Stay Creative, My Friends
by Ernie Schenck
Arguably, one of the most successful campaigns of the last few years has been “The Most Interesting Man In The World” for Dos Equis. There is seemingly nothing the dude can’t do. He’s good at everything. A jack of all trades. A chameleon with a beard and a bottle of beer, able to adapt to virtually any situation he’s thrown into.
As it turns out, Dos Equis might have unknowingly given us all a lesson in the concept of domain dependence and why creatives should avoid it like the plague.
Domain dependence is being good at what you do in one setting, but completely and utterly unable to transfer that ability to another setting.
A cheetah is a deadly and effective predator when he can use his speed to run down prey on the wide-open African savannah, but put him in the Brazilian rainforest, with its dense tangles of foliage, and he’s probably going to go to bed hungry more nights than not.
You would think that if someone is a brilliant mathematician, she’s a brilliant mathematician. You’d think it wouldn’t matter if she’s in Harvard, NASA or a grade school in Texas. But a recent experiment shows that you’d be thinking wrong.
You probably remember problems like this one from when you took high school math. A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. So the ball costs 10 cents, right?
Well, not actually. If the ball is 10 cents, then the total comes to $1.20. Ten cents for the ball, $1.10 for the bat. So the right answer is the ball costs 5 cents.
But here’s the weird part. When this problem was given to a group of Harvard, Princeton and MIT students, over half of them got it wrong. That’s right. For the same kids who crushed the SAT’s so bad, the test proctors had to bring in the jaws of life.
This is domain dominance. These are brilliant math students. As long as they’re solving the Gaussian Moat or Poincaré Conjecture. Put them back in middle school and hoo boy, can you say constipated?
The creative mind doesn’t work like this. The creative mind has the ability to migrate from one realm to another without even thinking about it. It’s what allows us to connect this dot with that dot. Alpha with omega. Black with white. Geicos with insurance. Aaron Burr with milk. God with pickup trucks.
So as advertising creatives, our minds are different. Unlike those math students, most of us seem to have fundamentally different wiring that lets us move back and forth between otherwise disparate realms that bear no apparent relationship to each other.
But is it possible that there might be ways to amplify that ability? Can a talent for advertising creativity translate into a talent for musical creativity or sculpting creativity? If you’re an amazing advertising writer, can you be an equally amazing author or screenwriter or playwright? If you’re a brilliant art director, can you be an equally brilliant painter or photographer? Maybe and maybe not.
But here’s the real question. What happens when you bring that talent back home? Can the experience of having jumped the fence make you an even more creative ad person?
Before he wrote Deliverance, author James Dickey was a successful advertising creative with a number of agencies in Atlanta. Although he once said that he felt like he was selling his soul to the devil, there is little doubt that both careers benefitted from each other. It’s been suggested that Deliverance might never have happened if it hadn’t been for the aforementioned devil, nor would Dickey’s success as an ad creative have happened without Deliverance.
Leonard Cohen never worked in advertising. But the restless Canadian singer-songwriter, widely regarded as only slightly less influential than Paul Simon, found himself writing poetry and novels as much as songs. I don’t know if his foray into literature made him a better songwriter, but he did get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Would it have happened anyway? Maybe. But maybe pushing his talent into a different territory had something to do with it.
Maybe it’s time you pulled a Most Interesting Man In The World and pushed yours. ca