain not only do different things but that they do things differently. The left brain is ‘analytical’ and the right brain ‘creative’.

From a marketing communications perspective, the left side of the brain responds better to short, sharp messages, highly rhythmic soundtracks, constant repetition, monologue and adjectives used as nouns. By contrast, McGilchrist contended, the right side of the brain is more receptive to dialogue, melodic music, clear sense of storyline and distinctive accents and play on words.

Using classic art as a metaphor: Look Out author Orlando Wood says adland has not always done the best job in its continual fight for efficacy. Some of the world’s best known paintings were characterised by a stare, a fixed gaze and a sense of detachment. Wood says that the stare is again evident today with empty smiles in ads like the award-winning Volvo campaign with Jean-Claude Van Damme, barren landscapes and a rigidity instead of an embrace.

Readers familiar with the work of Les Binet, Peter Field and Byron Sharp will see all too clearly where this is leading; the left brain favours short-term, one-night-stand promotional messages while long-term brand-building campaigns require the attention of the brain’s right side.

Wood’s analysis was both enlightening and depressing; enlightening because it provided a more concrete explanation for the rise of short-term marketing communications; depressing because it suggested that it wasn’t just our little world was adversely affected by the dominance of left brain thinking it was the whole world including music, art, film and literature.

We had assumed that the decline in advertising effectiveness, as chronicled by Binet and Field for the IPA, was due to a combination of advertisers excessively narrow focus on short-term results and their declining understanding of and faith in how to build long-term brands.

By recounting the ebb and flow of left brain and right brain dominance over the centuries, Wood was able to show that the problem was more serious, that society in general was becoming more inward-looking resulting in more repetition, standardisation and avoidance of risk. In Look Out, Wood revisits his earlier analysis and provides new examples to make his case.


He now concentrates more on the inward gaze; how society has become more concentrated on the self, leading to a loss of vitality and confidence. The author argues that the digital age has accentuated these developments by making us more transactional in our dealings with others.

It leads to a marketing communications response which tries to over-compensate by a desire to shock and mock, unsettling visual effects and a general tendency towards sensationalism. The author recommends a return to storytelling, humour, characters with personality and engaging dialogue. It would enhance the value of brands by making them more distinctive and desirable.

In many ways Wood’s latest account of how the different sides of the brain affect our reaction to marketing communications does not advance the original thesis all that much but it deepens our knowledge of the world in which we now operate and is well illustrated with a wealth of new case histories and insightful comments from art history which make it compulsive reading.

Author Orlando Wood with Margaret Gilsenan, chief strategy officer, Boys+Girls 

On reading Lemon, I was immediately struck by how well he had outlined the difficulties we face in making the case for long-term brand-building work but the new volume made me think of how he has given us a better understanding of society today and therefore a better basis for creating more imaginative work which is capable of attracting people’s attention and interest.

We are inhabiting a world of disillusionment and bewilderment from weakening global institutions to increasingly antagonistic domestic politics, from the power and continual surveillance of the tech monopolists to the widening gap between rich and poor. The better we understand these new realities the better we can communicate with our target audiences.

A close reading of both books provides not only inspiration but all kinds of practical methods of getting under the skin of target audiences. Wood also makes the valid point that businesses grow by acquiring new customers and that brand-building needs to be interesting to people.

They may not yet know anything about your brand, or even your whole category, and that the claims of precision targeting by digital platforms may be inhibiting growth. Look Out ends on a positive note. Orlando sees signs for a return to more right-brained advertising being on the cards.

Let’s hope so.     

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School; john.fanning44@gmail.com



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