Elephant sitting on a stool looking out a window

3 Ways to Avoid Suffering from Elephant Thinking

Let’s clarify some things before we expose another dirty little secret ingrained in the influence business. One thing to get straight is what “elephant thinking” is and what it is not. It is not a joke. It is not philosophical mumbo jumbo highlighted by wind chimes and jasmine incense.  

Elephant thinking is a term that comes from the very real practice utilized by circus trainers to prepare their elephants for a lifetime of performing. In essence, trainers tie a rope on a young elephant’s leg so the elephant can’t move. Because the elephant possesses a brilliant memory, it remembers this lesson when he is older, bigger and stronger – and does not even attempt to move when it could break the string very easily. Fact is, its past experience informs and overwhelms its current abilities.

#1. Insist on creative originality in your work.

How many times are we challenged with logical statements in this business based on what’s been done before? (“Best practices are not informing this program, Bob; we need to insure success by doing what we know works.”)

Best practices? Transformative creativity is supposed to be based on originality and surprise. How can we do what everyone else is doing and break through emotionally and memorably in a unique way? Now, I’m not suggesting we dismiss best practices if they make sense, I’m just suggesting that we don’t use them as a creative crutch. Instead, we should look at every new assignment from a fresh perspective and explore what works best for a specific program. Of course, we want to go to school on what works best, but we still need to cherish originality. And sometimes that means bucking trends.

One of my favorite episodes of “The Twilight Zone” comes to mind as I articulate this ironic dilemma. It’s the one with the woman who has numerous best practice plastic surgery procedures to help her change from hideous to beautiful. The ironic twist is that she was beautiful all along and everyone else was hideous. (I think it’s titled, “The Eye of the Beholder.”)

Breakthrough creativity cannot follow a formula. There is no such thing as right or wrong. There are shades, nuances, gray areas to explore and execute with a memorable twist of phrase or a delicious visual surprise that manifests as a relevant and motivating idea.

#2. Don’t dismiss or pursue directions solely based on prior successes or failure.

On the other hand, there’s no reason not to use best practices for media deployment; in fact, it’s crazy not to. Best practices help identify the best way at that particular time to measure consumer behavior; to help predict where they will be, and when.

The point I am belaboring here is that the art of creativity cannot be color-by-number, simply because we can’t measure what moves the heart of the consumer, and what causes them to behave the way they do. Yes, we can measure behavior, but never truly understand what causes the behavior. If science reaches the point of understanding the emotional state of the human heart, then we merely need to do what worked before and repeat it over and over again. We can simply assume – like a grown elephant – that because the string held him when he was young, it will still be as effective when he’s older.

#3. Learn from the past, but don’t let it limit you. 

Until that happens, we need to be better than that. We have to take into account the past, but never depend on it for the future. We need to understand that even “best practices” change. And that no matter how far science will take us, this business still resides in the land of the imagination. Yeah, I’m back to “The Twilight Zone.”