More thoughts on advertising’s “magic moment”

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(with thanks for Rick Boyko, pictured, for the conversation from which the idea for this blog post sprang.)

Last week Bob Scarpelli and I offered some thoughts on the “magic moment” in advertising.  The magic moment is the small detail that helps bring an ad suddenly, unexpectedly to life.  Here’s the original post.

We can’t quite say how the magic moment works.  What’s worse, we can’t plan for the magic moment or even anticipate it.  It just happens.

It is this unpredictable quality that prompts some people in the ad biz to insist that the magic moment is off limits.  It cannot be part of the industry’s value proposition, or the way any particular agency sells its ware.  After all, if the magic moment is pure serendipity, it can’t be created, managed, predicted, or, least of all, promised.  It is a gift from the gods and the gods pretty much do what they want.

Even if a client hires the best agency, with the most robust planners, strategists and creatives, there is just no telling whether a magic moment will manifest itself.

I admire how scrupulous this is.  I admire an industry that will not promise what it cannot deliver.  But there is another way to make the argument.

Yes, magic moments are serendipitous, but that does not mean they are beyond our grasp.   We can increase our chances of summoning the magic moment.  We can call it out of the heavens.  There are no absolute assurances.  But we can increase the odds.

And this is precisely why those who hope for magic moments will spend the time and money to hire the right agency, director of photography, casting director, and actors.  These people cannot deliver magic moments but they will act like one of those “listening arrays” with which we scrutinize the heavens.

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It turns out magic moments are not truly random.  They don’t happen to stupid, talentless hacks.  And this means talent does play a role.  And this means, at the very least, are chances of a magic moment go up when we are dealing with people with the talent, imagination and intelligence.  (And that’s what we pay them for.)

There is some connection.  Somehow, talent plays nursery to genius.  Agencies and creatives matter.  We can summon magic, even when we cannot promise it.   In that famous phrase, the gods favor the well prepared.

We may have merely increased the chances of a magic moment by, say, 40%.  For the creative community, this looks meager and nothing like a sales pitch.  They can’t imagine ever selling anything this way.  But for the statistically gifted brand manager, 40% is an opportunity to assess the risk and  justify the expenditure.  Believe me, what the brand manager does not want to hear is, “Oh, this is completely mysterious.  We have no idea how it happens.  Just pay us.”  But we are wrong to think that “40%.  Our chances go up 40%” means little more.  Forty percent is something to reckon with.

My conclusion: the ad agency should be selling itself with the magic moment.  This should be a way to discriminate agencies from no agencies and good agencies from bad agencies.  And it should be the grounds on which agencies justify their fees and the fees attached to recruiting the best talent.  We are not guaranteeing magic moments.  But we are increasingly their likelihood.

How would you help Bosco out of that meth lab?

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I have a friend who lives in the Midwest and serves as a court-appointed advocate for kids.  One of his “wards,” an eight-year old, recently regaled him with a detailed and enthusiastic description of a meth lab.  This kid  described the cooker, the cooks, the chemicals, the masks, the precautions, the security, the works.

“Bosco,” (we will call him, not his real name) knows all this stuff not because he has ever watched Breaking Bad.  No, he knows this because his parents cook meth.  Or at least, they did until they were arrested, and Bosco ended up a ward of the state.

My friend and I were wondering what cultural creatives could do to help Bosco.  (There are simpler, more direct ways, to be sure.  The question here was what could we do in particular as cultural creatives.)  Most of us live in a cosmopolitan world, soaked in intellectual and cultural capital.  As the beneficiaries of a middle class existence and university educations, we know a lot about lots of things: design, economics, politics, current affairs, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, fly fishing, Route 66, Russian novels.  And if we run across something we don’t know, we know someone who does know.  A quick email and we are in the know.

Bosco doesn’t know much of this at all.   His world is small and, outside of his meth expertise, his knowledge of the world is limited.  If he is struck by a question for which he has no answer, chances are he’s on his own.  Most of the adults in Bosco’s world live a world that is small, ill informed, and starved for stimulation.   They think cooking meth is worth the risk.

The question is this: how to pour intellectual and narrative stimulation into Bosco’s world.  PBS does a great job helping Bosco with his letters and his numbers.  Where could he go to expand the horizons of his world?  (Assuming this does not pour into his world while he is learning his numbers and letters from PBS.)

The trick here is to construct an intellectual, imaginative world for Bosco that makes cooking meth look like a dubious choice.  Naturally enrichment will have  other benefits.  It will increase the wisdom with which he makes all of his life choices.  It will increase the likelihood that he will finish high school and college.

But that’s our minimum.  What knowledge of the world, what intellectual and imaginative resources, could we give Bosco that would make cooking meth go from the biggest thing he knows to one of the smallest, and evidently, one of the most dubious things he knows?

I am thinking of making this a Minerva competition.  And that really is the first question.  Is this a good question?  Could a cultural creative answer it in a useful way.  It may not be.  Some of my Minerva questions turn out to be more arresting than others.  Your comments, please.

Second Look TV

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For most of it’s existence, TV was designed to be “one look” entertainment.  We were supposed to grasp things the first time, and if it happened that some complexity or nuanced escaped us, well, not to worry.  It can’t have been that important in any case.  TV was forgettable culture.  Tissue thin and completely disposable.

But we are entering into the era of “second look” television.  Sometimes this happens because we were making a sandwich or playing with the cat.  Never mind, a simple push of the go-back button, and we are caught up.

But some TV is now created with the expectation that we will not and cannot get it the first time.  If it pleases the court, I offer the following Sprint ad into evidence

Notice that it’s not just the dialog and foreign language(s) that demand the replay.  This ad has got Judy Greer who is fast rising from “sidekick” standing to full blown celebrity.  Plus there are parts that make no sense however many times we watch it.  (The final moment when everyone looks suddenly at the hamster is wonderful partly because it is inscrutable and permanently so.)

Pam, my wife, and I spend a lot of time freezing frame and going back.  ”Wait, did she say what I think we said.”  Or “Hey, did you notice that guy in the background?” Or “get a lot of this camera angle!”  This is what it is to live with Second Look TV and the technology that makes replay effortless.

Indeed culture and technology do an attractive two-step here.  The technology makes this possible.  Culture (in the form of new complexity) makes it necessary.  And so continues  our steady transition from a pop culture to a culture, plain and simple.

Sure it’s good for the game show, but how about the host?

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I had a look in on Let’s Make A Deal this morning.

Wayne Brady is the host.  Drew Carey is the host of Wheel of Fortune.  Both are “graduates” of Whose Line Is It Anyway?  Improv has come to day time television

The use of improv comics is a great way to animate a game show genre, now decades old and in danger of becoming formulaic, in spite of all that ingenuity and enthusiasm coming in waves off an extremely “amped” audience.

An improv comedian can turn a split second into something funny and fresh.  Hey, presto, new blood for old shows.  On Whose Line It is Anyway? Brady was fearless.  Clearly, it doesn’t bother him that he was called upon to work without a net.   No script.  No direction.  No advance warning.  He could handle anything the show threw at him.

But here’s the question.  Even as we acknowledge  what Brady gives to the show, we have to ask what the show is taking from him.  What is it like for someone this good at novelty to be stuck in something that is rarely very novel at all?  I wonder if he feels like those World War II aces who were called upon to pilot space capsules in the early days of NASA.  Accustomed to maximum control, they were now, in their language, “spam in a can.”

This is a tension in the entertainment biz.  How do we deliver the soothing samenesses that come from genre and formula without creating something that ends up being stupefyingly dull? As it is, Let’s Make a Deal skews way too far in the direction of formula.  This doesn’t just test the patience of the TV audience.  It must also test the endurance of the host.  For someone who can turn .5 seconds into comedy riches, 60 minutes of predictability must feel like an eternity.  Five times a week.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Wikipedia.  Author attribution:  DaniDF1995

Stephen Colbert replaces David Letterman. Please help us figure out what this means!

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This just in.  We learned moments ago that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on late night television.

We can identify the cultural significance of David Letterman .  He came to prominence on the back of a cultural trend, the Preppie revolution.   Letterman was the guy who liked to stand in a window in Rockefeller Center and proclaim through a bull-horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”   This was preppie humor, a frat boy prank.

Below is my cheat-sheet treatment of the Preppie revolution as it appeared in Chief Culture Officer.

I would  love it if people would give offer a brief account of the cultural movement that brought Stephen Colbert to prominence and the shift in culture  his rise represents for us.  Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed account.  We can make this collaborative.  Just take a different piece of the puzzle and I will try to piece together when all “results” are in.

Here’s the passage from my Chief Culture Officer:

The preppie convergence began to form visibly and publicly around 1980, but we if we were astoundingly well informed and gifted, we could have seen it coming ten years before.  Doug Kenney founded in National Lampoon in 1970 with staff from the Harvard Lampoon.  And we could have tracked the success of this convergence as this publication began to scale up.  National Lampoon published parodies of Newsweek and Life, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody (1974), and a well received issue entitled Buy this magazine, or we’ll shoot this dog.  By the end of the 1970s, Lampoon circulation had reached nearly a million copies per month.  And by this time even the dimmest trend hunter had it on their radar.

Sales is one thing.  We should also be alert to the migration of talent.  In the case of the preppie convergence, we needed to be paying attention when the world started raiding the Lampoon for talent.  Kenney left to write movies.  Michael O’Donoghue left in 1975 to become head writer for Saturday Night Live.  P.J. O’Rourke left to write for Rolling Stone.  The National Lampoon spoke with the voice of the ruthless private school boy.  Apparently this was now in demand.

We should have noticed when the preppie convergence began to colonize the movies.  We should have been paying attention when the preppie thing migrated to the movies.  Kenney created Animal House in 1978 and Caddyshack in 1980.  The first featured Tim Matheson, the second Bill Murray.  The prep also appeared in Bachelor Party (1984), played by Tom Hanks.  Perhaps most famously, the prep turned up in the 1982 NBC series Family ties in the character of Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox.  He also appeared in the 1982 late night comedy show in the person of David Letterman who gave voice to prep form by standing in a window of Rockefeller center and announcing with a bull horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”  (Preps loved to be vulgar and clever at the same time.  It’s a frat thing.)

Everyday language began to vibrate with new phrases: “go for it,” “get a life,” “get a grip,” “snap out of it.”  It was easy to see how these spoke for the new convergence.  People were impatient with the old pieties.  That was 60s idealism, and people were done with that.

Convergences must shake the webs of the publishing world.  (Or they cannot be convergences.) One of the best sellers of the period was Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook in 1980. This was 200 pages of detailed instruction: what to wear, where to go to school, what sports to play, what sports to watch, what slang to speak, how to be rude to a salesperson, and how to mix a Bloody Mary.  If the National Lampoon had supplied the new character of the decade, here were instructions of a much more detailed kind.

The consensus was visible in public life.  Suddenly Harvard Yard, never especially presentable in its architecture, appointments, or personnel, filled with glossy teens in down vests, Norwegian sweaters, and Top-Siders, all newly minted by L.L. Bean.  Some of them were the children of Old Money following ancestral footsteps into the Ivy League.  But most were kids from Boston University who believed that the Yard was a better lifestyle accessory.

The convergence began to recruit ferociously.  A young woman remembers.

As a teenager [my mom] was pulling The Preppy Handbook out from under my [sleeping] cheek.  These were the mid-80’s, and I just lapped up all that puppy/yuppie/J. Crew catalogue/Land’s End stuff.  I didn’t want to live in Wisconsin; rather, I wished my parents played tennis and would send me away to Phillips Exeter.  In fact, I waged a two-year send-Ann-to-Exeter campaign (“or, hey Choate would be O.K. C’mon, at least consider the University School of Milwaukee!”).  I wished we summered on Martha’s Vineyard and wore penny loafers without socks.  I wanted to ski in Vermont during Christmas vacation like my copy of The Preppy Handbook recommended.  […] I wanted to live far away from Wisconsin and my family and come home only at Christmas.  As pathetic as it sounds, deep in my soul I wished I owned a navy-blue blazer with my school’s crest embroidered on the lapel and wore grosgrain ribbons in my hair.  I daydreamed about the day when I would go to East to college, and I believed I would.⁠1

The preppie convergence would sell a lot of cars for Chrysler (Jeeps) and, eventually, a lot of SUVs for everyone.  It would sell clothing for L.L Bean, Land’s End, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and eventually Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap.  It would sell a ton of furniture for Ethan Allen and eventually Sears.  Downstream, it sold a lot of watches for Rolex and a lot of cars for BMW.  Eventually, it would serve as the foundation for Martha Stewart and her brand of status.  It would shape and still shapes what boomers wear on the weekends.⁠2

The tide turned again.  Repudiation was coming.  We might have seen, as I did, graffiti on a Tom Cruise movie poster that read, “die Yuppie scum.”  Another was Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), a film Roger Ebert hailed as a “radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality.”  The prep hero was now tarnished.  (Life soon imitated art, with the fall of Michael Milken, the junk bond trader indicted in 1989 for violations of federal securities and racketeering laws.)  The third was the movie, Heathers (1989) in which teens excluded by snobbery take a terrible revenge against the preps.  The fourth was the publication of American Psycho in 1991.  This was, among other things, a vilification of the prep.  At this point, the big board should be flashing with warning signals.  Something new had made it up out of the college campuses of the world, past all the little gates, and on to the big screen.  Pity us if this is our first warning.

I was doing research with teens in 1990 and, almost to a person, they were saying, “well, I guess you could say I’m a Prep, but I don’t really think I am.”  Or, more forcefully, “The last thing I want to be called is a Prep.”  This was coming from kids who were still wearing buttoned down shirts and Top Siders.  Teens were moving on, some to the emerging subculture of rap, some to a brief revival of the hippy regime, still others were taking an “alternative” turn.  We do not have access to this data, but we can assume that sales figures for Ralph Lauren, Rolex, BMW, and the other “flag ship” brands of the decade fell sharply.  Presumably, furniture and textile stores suddenly found it difficult to move their “duck” and “sailboat” motifs.  What convergences give, they take away.

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1 Stroh, Ann. n.d. The Preppy Handbook and other myths.  This document may be found at http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Exanadu/preppy_handbook.html.

2 For the connection between the prep or yuppie movement and BMW, see Greyser, Stephen and Wendy Schille. 1991.  BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine Seeks to De-Yuppify Itself.  Harvard Case Study, 9-593-046, December 27, 1993.  Steven Greyser is an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Business School.  Wendy Schille was a research associate at HBS at the writing of this case.

The mystery of the “magic moment” in advertising

Grant McCracken and Bob Scarpelli

Take a look at this recent AT&T ad.  Notice what the actress does at the 16:00 – 17:00 second mark.  That little thing she does with her hand and her eyes.

Here’s a second ad for AT&T from a couple of years ago.  Watch what happens at the very end when the neighborhood woman sends a glance to the neighborhood kid.

Here’s an ad for Volvo.  Listen to what the little girls says.

We know ads are designed to deliver information, the USP, the product proposition, the value claim.  And we can see the bones of these things in a lot of ads, especially in those agonizingly bad ones that are really just someone reading the Unique Selling Proposition.

“This product is good because [insert USP here].  You will like it.  You should buy it.”

But I have long suspected that the informational mechanics and the persuasive objectives of an ad don’t work without the little details we’ve just been looking at.   The little details, the flicker of the hand, the flash of the eyebrow, the little girl chattering on and on.  These are essential to the ad’s ability to make the sale.  I think.  Maybe.

But how?  They are so little.  So minor.  So easy to miss.  It’s a question that has rattled around in my head for a couple of years.  How do tiny details make the ad?

And today, I sat down beside Bob Scarpelli, on a flight from NYC to Chicago.  I know Bob courtesy of Rick Boyko who was kind enough to put us both on Sparkstarters, his enterprise designed to help clients or agencies rekindle their powers of creativity.

Bob and I fell into conversation.  He is one of those guys who is really easy to talk to.  I was busy gabbing about myself when it occurred to me that I really should ask him about what he was working on.  (I do this with great reluctance and some resentment but then I am an anthropologist and really it’s my job to ask people about their lives.)

It turns out that Bob is teaching a course with John Greening at Northwestern’s Medill School called Brand Content in the Social World (aka “What’s the Big Idea?”)  Bob and John spend a lot of time talking about advertising and creativity.

“Great!,” I thought, “someone who might know the answer to the question ‘Why do small gestures matter so much?’”

And hey presto, he did.

“Oh, I call those ‘Magic Moments.’”

And Bob recounted the story of Joe Pytka on the set of an ad yell at his actors, “Stop acting!  Just be yourselves.”  No magic moments come from acting.  Whatever they are, they feel like life.

Bob described a Budweiser ad that shows soldiers in an airport and the people who gather to applaud them.

There is a lot to like about this ad, but Bob says that the “magic moment” comes at the very end when one of the soldiers looks back a little disbelievingly at what just happened.  That is many things about America in the blink of an eye, the beat of a heart.  So magic moments are also revelational, suddenly revelational.  The tiny detail delivers a world of meaning.

Bob said that the magic moment is almost impossible to plan.  It is very hard to tell at the moment that strategy and creativity are being formed what the magic moment could be or should be.  Virtually impossible in fact.

You know it when it happens and in some cases not even then.  You have to wait for editing.  And there it is.   A gift from the gods of creativity,  spontaneity and the perfect telling detail.

You could call this a chasm problem.  (I borrow the term from Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.)    On the one side, we can have the creativity and strategy, all the work performed by researchers, planners, strategists and creatives of every kind.  And on the other we have the spot which, if the gods of advertising are kind. is blessed with one of these magic moments.

But we can’t see the connection between the two.  We can’t figure out how things get from the left side to the right side.

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So there are two mysteries.  The first is how to make a magic moment.  The second is how the magic moment does what it does.  How does it activate all the planning, strategy and creativity?  Something arcs across the chasm.  We just don’t know what it is or how it works.  How do these “hemispheres” talk to one another.

So things are a little clearer.  I now know what to call that telling detail, but I can’t say exactly what is, where it came from or how it works.  So there is some work to do.  Your comments, please.

More to come.  Watch this space.

Midori House: a culture accelerator

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Intelligence gathering, pattern seeking, culture watching, early warning wanting, this is the name of the game for everyone in the creative space.

But it is one thing to gather this knowledge, and another to put it to use.

One interesting case study here is Midori House, which I visited last year.  (I am rolling it out now because I am on the road and serving up topics I have written about but not yet posted on.)

“Being Tyler Brule is a full time job,” says the intern, with a touch of irritation.  Tyler Brule (pictured) is the head of Monocle and Winkreative, this kid’s boss, and a man not to be crossed.  I wonder if the intern understands what this indiscretion could cost him.   Or perhaps, young and impossibly handsome, he just doesn’t care.

The intern is giving me a tour of Midori House.  It stands in a London courtyard, about 90 feet long, 40 feet wide, and five stories high.  It’s about the size of a  ferryboat or small cruise ship.

I am here to be interviewed on the Monocle radio station.  This surprises me because I thought Monocle was a magazine.

And Monocle is a magazine, quite a famous one, in fact.  But it is also a design studio, advertising agency, strategy consultancy, and, yes, a radio station.   Typically, we see these 5 functions spread over 5 separate companies.  Bringing them altogether into so small a space would, in the old days, have brought a charge of indecision or promiscuity.

These days it’s a smart thing to do.

All of the Monocle bits and pieces run on the same thing: a knowledge of, and a feeling, for the state of our world.  Indeed, I found myself wondering if there was a pipe in the basement through which intelligence comes pouring into Midori House.

Let’s say someone in the design house is working on a project for Burberry, the clothing brand.  They go to the basement and pour off a pint size container called “the latest thing in luxury clothing.”  Someone working for the ad agency is looking for information on the way housewives think about breakfast.  The pipe provides here too.  The book review man for Monocle, is always on the look out for new books but for that great cloud of ideas and sentiments that make our culture now.

It sounds a little complicated, but there is a big idea here.  In fact, Monocle has found a way to maximize its return on investment.  What flows in from that pipe is used 5 times, as design, advertising, strategy, print on the page and words in the air.   Everything it learns, it turns to advantage.  If the print client doesn’t want something, the strategy client will.  And sometimes, a single understanding of the world pays off in all 5 of the Monocle faces.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a robust ROI.

And this is no simple “pass through” model. Monocle accelerates what it learns.   Inevitably, the people designing for Burberry end up talking to the ad people.  The ad people reply with their latest learnings.  And everyone listens to Dan, the book reviewer, because he knows what’s happening in the world of arts, letters and ideas.

And together the Monocle team members multiply their knowledge until Midori House rises on a tide of intelligence that may not exist anywhere else in London.  And this is a city famous for its sensitivity to the new.  London is filled with watchers of culture and makers of culture, people trying to divine and deliver the new.  Accelerators of the Midori House kind, there could be something to this.

Tahir Hemphill and the neglected genius of his rap almanac

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Last week, I had a chance to listen to Tahir Hemphill at the Office of Creative Research in New York City.

The OCR is 111 Bowery and you walk up two flights, up out of a neighborhood dominated by Chinese grocery stores.  It feels like moving up in space is moving back in time, like you are caught in something Victorian, entering one world secreted in another.  Think something out of Sherlock Holmes’ London.  A delicate, organized world now bursting with, on the verge of failing to contain, the forces that made it.  A little dreamy.  A little strange.

The Center does not disappoint on this score.  You enter to see 8 Oscilloscopes staring at you all in a row.  Back room science.  Wild inquiry.  The pursuit of knowledge running away from academic, professional and commercial convention.

Waiting for the talk to start, I fell into conversation with a guy from the “green tech” sector and for some reason, perhaps that Victorian vibe, we started talking about what great ghosts this building must have.  I was once part of the museum profession and we used to talk a lot about how to get the knowledge of the museum into the world.  Usable holographs were just then appearing on the horizon and surely some day, the green-tech guy and I agreed, every building would have hand-crafted ghosts that wander through and can be relied to tell you the story of the building.  This will be a standard feature of the well-appointed office space.  As in, “Well, I was going to work at start-up X but when I asked them what ghosts they had installed in the building (they have this great warehouse on the river), they just stared at me like it had never occurred to them.  Dude!  Dump the ping pong table and get some ghosts!”

And Tahir does not disappoint.  He started talking about his childhood, about parents who wanted him to concentrate on math and science, how he discovered art, and the talk sort of spiraled out of control like opium smoke rising (to evoke our Victorian theme again).  We were spell bound.  Only.

Tahir is famous for his searchable rap almanac, The Hip Hop Word Count.  I was complaining the other day that in an era of generalists, we are disinclined to dig deep on any given topic.  Tahir dug very deep.  Millions of people have supped from the hip hop well.  Hundreds of thousands have participated in the profit stream that ensued.  But far as I know, Tahir is the only one who actually charts exactly what happened and is happening now.  (This is a little like learning, first, that we have discovered a lost continent and that, second, only one person has mapped it.)

As nearly as I can tell (and this is me guessing) hip hop the most formative cultural trend of the past couple of decades.  It is now part of the cultural vocabulary of every cosmopolitan.  (Thanks to Jey Van-Sharp for illuminating remarks on this theme over drinks after the talk.)  It’s possible that some day we will say that hip hop made us the way people now routinely say that Shakespeare made English and the English.  (Speaking of ghosts, if Shakespeare is witness to hip hop, just how much do you think he loves it?  Very much, that’s how much.  By the way, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is coming up.)

Tahir Hemphill has been a Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University.  So some resources have been available to him.  But as nearly as I can tell, he does not have people lined up the block to give him money.  This is distinctly not the fate of those guys who made a Hip Hop encyclopedia called Rap Genius and got bags of dough from Marc Andreessen.  And very wrong.

Really! When you think about how much meaning and value the artistic and commercial world has extracted from hip hop, this is not just wrong but  unimaginably weird.  Hemphill ought to look like a Victorian captain of industry, lauded, celebrated, admired, imitated and the person you go to when you are trying to figure out whether and how the brand or your music or your film can stick its finger in the hip hop socket.  As so many have done.

As it is, he keeps a modest office in a building that is surely the greatest story never told.  Tahir’s office is in the Millionaire’s Retirement Home, a Bronx building created in 1915 (almost Victorian!) expressly for the purpose for giving comfort to very wealthy people who have fallen on hard times.  I know.   The irony is too painful.  Many people have extracted material riches from hip hop.  Tahir is not one of them.  His wealth is all intellectual.

When you are ready to hire the very gifted Mr. Hemphill as your consultant, you can find more about him here.  

Imprecision, culture, and Nick Kroll

Nick-Kroll

I’m reading In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.  My nephew is inventing a language and I’m trying to make myself useful.  (I can tell he’ll be absolutely astonished if I’m any help at all.)

Sometimes the motive for a new language is clarity.  Inventors want to eliminate the uncertainties contained in a sentence like “I spoke to a man on the boat.”  (Was he on the boat?  Was I on the boat?  Were we on the boat?)

It turns out to be tough to make a language that’s perfectly clear, and one of the pleasures of In the Land of Invented Languages is observing the linguistic and other conniptions that result from this quest for clarity.

Finally, though, Okrent wonders whether the quest isn’t wrong-headed.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think.  Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision.  Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.  (p. 258)

This will come as good news to the blogging community.  Personally, I intend to use Okrent’s discovery as license for the several places in this blog where you may be asking yourself ok, what’s he saying that isn’t really all that clear to you the reader as a meaning co-creator in so many different ways?

But the larger “take away” is “don’t look down.”  Our lives depend on architectures of meanings, as those come to us from language and from culture.  And these architectures are sometimes a little underspecified.  They are a little more like the “building concept” drawings than the actual blue prints.

Normally, the seams don’t show.  (Make that the “seems don’t show.”) We take for granted that the architecture of meaning can bear our weight.  Furthermore, a certain kind of story teller, entertainer and brander reassures us that we occupy a deep, resonant, redundant, completely seamless world.  (Other artists like to take us to the edge of the built world and invite us to look over the edge.)

Over the last couple of weeks here, I’ve been looking at the possibility that popular culture is improving, that it’s becoming more like culture.  But this, the imperfections and insecurities of meaning, may be the one place that popular culture will never go.  Well, let’s watch and see.  If and when popular culture does take us to the edge, this can be a measure of how much it has thrown off its “popular” mandate, conditions, and constraints.

And on this note, I’ve been watching The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Shumer on Comedy Central.  There are moments when it’s good (and wicked clever) fun, but there are moments when you are  being asked to stare into the abyss.  (Thanks, Nick!  Thanks, Amy!)  This might be evidence.

Innovation Exhaustion and the adaptive manager

pottsThe last few years, management thinking has been dominated by a big idea: innovation.  And by this time a certain fatigue is setting in.  Call it innovation exhaustion.

Innovation is much harder than it looks.  And even when we get it right, it proves not to answer all or the biggest of our problems.

The biggest of our problems is not that we need to take a constant flow of innovations to market to win share and fight the competition.  Though, of course, we do.  The biggest problem is that in the meantime we must live in a world that bucks and weaves with disruption, surprise, and confusion.

In fact, we can innovate constantly and well, and still find our organization at sea.

I think innovation arrested our attention because it looks like a good way to make ourselves responsive to a dynamic, increasingly unpredictable world.  It was all part of that management philosophy that said is that the best way to manage the future was to invent it.

Recently, I’ve started to wonder whether the proper object for our attention should be adaptation.  This is the study of adjustment that interacts constantly with strategy.

Innovation is hard.  But adaptation is in us.  It is perhaps our great and defining gift.

Rick Potts is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  He argues that adaptability is the secret to our success.

“[W]e started out as a small, apelike, herbivorous species 6 million years ago in tropical Africa, and after a history of origin and extinction of species, what’s left today is us: a single species all over the planet with an astonishing array of abilities to adjust.”

This feels like an old story but in fact it resists conventional wisdom.  We are inclined to tell our story as if we (and it) were inevitable.  It’s a kind of presentism, as if nature conspired to produce us, and that this evolutionary development could not have been otherwise.

But Potts points out that there was nothing inevitable about our rise.  There were several hominid trials underway.  Our numbers were tiny, competitors were formdidable, and the environment changed radically.   Homo Sapiens was always an endangered species.

Why did we survive and thrive against the odds?  Why us and not someone else? It is, Potts says, due to our gift, our particular genius, for adaptation.

“My view is that great variability in our ancestral environment was the big challenge of human evolution. The key was the ability to respond to those changes. We are probably the most adaptable mammal that has ever evolved on earth.”

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jill Neimark for the article in Discover Magazine.  Find it here.  And to Stephen Voss for the magnificent image.

This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics