Category Archives: anthropology

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

23 and Me
Venables Bell and Partners
Los Angeles
Diego Contreras
Martin Leroy


The case for culture in business, as clearly and forcefully as I can make it

This is an abbreviation of talk I gave for the design firm Thomas Pigeon in early April.

It puts the “case for culture in business” as forcefully as I can make it. (NB I’m not talking about corporate culture here. I’m talking about culture as in “culture creative.”)

Here’s a summary:


00:25 capitalism and its creative destruction

00:30 Schumpter
00:54 Alvin Toffler
01:11 Clayton Christensen

01:31 the world is turbulent
…and culture creatives can help


01:38 strategy struggles

1:44 Peter Schwartz and the corporation in a state of perpetual surprise

1:56 we wake up one morning to discover that our business model can be ripped out from under us

2:00 Michael Raynor and the death of strategy

2:19 Nassim Taleb on black swans and the unimaginable

2:48 these guys are not the least bit defensive (a joke!)

3:07 Andy Grove, here’s how we do strategy now: act like a firehouse

3:24 all that talk of agility is Andy’s firehouse

3:40 strategy is struggling…and we can help


3:45 corporations and brands are in crisis

3:48 CPG brands especially, all the big brands are down, all of them are struggling to live in this new world

4:00 brands are struggling…and we can help


4:07 culture to the rescue

this world of commotion gets simpler if you get culture

4:17 getting culture makes the world less “black swany” and less “suprisy”

4:47 we can do better than Andy’s fire house

4:2 culture is the professional competence of the culture creative

4:59 culture is our competitive opportunity

5:02 culture is our difference

5:03 we have always said our difference is creativity and it is but we can’t do great creativity without a connection to culture

creativity requires culture

5:12 creativity that’s not rooted in culture has this calorie-free quality. It’s not lasting, it’s not impactful. It doesnt really change the brand. It doesn’t really touch the consumer, and it doesn’t really resonate with the culture in place.

5:25 that’s when you know there a cycle here: you’ve drawn from culture buy you’ve created something so good, it’s so powerful, it actually contributes to culture


5:40 culture is 3 things, meanings, rules and motions

6:20 the difference between Roger A and Roger B
(Roger is a dog, he doesn’t have culture. Roger B is a person, he does.)

7:10 Aspies and culture (making conversation in the elevator)

7:44 three purses, one is a Birkin bag worth $14,000

8:18 culture defines how we think about self and the meanings of gender, age, ethnicity, race, and our preoccupation these days with celebrity

8:24…and how we think about groups, style, entertainment and communications are all established by culture


8:48 is there a Canadian advantage?
Yes, there is (possibly)
e.g., Michael Ennis, Malcolm Gladwell, Marshall McLuhan

the case of the artisanal trend

9:08 food after World War II

9:38 the rise of prepared food: Cheese Whiz!

10:02 the artisanal trend itemized

10:38 the artisanal trend created the CPG crisis, it took on prepared food and fast food

10:46 and big brands disrupted by the artisanal
Unilever, Nestle’s, Coca-Cola, P&G taken by surprise

How can we help our clients?

11:07 first step: we map culture

11:11 culture too often the latest hippest thing, the coastal stuff, the beltway stuff, the elite stuff

11:23 the recent error of Democratic party

11:46 we want breadth of coverage

11:50 we don’t want to only listen just to the coasts

12:00 second step: choose the meanings (on the map) that really work for the brand?

12:17 which meanings work for the consumer

12:28 third step: now we build an exquisite brand

12:35 fourth step: stage events in the world that create meanings for the world (culturematics: meanings in action)

13:05 fifth step: meanings in motion. we have to track meanings, we need to find metrics. the corporation runs on numbers, all numbers are made with numbers. and when we are asked for numbers we just say just trust us, your career will be fine, your kids will go to college, you can trust us, look how hip our glasses our

13:40 it’s no longer about “refreshing” the brand, we need to be able to show when we want the client to claim this meaning and when to exit the meaning

13:51 We are still inclined to step in, offer a big idea and then leave, as if to say “our work is done”

13:50 what we need to say is “this is when we want you to get into this cultural moment and this is when we want you to get out”

14:02 this is the stuff of an enduring connection with the client

14:27 culture is our competitive advantage, it’s time to see it clearly!

My Tribe Is an Unsophisticated People

turnbull-obit-articleLargeThis is a photograph of Sara Little Turnbull (1917–2015). Sara was an designer and anthropologist. In 1988 she founded, and for 18 years she ran, the Process of Change Laboratory for Innovation and Design at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I like this photo for a couple of reasons. Sara was caught at her desk, mid-task, mid-thought. She senses the camera and gives it a knowing look. What’s maybe most striking is her clothing. Ever so fashionable. Ever so anti-anthropological.

My tribe dresses badly. Jeans. It takes a lot of denim to clothe the field. We don’t ever dress up. The idea appears to be to dress as far down as possible without provoking the suspicion of vagrancy. When formal clothing is called for the anthropologist sometimes resorts to the clothing of the culture they study. Put it this way, no one ever looks like Sara.

A lot of this is “badge of pride” stuff. Anthropologists dress badly to make a point. They want you to know that they reject the conventions of a mainstream society, that they care nothing for the bourgeois respectability, upward mobility, and/or conspicuous consumption that animate the dress codes of the rest of the world. It’s not a punk violation of code. It’s just a way of saying “Look, we’re out.”

This strategy is not without it’s costs. As Marshall Sahlins, God’s gift to anthropology, used to say in his University of Chicago seminars, “every theory is a bargain with reality.” (By which we believed he meant, every theory buys some knowledge at the cost of other knowledge.) And so it is with every suit of clothing. It give you access to some parts of the world, but it denies you access to others.

This social immobility is not a bad thing if you are a nuclear scientist or a botanist. But it does matter if you are prepared to make claims to knowledge when it comes to your own culture, and anthropologists are never shy on this topic.

Anthropologists believe they know about a great deal about their own culture. But in point of fact, there are many worlds they do not know and cannot access, worlds of which they have scant personal knowledge and in which they have few personal contacts. Generally speaking, they don’t know anyone in the worlds of venture capital, advertising, graphic design, publishing, fashion, forecasting, strategy, philanthropy, art museums, professional sports, industrial design, user experience, startup capitalism, banking, branding, public relations, small business, big business, or politics. It’s a lot, the things anthropologist don’t know about their own culture.

Anjali Ramachandran recently heard Salman Rushdie speak in London and recalls he said something like,

“One thing I tell students is to try and get into as many different kinds of rooms to hear as many different kinds of conversations as possible. Because otherwise how will you find things to put in your books?”

Just so. Rushdie’s “many rooms” strategy is not embraced in anthropology. By and large, anthropologists encourage their students to stick to a small number of rooms where, by and large, they conduct the same conversation.

This is ironic not least because one of the field’s most recent and convincing contributions to the world beyond it’s own is actually a contemplation of the danger of living in a silo. Gillian Tett (PhD in social anthropology, University of Cambridge) recently published a book called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. This is a book about the compartmentalization of all organizations, but it might have been a study of the field of anthropology.

The further irony is that in its post-modern moment, anthropology claims to be especially, even exquisitely, self reflexive, but the sad thing is that it does ever seem to be reflexive on matters like this. Clifford Geertz used to say that much of anthropology is self confession. Too bad that’s no longer true.

Irony gives way to something less amusing when we see that this provincialism is not just self-imposed but enforced as a tribal obligation. Those who dare dress “up” or “well” or “fashionably” or, as we might say, “in a manner that maximizes cultural mobility” is scorned. As graduate students, we actually dared sneer at the elegant suits sported by Michael Silverstein. How dare he refuse this opportunity to tell the world how world-renouncing he was! There is something odd and a little grotesque about willing a provincialism of this kind and then continuing to insist on your right to make claims to knowledge.

Sara Little Turnbull knew better. She understood how many mansions are contained in the house of contemporary culture. She embraced the idea that anthropology was a process of participant observation and that we can’t understand our culture from the outside alone. Sara also understood that the few “ideas” that anthropology uses to account for this endlessly various data is a little like the people of Lilliput hoping to keep Gulliver in place on the beach with a couple of guy wires. Eventually the beast comes to. Sara could study contemporary culture because she didn’t underestimate it or constrain her rights of access.

This post is dedicated to Sara Little Turnbull who passed away September 4, 2015.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Photocredit: Center for Design Research

Putting the gift back in the gift economy (with the fractional and the frictionless)

Kula ring see webspace yale edu anth 500 projects I've been corresponding with Dave McCaughan of McCann Erickson Japan.  We have been talking about the "gift economy." 

As I understand it, the "gift economy" ideas says that we are moving away from direct exchange to something more circular. 

Instead of trading "exactly this" for "exactly that," we now release things into the world (blog posts like this one, tweets, music, Youtube videos) with the hope that something will return to us someday in the form of some kind of value (revenue, reputation, social capital, cultural capital.)  In other words, we gift the world with our efforts, and we do so without expectation or guarantee of a return.  Adam Smith would be horrified. 

I like this idea and what's more I believe in it.  But it's not without its problems. 

Take the case of Jimmy Pantino.  He's spending his summer working at Denny's as a short order cook.  He would much rather have spent it shooting and editing shorts for YouTube.  He's got pretty good at it.  The trouble is YouTube doesn't pay him anything.  Nor do any of the 120,238 people who have seen his work on line.  In point of fact, at least from Jimmy's point of view, this is not a gift economy. It's a grab economy, which is to say, no economy at all.

The problem is not that people don't want to pay Jimmy and free him from his Denny's bondage.  They just don't want to pay him in the usual domination.  In our economy, in most circumstances, the smallest useful unit of payment is a dollar.  And we don't want to pay Jimmy a dollar.  It's just too much.  But we are prepared to pay him a nickle.  And at a nickle a hit, Jimmy's YouTube audience would have paid him around $6000.  This is not a princely sum.  No, as an alternative to working this summer at Denny's, it's actually much richer than that.

The further problem is that there isn't any financial architecture that makes it possible for us to pay Jimmy his nickle.  Certainly, there's no way to do it easily and swiftly.  Not only do we not want to pay Jimmy a dollar.  We really don't want to make a big production of it.  Unless it happens in the blink of an eye, we can't be bothered.  Which is to say, we want to spend as little in time as we do in money.  (What is the temporal equivalent of a nickle?  Two seconds, probably.  Click of a mouse.)

What we need is a financial system capable of delivering fractional amounts in a frictionless way.  When looking at one of Jimmy's videos we that they can just hit a button and keep going.  No signing in or keeping track.  Jimmy gets a nickle.  We fill up our virtual wallet every quarter or so, distributing fractional amounts til it's gone. 

The company that creates this system gets to be a hero to the kids.  (Expect abject worship from Jimmy in particular.)  It gets to be a participant in the new social networks and the plenitude of contemporary culture.  It gets to be a patron of the new society and culture now in the works.  Most simply, it gets to escape its status as an old order corporation and become a new order one.  Tactically, this is a seat at the most important table.  Strategically, its a chance to own some part of the future instead of tagging witlessly along behind it.  

The person who does it gets to be the next Jeff Bezos or Jimmy Wales. You will be interviewed by Wired Magazine.  You will be showered with honorary degrees.  Most important: You will get way better seats at basketball games. 

Building a system like this must be complicated.  Otherwise we would have one by now.  But surely it's not more complicated than Facebook.  It just has to be a little more secure.  Ok, a lot more secure.  (I would love to hear from someone who has an idea of what this sort of system would require from a technical point of view.)

My plea: let's put the gift back into the gift economy, and for that matter, the economy in the economy.  I mean, imagine what Jimmy Pantino could do for our culture if he was working with more than his free time and that crappy old computer his parents refuse to replace. 

Economies create great things.  Let's turn this one loose.


Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Reissue. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Aldine Transaction.

Anthropology: The Business Model

I had the good fortune to participate in a call organized yesterday by Jerry Michalski and Pip Coburn.  This is an open discussion, the Yi-Tan, they hold by phone, addressing the big issues, intellectual and otherwise, that vex and test the tech community.

These are two sublimely smart guys, but it was clear they weren’t sure exactly what to ask me.  Join the club.  I mean, what, finally, does an anthropologist bring to the party?  No one is exactly sure, not even the anthropologist. 

Ethnography, that’s the easy answer.  This is the method of anthropology, so, hey, if you need an ethnographer, you probably need an anthropologist, and now that A.G. Lafley, M.S.I. Kodak, IBM, and Campbell Soup use ethnography, anthropology has a place in the world.

But what else?  Is there something to anthropology beyond ethnography?

Anthropologists are good at recognizing patterns in social and cultural data.  My clients get this about me.  They used to ask me to find the solution.  More and more, they ask me to find the problem.  How, they ask, should we be thinking about this?  Anthropologists are good pattern seekers, good assumption hunters.

Jerry and Pip were kind enough to ask if I would join in the call.  Please them for this confidence.  And here are the notes I scratched out for myself.  You may determine for yourself whether they identify a problem worth thinking about.

If we look at culture and commerce from a pattern-seeking, assumption-hunting point of view, we see two things:

First, a clarity is giving way to a fluidity.  I grew up in a world that for all of its modernist momentum had a certain order.  It was like something defined by a mechanical engineer: parts and wholes, relationships and processes, outcomes and feedbacks, all of these were relatively clear. 

This clarity is now at issue.  What are the parts?  What is the whole?  What are the relationships and processes?  Can we predict outcomes?  Are there feedbacks? 

What, for instance, is a corporation, now that it contains so many different moving parts, now that it changes so much and so often, now that it has, often, many objectives instead of one.  Does it have a boundary?  Or is just more porous?  And if it is porous, has it found a way to manage its new fluidity.

A friend and I were talking yesterday how much the corporation has changed inside, swapping personnel in and out, refashioning the employment contract now that "one size" no longer fits all.

What is a "brand" now that consumer are let into the moment of creation, now that the corporation spends so much more time out and about, sensing and responding to the world "out there?"

What is a "self," now that each of us is so crowded with diverse interests and the ability to negotiate the complexities of a dynamic world?

Each of these things has in a sense "gone global," embracing more heterogeneity in a more dynamic mix, trading clarity for fluidity.   

Fifty years ago, the specs for each was pretty clear.  Intellectuals were unhappy with some of the design particulars but the rest of the world just got down to business and got on with life.  Now, it looks as if someone had a Starbucks accident.  Blueprints drip with coffee from Sumatra, not to mention that latte and cinnamon.  Boxes and arrows run and blur.  Fluidity, to be sure. 

Second, it’s not clear that we have come up with a better way of thinking about a world like this, despite the fact that we have been on notice since the work of the Tofflers in the 1960s.  There are small inklings here and there, the Long Now Project, the complex adaptive theory that comes from the Santa Fe institute, the call for dynamism that comes from gurus like Tom Peters.  A big tech company recently asked me to rethink the B to B relationship.  But these are all mere inklings, and nothing like a formal shift. 

As I say, not everyone sees this as the anthropological "value add."  And that’s a shame.  Because the world is getting complicated in ways that anthropologists know how to reckon with.  As people survey the fizzing, teeming confusion of the contemporary world, they ought to be saying, "where can I find an anthropologist to help me think about this. "