If You Want to Think Outside the Box, Try to Get Out of the Ad Belt

Why We All Need to Cross Some Boundaries -- Real and Imagined

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A few Thursdays back, I found myself sitting in Michelin's North American headquarters, just outside of Greenville, S.C., listening to Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap, president of Wofford College. He was talking about how the scent of Earl Grey tea reminds him of the time he and Kris Kristofferson, when they were students at Oxford, met Princess Margaret.

The first response many readers will have is, "What the hell were you doing in South Carolina?"

It's a perfectly natural question, but one I think indicative of how provincial we get here in the Ad Belt. Based in New York, L.A., San Francisco -- and, decreasingly, Chicago and Detroit -- we divide our time between those cities, parachuting into a client's headquarters when we must. Occasionally we'll go to Cannes or to a Sun Belt resort where we'll squeeze in some lectures between rounds of golf.

There is value in the socializing we do, the conferences we attend. But after a while, we can become locked into a conventional wisdom as rigid as anything in the Bible Belt or the Beltway.

Which brings me back to that conference room in South Carolina. Dunlap was speaking as part of Erwin-Penland's Food for Thought Conference. Now in its second year, Food for Thought was started, according to agency president Joe Erwin, in order to create a miniature TED conference. Erwin and his gang aren't the first, of course. Piers Fawkes and the gang at PSFK have launched a series of creativity-themed conferences that rotate from city to city. Ed Cotton of Butler, Shine & Stern is back this year with the Influx Curated conference. And Ad Age has now had three successful Idea Conferences in conjunction with Creativity magazine.

But Food for Thought -- aside from being centered on food -- has the added benefit of taking place outside of the traditional boundaries of the ad world. As a Southerner, I may be biased. But like many of you, I moved to an Ad Belt city and took up the Ad Belt culture. And while we're rolling in the aisles at the sight of a man eating Skittles with his beard, the rest of the country scratches its head in puzzlement.

As Erwin told me, "Everyone can benefit from traveling outside their comfort zone. ... There is a robust life in between the two coasts and it was eye-opening for many who joined us."

What does his agency get out of it? A chance to "foster creativity and entrepreneurial growth and, at the same time, showcase Greenville," said Erwin. It also gets to show off clients such as Michelin and the BMW Performance Center.

And attendees? Folks from smaller, regional shops (and marketers) get treated to speakers such as Kiva.org founder Jessica Flannery and writer Christopher Hitchens. Those from the Ad Belt get to see that there's life beyond New York. (And they all got to race BMWs.)

I saw firsthand how a change in venue makes for a change in ideas. Chef Grant Achatz, of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, spoke at both Creativity's Idea Conference and Food for Thought. On the smaller scale in Greenville, he could actually demonstrate his crazy culinary creativity.

But what really stuck out for me was a question from Elizabeth Geer, senior director-advertising and brand communications for Denny's. She asked if Alinea had a food scientist on staff. After all, deep-frying bourbon isn't exactly boiling water. But the question had never occurred to me. The answer was equally surprising. Achatz said that some major food corporations such as Kraft invite chefs to headquarters to pick their brains. In exchange, the chefs get access to the food scientists (and their chemicals).

What does that exchange mean for creativity? Will it help my writing? Will it help you move more soap? I don't know. But it was the sort of idea exchange that is at the center of what we all try to do. And it's been stuck in my head for two weeks now.

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