Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chief Culture Officer

Chief Culture Officer, by Grant McCracken, pulls together the two diverse and yet interlinked strands of my life: anthropology and business. I studied social anthropology at Cambridge in the mid-80s, and ever since, I've wondered whether what I learned was pure self-indulgence (paid for by British tax-payers, because that was how we did things back then, and for which I've always been grateful) or the most totally useful thing in the world. I've always liked to believe that my knowledge of anthropology has underpinned everything else. It's not just that anthropology is the study of people and societies, but also that it teaches you how to study people, how to analyse them, and how to respond to them.

Over the last few years, I've finally noticed people claiming a role for anthropologists outside academia and National Geographic. In 2007, at a conference in Atlanta about virtual worlds and MMORPGs, I first heard people talking about how they needed anthropologists to understand the way online societies were evolving. WoW, Second Life and the like were no longer defined by their technology, but by the way the people interacted and the social mechanisms that the worlds facilitated - deliberately or accidentally. In 2008, at a reunion dinner in Cambridge, we had an extensive discussion in the anthropology department about the way technologies like Facebook, Skype, and mobiles phones are changing society and fundamental social mechanisms. Now, there's even someone who's doing a study of entrepreneurs and investors from an anthropological, rather than an economic perspective.

Chief Culture Officer puts the official seal on this trend by calling for companies to have an anthropologist at the very top level if they want to connect with their market. In effect, he's saying that without the understanding that anthropologists bring, companies can't create the products people want, or communicate in a language they understand. Written by an anthropologist from Chicago who studied under the great Marshall Sahlins (my personal hero in the anthropology world), and who has consulted extensively for mega-brands such as Coca-Cola, IKEA and Kraft, this book comes with some serious authority.

McCracken argues that companies need to understand culture in its wider sense. It's not just about what's "cool". Cool is destined to become passé overnight, and you can't rely on riding that wave forever. It's not about "high culture" like opera or art galleries. It's about a complex web of what people value, which affects not just their choice of music, clothing or beverages, but also sofas, curtains, washing machines, bread or Christmas presents for their mother in law. It's about understanding the shift towards reusable and recyclable goods in some communities, or when people want beige instead of this summer's fashion. It's about knowing when shopping is a necessity, and when it's a pleasure, and when it's entertainment, and how that affects what people want out of it. It's about knowing how people will react to a gimmick like making Coke vending machines charge an extra 10c in hot weather (they actually considered doing this, but rejected it on McCracken's advice) or changing a logo.

I have to say, I rather like this idea. It validates everything I've been saying for over 20 years. Big companies should be employing people like me, and giving us jobs at the highest level - with appropriately huge salaries, of course.
But then I got to thinking. It's all a utopian fantasy.

McCracken suggests that it's the CCO's job to know everything, from trends in music to food to clothes to tv to hobbies to hair dye products to anything else you can think of. Across the whole world, all demographics, all ages. He actually says it's the CCO's job to "know everything about everything." I call bullshit. You can't possibly know it all. I don't care how many magazines you read, how many Web sites you visit, how many people you follow on Twitter, or how many hours of TV you watch. The world's way too damn big. No matter how much I learn every day sitting at my computer, I'm never going to understand the LA Hispanic community, rural mid-West America, Chinese in New York, Thai communities in Florida, school kids in deprived black areas, to name but a few. And that's just in the USA. I haven't even started on Canada, South America, Europe, and so on.

And anyway, that's not how proper anthropology is done. Anthropologists work by focusing on one community, immersing themselves in it, understanding it, then focusing on another community, and contrasting them. They don't do a drive-by and then claim in-depth knowledge.

His anecdotes to show how the CCO achieves this omniscience are fallacious. For example, he talks about the trend towards artisan breads, and how they're taking a bite out of supermarket bakeries. He says that most people took a while to notice this, but a CCO would have spotted this trend starting in 1990. A classy bakery started in San Francisco (which he calls the first artisan bakery in the US, which I seriously doubt - weren't they doing it 100 years ago?), and by the end of the year, it was doing well. And on this basis, the CCO can predict a trend.

Again, I call bullshit with 20/20 hindsight. All you can tell is that this shop was doing well - you can't predict from a sample of one that this would spread to other bakeries, other cities, other communities. And even if you could, what's the likelihood that your CCO will know about that one shop, especially if he's based in Chicago or Seattle?

I liked some of his insights about culture, and I could certainly appreciate how this could help some companies, mostly the ones with huge amounts invested in their multi-billion dollar global brands. But in the end, it was like a typical academic paper - an appeal for funding. It came down to "I know stuff about people, and you need me, so let me define my own job title."

Frankly, companies really don't need yet another C-level guy swaggering around pontificating and pretending he knows everything about people and what the company strategy should be, from product design to pricing to advertising to hiring staff. Companies already have marketing departments, and it's their job to know their market. Sure, they can probably learn something from the way anthropologists work, but all that means is that an anthropology degree could be a solid foundation for a good career in marketing. Actually, many anthropologists could learn a lot from good market researchers.

And that, I suppose, explains why I enjoy the market research side of my job and loathe sales.

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