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“I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep, I know for certain I’m somebody else.” —Bob Dylan

Consider the chameleon. Few species are better able to adapt to their environments. One minute, it’s there. The next, poof, vanished. Gone full B1-stealth-bomber mode. Of course, it only seems that way. The little lizard hasn’t gone anywhere. But what he has done is adapt to his surroundings.

By contrast, I give you the cave bear. Everything was going gangbusters until 24,000 years ago when something called the Last Glacial Maximum came along and the poor guy couldn’t keep up with all the snow and ice. When it was all over, where other creatures had found a way to adapt, the cave bear was a goner. Let’s just say he was no chameleon.

Like the Last Glacial Maximum, advertising is going through some pretty extreme fluctuations of its own. And if we know anything, it’s that creatives aren’t going to be able to skate anymore. You want to crawl into a hole like those cave bears and pretend like things are going back to what they used to be? Well, can you say fossil?

“Time was, creativity in our business meant simply filling in the bars on a media flowchart with ideas: Here’s an idea for TV. Here’s one for print. Here’s one for out-of-home,” says Will Burns, founder and chief executive officer of virtual ideation company Ideasicle X. “It’s different now. The center of gravity has moved upstream. It’s no longer just what a brand says and how, it’s what it does. And every day, it seems there are more ways for a brand to behave.”

At 63 years old, Madonna is the high priestess of chameleondom and as artistically pliable as ever at a time when she could be howling at the neighborhood kids to get the hell off her lawn. Rock, pop, R&B, EDM, disco—what hasn’t she done? Did I mention she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in Evita? She changes hard and she changes fast.

Don’t even get me started on Ziggy Stardust. Um, Aladdin Sane. Um, Diamond Dog. Um, Thin White Duke. Um, who were we talking about? Oh, right, David Bowie. For a while, Bowie was reinventing himself every eighteen months, turning himself inside out and outside in, always a near-perfect mirror of culture at any given moment.

Lisa Clunie is chief executive officer and cofounder of red-hot New York ad agency JOAN. As far as she’s concerned, we wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t already have a whole lot of chameleon in our blood.

You can flatline on the relevance meter or you can spend the rest of your career lost in time. It’s up to you.” —Ernie Schenck

“While many people in this world crave routine, most advertising people got into this field for the unexpected, the unknown, the variety,” Clunie says. “The problems we solve are often similar but never exactly the same. We look to do work no one has done before; if it smacks of familiarity, it’s less valued. We are people who did not want an assembly line job. And while today’s changes are asking us to move a little faster, we must tap into our original spirit to feel the thrill of what this means: invention, adaptation and pure white snow.”

Few would argue that what works creatively in North America doesn’t always work somewhere else. Your huge Super Bowl idea might kill it on the Ad Meter but fall flat on its face in China or Bolivia or Sri Lanka. Different cultures. Different sensibilities. They’re not going to adapt to you, so you better damn well adapt to them.

There’s a concept called transcreation. While translation focuses on replacing the words in one language with corresponding words in a new language, transcreation focuses on communicating the same concept in a new language.

Cut to Shanghai Disney. The question was: How do you adapt the pure essence of Disneyland so that, as Disney chairperson Bob Iger said, the new theme park would be authentically Disney and yet distinctly Chinese? Here’s what you wouldn’t do: You wouldn’t have a Main Street USA. You wouldn’t have a Sleeping Beauty Castle that wasn’t bigger, higher and wider than any other before it. There would be no paddle wheeler and no steam train. Those things might mean something to us but in China, not so much. What you would have are a lot more live shows: a big deal in China. You’d have The Garden of The Twelve Friends, with Disney animal characters filling in for the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.  It would still be Disney, but reimagined to accommodate a different climate. A uniquely different culture. When in China, do as the chameleons do.

So what about you?

On the one hand, you can be a cave bear. You can prattle on about Volkswagen and 1984 and Real Men of Genius while the business morphs into something unrecognizable and light years from what you once knew. Or you can be a chameleon and morph right along with it. You can flatline on the relevance meter or you can spend the rest of your career lost in time.

It’s up to you. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

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