I’ve spent the summer writing and I’m impressed with how diverse writing is as an experience.
Sometimes, it’s like being the captain of ship. You are in charge. You have navigational information. You have logged a plan and you are sticking to it.
Sometimes, writing is like being a passenger on the upper berths. Someone else is making the decisions but the passage is pleasant, arrival is assured.
Sometimes, writing is like being a passenger on the lower berths. Much less pleasant, but, hey, eventually Lady Liberty will come shining into view and we’ll be off this f***ing ship.
Sometimes writing is clinging to a piece of wreckage in high waves. You are cold, frightened and disoriented. Arrival is out of the question. Perishing at sea is not.
Sometimes, writing is like standing on a god forsaken island, scrutinizing an empty horizon. No one is coming. You are good and lost. Your only companion is Wilson, a painted volleyball, and it turns out he has no ideas. Well, a few. But frankly, he doesn’t get the whole anthropology thing.
It turns out that the number one cause of shipwreck is a creature called, in my case, the Kraken (pictured).
Grant McCracken sticks to is knitting. He writes all day, every day, as hard as he can. The Kraken likes to go stand in front of an open fridge. That 5 watt bulb is his idea of illumination.
McCracken files a navigational plan and sticks to it. The Kraken likes to go inking off in all directions. I swear to got he has the attention span of a house plant, and now that he has access to YouTube, well…, hey, have you seen this kitten video.
McCracken is trying his hardest to build a couple of useful ideas. The Kraken prefers to wreck havoc on marine traffic. He’s never met an idea he didn’t want to pull into a watery grave.
I am please to report that on this day of our Lord, August 19, 2013, I have made 22,968 words of progress. But I am also obliged to tell you that the Kraken lies in wait.
Roughly a week has passed since my experiment in San Francisco and some thoughts are in order.
For those who are new to the enterprise: On July 16, I installed myself in SF and invited people to send me instructions via Twitter. I promised to do pretty much anything people asked me to do.
It was a disaster. And not in an interesting way. But in a “how could he get this so wrong” way.
My plan was to be truly automated, to do in real time whatever I was instructed to do. If someone said, “turn right” that was what I wanted to do, assuming that it did not put me in the path of an oncoming trolley. If someone said, “burst into tears and wait for someone to come to your aid” I intended to do that too. (More on motives and objectives in a moment.)
I failed at the automated thing. The fact of the matter is I’m a nervous nelly. So I cheated. I took assignments sent me by email with me into the day. And then I asked my assistant Maria to decide which of the tweets received we would act on. (Maria Elmqvist is just graduating from the Academy of Art University. I had written to Cameron Maddux there to see if he knew of a student who could help out. Maria volunteered). This too destroyed the randomizing quality of the undertaking. (Again, more on the point in a moment.)
In the press of the moment, old habits prevailed. I have done a lot of ethnographic interviews in the street. And before I knew it, I was interviewing people. This created some interesting moments as when it become clear that a would-be respondent had just told me indirectly ‘to fuck you and leave me alone.’ Then the media found us, and that lead us to Jonathan Bloom, a really interesting guy who works for ABC7 in San Francisco. We started chatting and it turns out that Bloom is helping reinvent the world of TV journalism and I wanted to find out more about that. Then he started driving us from place to place. And by this time, my head was spinning and I was thinking, “So why did I decide to do this, again?”
So why did I decide to do this?
First, Automatic anthropologist was a culturematic and every culturematic is a hack of culture. It creates an event designed to engage, provoke, reveal culture.
In this case, turning yourself over to the direction of other people might be expected to raise questions about agency and autonomy.FN1 Specifically, “Who’s in charge?” And “How can someone surrender control of the self to other parties?”
The Automated anthropologist was designed in haste. Suddenly, I had a free day in SF and I thought, “now what?” I am just finishing a project for the Ford Foundation in which the question of individualism surfaces almost constantly. So I was thinking about autonomy and what it is to be a free standing individual.
As Americans we are deeply devoted to the idea that we are in charge. We make choices. We craft lives. We are self inventing. The idea of voluntarily giving up this agency and autonomy strikes us as odd. (And to the media, it turns out, irresistible.) Outside of S&M dungeons and other romantic encounters, giving up control is actually unamerican. We define ourselves by the idea that we are self defining.
The fact of the matter is we are only partly choosing, in charge and self inventing. We are deeply constrained and defined by social rules, cultural meanings, political forces and economic realities. I don’t make too much of this. I am not one of those social scientists who think that because we are sometimes determined by forces outside ourselves, we are wholly defined by them. Choice makes an extraordinary role in American life. But there are moments, ghoulish, quite scary moments, when we glimpse the limits of our autonomy and I wonder if the automated anthropologist could become one of these.
More simply, I think some people heard about the automatic anthropologist and thought, “Great. A monkey on a string!” It was as if they had wandered by and discovered that someone had left the door to selfhood wide open, with the keys still in the ignition! And they had an “evil genius” moment.
“Ah ha! My agency will inhabit his agency. I will make him do things that embarrass him. I will force him to hold himself up to ridicule. Finally, my chance to play the puppet master!” Americans are deeply opportunistic (I mean this in the technical sense) and this looked like one hell of an opportunity.
A higher objective of the undertaking was magic. Culturematics at their best have a way of “reenchanting the world,” to use Max Weber’s phrase. In place of the rational, the routine and the routinized, they are designed as a way to make something wonderful happen. This is what I’d been hoping for.
Perhaps the most compelling objective of the exercise was novelty, creativity, innovation, to pile up the words we use so often these days. One of the paths to innovation is randomness. And we see a passion for this these days in our passion for improv and experiment. And the Automated Anthropologist looked like a way to use randomness to march me out of the world I knew into a world I didn’t. We are self defining. We are captives of our own little gravitational fields.
These fields are the proverbial “boxes” we are always claiming to be trying to get out of, but it’s hard. Many of our choices have hardened into habits. It is very hard to escape ourselves and I thought that automation and the real time feel of advice from others might walk me straight out of the world I construct for myself into something new. (We talk grandly and often about empathy, but this is, in my opinion, merely a matter of letting difference into consciousness on a day pass with an armed guard. The chance of assumption-rocking transformation is remote.)
The learning, then, is clear. If you are going to do an event like this, you have to be scrupulous and disciplined. You have to stick to the plan. And you have to follow it wherever it takes you. No cheating. And that means you can’t do any of your own documentation. Leave that to someone else. Your job is to be completely automated…by others…all the time.
The learning may also be “don’t sent a nervous nelly on a mission like this.” Or maybe that’s just a note of personal criticism.
A note of thanks.
Sometime in the 1990s, while living in the Danforth neighborhood in Toronto, on Saturday mornings, I would wander up the record store near the Danforth subway station and fell into conversation with Dave Dyment there who introduced me to the art of the Fluxus movement and Yves Klein (see Leap, pictured). I would not have undertaken the Automated Anthropologist without this instruction.
FN1. Cliche alert. I blanche a little when I write this. How many exhibit catalogues have told us that the artist is “dealing with the whole question of agency.” (Plug “whole question of agency” into Google to see what I mean.) This has become a kind of boilerplate, the thing curators says about art without saying anything more about the topic, thus betraying reflexive behavior at the moment they wish to be critical. With some powerful exceptions of course.
For the Storify summary of the event, have a look here.
For the book from which the project stems, have a look here.
This week I took part in a #TChat on employee engagement and specifically onboarding. (Thanks to Marla Gottschalk for including me.) I found myself arguing that onboarding should introduce new hires to the deep culture of the organization, the one that is buried in assumptions and largely hidden from view. Meghan M. Biro, a founder of TChat, invited me to “break it down.” Here goes.
The corporate culture is a complicated culture. It gets reshaped every time a new leader storms the C-suite. (Marissa Mayer is transforming Yahoo now.) It is changed by a succession the managerial models (“reengineering!”) and buzzwords (“tipping point!”). McKinsey and various other consultants introduce new ideas. Mergers and acquisitions bring in new ways of seeing and doing. The average corporate culture is a crowded house, an accumulation of ideas and practices.
And it would be one thing if these ideas and practices were explicit and obvious and sat like a simple “subroutine” in the corporate code, there to be plucked cleanly out when we wanted to change things. But of course, these ideas live cheek by jowl in an unexamined mass. I can’t remember ever hearing someone say, “Oh, ok, now that we’re moving to this idea, let’s root out the old one.”
No, we muddle through, assuming, apparently, that old ideas will expire on their own, or leave in disgrace. But of course they persevere. Every so often someone will break one out during a committee meeting and we all silently think, “Welcome, old friend.” More often, they serve as an assumption we resort to “when things get complicated.” The trouble is, they have a way of making things still more complicated. After all, the ideas that works for one person or group often contradicts and wrong-foots the rest of us. You’re thinking one thing. I’m thinking another. Key projects end up as “ships passing.”
Good luck onboarding a new hire. A handbook may capture the most recent, the most explicit, and the most formal of the ideas and values that govern the culture, but that teeming mass of additional ideas it tends to leave out. It will take weeks, sometimes months for the new hire to glimpse all the ideas at work in the corporate culture and the rules that govern when and by whom they’re used. Time wasted. Value squandered. And sometimes a lost hire.
Who is responsible for this complicated culture? We have a COO for operations, a CMO for marketing, a CFO for finance. Why not a CCO, a Chief Culture Officer, for culture? As the party who grasps the welter of ideas that inform and animate the corporation, the CCO becomes a critical agent, an intervening angel. She can step in and say to two warring departments and say, “actually, you’re both right. You, department X, are using ideas that came to use from a talk Tom Peters gave here in 2005. And you, department Y, appear to be holding to the managerial mandate we got two years later when McKinsey came in. Here’s the Rosetta stone, the translation table, that sorts this out. Ok, begin again.”
Crisis management aside, the CCO can be there at the moment of creation, inventing the culture of the corporation, auditioning new ideas, integrating them with older ideas, helping clarify the mission, values and purpose of the organization. The CCO now fashions these not only as a grand statement for the annual report but as a work-a-day understanding that helps the organization day all the time.
In effect, this CCO would act as an organizing intelligence, a problem solver, a diplomatic officer, someone who can intervene when a team struggles to define its problem and its solutions. Corporations have always been complicated, but now as they learn to speak to complexity with complexity, things can get very murky very fast. A CCO, acting as an angelic intervention, would be extremely useful. “Ah, yes,” people say after a visit from the CCO, “that’s what we’re for, that’s who we are. Let’s start again.”
This is a grand calling, but I don’t think it exhausts the responsibility of the CCO. I think the corporation should ask the Chief Culture Officer to monitor and master the culture outside the corporation. And by “culture” here I mean, the cultural meanings and social rules that make up American life. When we know these meanings and rules, we negotiate daily life without a hitch. If we don’t know, life turns into a series of mysteries and frustrations. (Try ordering a cup of coffee in the Middle East and see what it’s like not to know the meanings and the rules.)
I recently gave a speech for a large, very serious federal bureaucracy. They wanted me to talk about culture in particular and Culturematics in particular, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Waiting back stage, preparing to go on, I turned to my handler and said, “What am I doing here? Why do they care about culture?” The reply was illuminating. “They keep losing their new employees. They work hard to find the right hires. But the kids come in and after a couple of weeks, they ask your question, ‘What I am doing here’ and leave.”
There will be several ways the CCO can address the issue of employee engagement but one is to use culture to craft a new connection with the hire. We can ask employees to serve as part of the intelligence net with which the corporation (or bureaucracy) keeps track of changes in the world “out there.” And now we have engaged them in something they care about. We have tapped their magnificent knowledge of popular culture. We can listen to them as they listen to one another and the world. They are now our eyes and ears. With this gesture, we honor the whole of the employee, and not the narrow part they bring to work each morning.
It is one of the peculiarities of capitalism that it has asked people to leave their other selves at the door. Someone may have a haircut that shouts “I have a life outside this place,” but we don’t want to know. Traditionally, the response has been, “We don’t know what you do on your own time and we don’t want to know. Just do your job. Everything extraneous to “job performance” is precisely that, extraneous. At best a distraction. A worst, a sign of disloyalty!” When that guy from fulfillment wanders into the cafeteria, someone asks with a small note of horror, “What do you suppose Karl does in his spare time?”
As it turns out, on the weekend Karl becomes a formidable competitor in the gaming world, when he is not working on his Anime collection. Now, there was a time when it truly didn’t matter what Karl did with his free time, but these days, the corporation wants to keep an eye on the entire waterfront of contemporary culture, especially the world of gaming. If the corporation has anything to do with entertainment, marketing or innovation, a working knowledge is essential.
Karl has a working knowledge. And he would be thrilled to be asked. He would be honored to do a brown bag lunch with other members of the organization, swapping stories, comparing notes, mapping out what they know about our culture. The organization is filled with Karls. And between them, they can map a lot of American culture. For some reason, we now ignore our Karls. I was talking to Tom Guarriello about this the other day, and he just shook his head. “When was the last time the corporation left this much value sitting on the table?”
What the corporation needs is someone who fully grasps the corporate culture inside the corporation, someone who can make this knowledge more supple, more available, more strategic and more tactical than it is now. And it needs someone who knows about culture “out there in the world.” What the corporation needs is a Chief Culture Officer.
Or so it seems to me. I welcome thoughts and comments from the HR community. I can only really to speak to “culture outside” and I welcome the chance to work with people who know about “culture inside” the corporation.
Please leave a comment below, or feel free to send me a note at email@example.com.
Baribeau, Paul. 2012. 5 ways to become the Chief Culture Officer. Workplace Tribes. August 23. Click here.
Biro, Meghan M. 2012. Time for a new leader in the C-Suite. Forbes. Aug. 13. Click here.
Biro, Meghan M. 2012. Workplace culture leaders humanize the onboarding process. Forbes. August 22. Click here.
Collins, David. 2000. Management Fads and Buzzwords: Critical-Practical Perspectives. Routledge.
Lambert, Avi. 2012. Chief Culture Officer. Squidoo. Click here.
McCracken, Grant. 2011. Chief Culture Officer. Basic Books. Click here.
McCracken, Grant. 2012. Culturematic. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Special thanks to Meghan M. Biro and Avi Lambert who encouraged me to participate in the #TChat and for the conversation that followed. Thanks to Tim Sullivan and Tom Guarriello for several discussions on the theme.
The image is an “umbraculo” in Barcelona. I like a wall that lets the inside out and outside in.
Please have a look at my recent Harvard Business Review post.
It looks at the evolution of the brand creature. This image is Sparah, the brand creature created by Virgin Mobile. There is something brewing here.
Please see my recent and wildly implausible Harvard Business Review post.
It’s about how the City of Boston could use a service called Thank Bank to create a more humane city.
Here’s my TEDxHarlem presentation. I talk about the state of cultural innovation, how its changing and how Culturematics are one way to do this innovation now.
Yesterday, I invited people to identify objects that they find telling.
I got some great answers. (Please, it’s not to late to submit. Send me entries as comments to grant27 AT gmail DOT com, or leave them as comments below.)
From Richard Shear:
I would submit two things, one I own and one I admire. The former is my Macintosh 128 purchased from a Manhattan Apple dealer on the Monday morning after the now iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad.
The latter is any plate from Josiah Wedgwood’s 944 piece "Frog" service produced for Catherine the Great, and introduced with great fanfare in a custom designed London showroom in 1773.
These are both products of unique businessmen and entrepreneurs with a keen sense of design, technology, retail merchandising, marketing, showmanship, the power of brands, and, yes, contemporary culture.
They may have been introduced 211 years apart, yet they both created the same kind of buzz, with people waiting in line anxiously anticipating the chance to see and admire. The legacy of Wedgwood has endured. It would be interesting to see where Steve Job’s legacy stands in the year 2195, 211 years after the introduction of MacIntosh 1984.
From Carol Saller:
The diary my father kept as a teen during WWII. His older brother was a bomber pilot, but Dad stayed on the farm.
Students love the war passages, the girl-crush passages, the mischief, and just generally the look into such a foreign time and place. (There are passages that make almost no sense to modern urban kids.)
The diary has launched conversations about the war, farm life, writing a diary or journal, 1940s culture, and how language changes and stays the same.
For Carol’s blog, go here.
For more on Carol’s father’s war diary,
From Grant McCracken:
This is one of the few personal things to survive from my childhood. Happily, it’s one of the most telling. It’s a toy soldier, a Scottish Highlander. It’s made from some kind of rubber. The left arm, the one bearing the rifle, actually swivels, something I found thrilling as a kid. On the bottom, it reads "Made in England."
This soldier comes from a Canada long since passed. This was the (part of) Canada that admired things British, the Canada that was still very much a part of a commonwealth, the Canada not long removed from it’s status as a colony.
How did these Canadians raise their kids? With toys that celebrated their Scottish connection as this was played out in the service of empire. It sounds a little sad, I know. But it was an excellent childhood. Any kind of service is good training. You can change the object of the service as you go.
From Steve Crandall
I have indirectly done this [the Prown teaching technique] when I teach and bring in a slide rule.
I worry about the high level of innumeracy among students and a slide rule represents an elegant way to immerse yourself in ‘back of the envelope’ calculations.
It gives a sense of what a logarithm is and you have to sort out the powers of ten and carry them in your head. It is also only approximate and I believe that gives a natural feeling towards understanding and analyzing errors and error propagation.
Of course these are archaic in general use, but it is a way to be playful with simple calculations and perhaps understand more deeply than students who blindly plug numbers into spreadsheets and the like.
From Carlen Lea Lesser:
I think it’s telling that I’m having a hard time choosing just one or two things. I was going to pick the toy stuffed rabbit I’ve had since I was a baby, but I realized I don’t have any pictures of it!
Then I racked my brain a bit and settled on my "Prophets’ Cup." I had this custom made for me a few years ago for Passover.
Traditionally there is an Elijah’s cup at Passover and some have also added a Miriam’s cup. I actually wrote my own haggadah for Passover (even sold a few copies), and evolved this concept into a "Prophets’ Cup."
To me this cup represents a lot, since it’s a product of my research, scholarship, imagination, creativity, writing, experimentation and eventual collaboration with a potter to create it. I feel like this cup presents so many opportunities to have conversations and ask questions that I guess it would be the one I would use.
We’re on. The Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp will be held May 28th in London.
Mark Earls has generously offered to act as London partner and copilot. He will give us the benefit of his remarkable grasp of cultural matters, American, British and global. I am a big admirer of Mark’s published work, and a couple of months ago I had a chance to work with him on an extended ethnographic project. Our working relationship is well tested.
A CCO boot camp runs the day from 10:00 to 4:00. We are closing in on a venue, but we do not have a formal commitment. I expect to have that soon.
The fee will be £100. This is an introductory rate. (Act now!)
The bad news: there are only 45 spaces. (Book early, book often!)
Eventbrite is handling the tickets in its always capable way. Click here for ticket details.
The boot camp is based on the book Chief Culture Officer. You do not need to have read the book to take this course.
We will look to participants to bring their knowledge of contemporary culture. In a couple of days, we will set up a Flickr site for images, articles and other data that people want to share.
We did first CCO Boot Camp in New York City in February. It went well. (See comments from participants below)
Grant’s speaking style may be seen here at a recent PSFK event (thank you, Piers): http://www.psfk.com/2010/05/video-grant-mccracken-psfk-conference-new-york-2010.html
Here’s an outline of the day
This looks at American culture. I open by reviewing the new structural properties of American culture: the rise of a dispersive culture, the occasional moments of convergence that still happen, fast culture, slow culture, the death of cool, the rise of the new, more active, consumer.
I then treat the following topics:
1. deindustrialization of food and the rise of the artisanal (what and why)
2. great room and the rebuilding of the Western home (what and why)
3. multiple selves (new rules for defining the self)
4. social networks (new rules for defining the group)
5. gift economy (new rules for capitalism)
6. global trends (cultural generalities we can make across cultures)
The afternoon I talk about the how of being a CCO. (You may or may not want me to talk about the CCO concept. If you prefer, I can just talk about American culture from an anthropological point of view.)
2. how to monitor culture (big boards, magazine, experts, early adopters, etc. how to build a grid)
3. how to think about culture (the basic building blocks from the social sciences)
4. how to act on and in culture (how to participate in culture, with advertising, social media, and cultural productions)
5. how to work with and in corporate culture (how to work with your C-suite colleagues)
Praise for the New York City CCO
Steve Nasi: The Bootcamp was a marvelous day. Amazing to be in a room full of so many folks yearning to bring a deeper kind of cultural thinking to their brands, agencies, corporations, endeavors. And the content was a brilliant mix of deep thinking and accessible content, slow and fast culture and more. It was inspirational to say the least. My poor wife had to deal with me going on about it at length. Despite this, she’s gunning to go next time.
Heather LeFevre: I really enjoyed the CCO bootcamp this weekend – was totally worth the trip from Amsterdam. better than the typical planner conference where the speaker takes an hour to recap their book – I really appreciated that you gave us information that was NOT in the book that I felt I can use in my work.
Gail Brooks: Thank you so much for bringing us the CCO boot camp! An invaluable use of my time.
Rick Liebling: As an attendee at the NYC bootcamp, I’ll confirm the comments above. I got more actionable insights from that day than a week at work. Great material, presented in Grant’s uniquely engaging style. Well worth the price of admission.
This is a transcript of an interview of Bud Caddell by Grant McCracken in New York City on December 22, 2009. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Grant McCracken: One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four, good. I think we’re good. So, so, just to give you the set up here.
Bud Caddell: Right.
Grant: I guess I have two broad questions, and the first is, how you, through Undercurrent, bring culture to the corporation. And the other question is more to do with how you interact with, work with, engage with culture, for your own purposes or for any purposes.
Bud: Right. Well when I think of when I started at Undercurrent and the work I’ve done in the past, the Internet, I mean the Internet is definitely where I come from, mostly in my point of view and my understanding of things.
Bud: The Internet still seems like this very foreign, strange, unknowable thing to most of the C-suite. In the very early days, it was enough to simply walk in and pretend to be an astronaut reporting on some alien world. To say, this is actually what "the kids" are watching, this is what’s spreading online, this is how to think about playing these spaces, and so on. But now, I think there’s an assumption that people have that they ‘get it.’ And unfortunately, they don’t.
I think the toughest bit for people to understand is the micro-targeting of groups that you have to do when you talk about culture these days, and especially how they’re networked digitally. You know, I think most brands will say, "We want to talk to music fans. Let’s design a program to get us to speak to music fans."
No one wants to self-identify themselves as a music fan anymore. It’s more like, "Are you into nerd core hip hop in Brooklyn right now?" I can talk to that group and kind of understand the social currency that’s being exchanged between that group. But I can’t tell you how to speak to music fans as a mass group because no one in the world, you know if you have a room full of real people, "Are you a music fan?" Everyone would kind of look at you like you’re an alien. And so being able to show people…
Grant: Right. You could almost do this negatively. The people who say, "absolutely not," are almost certainly music fans.
Bud: Right, right, right.
Grant: Because they just refuse the idea.
Bud: Absolutely. And how one music, how the nerd core hip hop guy in Brooklyn relates to his friends and his peers is incredibly specific to that group. And trying to design a program that reaches mass first, isn’t going to spread at all. It’s not remarkable, there’s nothing about it that’s going to appeal to anyone at a level that they’re used to now identifying to. So instead, you should go and identify these groups and suss out how you can work together with these different groups to create something that’s spreadable. And as people who see the world how I see the world; you have to collect success stories and share them every chance you get. Ford and its Fiesta Movement is an example I talk about a great deal.
Grant: Which movement?
Bud: The Fiesta Movement for Ford. The Fiesta team, of which we played a part, created a program and an idea that was totally dependent on micro-targeting. The idea was: let’s go find twenty-something YouTube storytellers who’ve learned how to earn a fan community of their own. Who can craft a true narrative inside video, and let’s go talk to them. And let’s put them inside situations that they don’t get to normally experience/document. Let’s add value back to their life. They’re always looking, they’re always hungry, they’re always looking for more content to create.
Bud: They don’t get experiences like go fly on a biplane, go wrestle an alligator, go do these ridiculous things that the team asked them to do for the program.
Bud: I should also say that fortunately, the Fiesta is a great vehicle, and could be the right vehicle for Ford at this present moment. And with the right vehicle and the right program, the Fiesta team saw 60,000 hand-raisers after the end of seven month program, 97 percent hadn’t ever owned a Ford before, and they sold 10,000 units in six days. Pre-sold online. Altogether, it’s an incredibly novel way to market and sell a vehicle; and so far, a truly successful way.
Grant: Holy Toledo.
Bud: And at this point there’s been no mass media or traditional media behind it. The team didn’t buy a standard placement on any site, it was just this distributed idea of "let’s go play in the networks that people are already spending their time in."
Grant: Boy, that’s brilliant.
Bud: And you know, that, taking that example around to people explaining how the team strove to talk to people in the way they want to be talked to, and targeted people down a very specific level in order to get success – that’s how you start to change people’s mind about how culture works, at least online. That’s the recipe for creating things that spread inside and across cultures.
Bud: And if you can’t see that kind of spread happening then what you’re doing isn’t successful, and second, it’s a bad spend of money if we’re talking about digital.
Grant: Right. Right.
Bud: If you’re not focusing on things that will amplify–or multiply, as you put it–you’re not spending your money wisely. How I dig into cultures is, I look for the outliers, the strangest possible things and I watch how they spread. It’s too difficult to study a homogenized group, for me at least. It’s the strange things, the uncomfortable things, that provide real insight. Like astro-physics, it’s the anomalies that really confound or prove our theories. And of course, I also experiment. I try and do the most ridiculous things I possibly can and see what, if anything, people will pick up on. For example, I dressed as a fictional character from Mad Men at Interesting New York and gave that presentation and I was incredibly uncomfortable. And I guess it’s about putting yourself in really uncomfortable situations. I also painted Keyboard Cat. I had this idea that I was going to start painting popular YouTube videos.
I was going to start with Keyboard Cat because I caught it at the exact, perfect climax of it’s popularity. It just appeared on the Colbert Report. So I painted it within a week and I put it on eBay and astonishingly it sold for a thousand dollars.
Bud: Just ridiculous, I mean and it was really uncomfortable to go drop off that painting because I thought I’d been Punked. I thought I was going to show up and it was going to be a big laugh. But no, someone really found that valuable to them. And they send me photos of it. I’m not sure of any other way to understand culture without mucking about in it.
Grant: Right. Nice. So in the first case, you’re looking for–it’s as if–it’s as if you believe that there is, somewhere in the world, a tiny perfect culture. In the case of Fiesta, right, there’s a tiny group of people, deeply committed fans, who can be relied upon to express that commitment through something that’s then distributable. And then that’s the–so the trick is to get down to, to find them wherever they are in the world. And that’s like sorting, sorting, sorting till you get right down to "this is the group." And then taking that message and working it’s way up from their particular enthusiasm to a larger group. Is that right?
Bud: Right, and I think that–I often say, "kill the influencers" or kill that idea that there’s the same group of people that can help you spread anything. If you can just talk to this one guy over and over, and over, and over again, for anything you’re doing, you’ll see success. Bah. It’s really about finding a group of people who, when you can provide the right kind of value to them, your objectives or your purpose aligns. These people really needed more content to grow their fan‑ship. And that was something the Fiesta team could provide.
And you know it was also about "and then multiply this by a hundred." The team found a hundred of these people, gave them cars for six months with free gas and free insurance. And really just let them go, they didn’t have rules on how they had to talk about the car.
And Ford actually asked them not to use the Ford logo in any of the videos because they didn’t want commercials – they wanted stories that were told by these people. The team just gave them opportunities to do ridiculous/amazing/funny/important things. And then the bulk of the team’s work was to ask and offer good ideas for YouTube videos, aka missions. Each agent had to complete one mission per month, that was their sole requirement, so it was up to the team to either probe the agents for ideas or bake up compelling ideas for content.
The missions involved everything from volunteer for meals on wheels to take a box of kittens and see if they’ll play soccer.
Bud: Yeah. And through that, there’s actually a great video floating around from one of our agents where another YouTube vlogger brought up the question of YouTube creators being paid or sponsored. And our agent created this amazing video response detailing the program more coherently than I ever could and the team never asked her to say a thing. She just said, basically, "They’ve just come to me and said, ‘How can we make what you’re doing better? And how can we give you more things to video?’" We had no idea that she was going to do that. That she had actually created–but it was a perfect, like–she captured perfectly what we were trying to do.
Grant: Right. Hm. And Ford was happy?
Grant: They must have been thrilled.
Bud: Yeah, they’re ecstatic.
Grant: Was there an intermediate period where they thought, "What is this? We’re losing confidence?" I mean, before the sales numbers came in.
Bud: Right. You know, I have to say Ford was pretty bold. I think, especially the team we had the pleasure of working with, had earned a good deal of trust all around before the program was ever conceived or conducted.
Bud: And also this wasn’t–the campaign started off right at the high point of the crisis for the auto bailouts.
Bud: And we hadn’t yet even gotten the announcement that Ford was the only brand not asking for money. This was still when, you know, "Are they going to survive? What are they going to do?" And I have to say, it was incredibly bold of them to say, "This is what we’re going to do." But it was also, in terms of what they normally spend advertising cars; it was a tiny, tiny fraction of that. Because we weren’t doing any TV. No print. No traditional media in any way. The cost was the cost of bringing the cars over from Germany.
Bud: And then the associated cost of just–the cost of maintaining the vehicles for six months.
Grant: It feels to me like the perfect opposite of your approach, is the one that I heard about when I–the first work I ever did as an anthropologist doing commercial work was for Methuen Esty. And I was working on the Jeep account. And they were telling me. People would talk about the culture of Detroit. And they would talk about this guy who was called–and they had some name for him, like "60 minute Henry" or something.
Grant: He would only shoot at dawn during the magic hour. And he would only shoot when the light was perfect.
Grant: Your ad could take, like a month and a half to shoot.
Grant: Fantastically expensive! But in those days, that was still OK.
Grant: You’re talking about something vastly less expensive.
Bud: Frankly, I can’t say, because I don’t know. I can say that for most campaigns or executions, it was tiny. And part of that was simply because it was kept small. A small team. At any other brand, there are dozens of agencies sitting at the same supper table wanting a meal from every single project. A real trouble for most brands these days seems to be the number of mouths they have to feed.
Grant: Yeah, totally.
Bud: And then the management of those agencies is the most, you know, consumptive of time and energy, really. It’s amazing to me the burden the modern brand manager faces.
Grant: Right. Yeah.
Bud: Just to orchestrate all these different moving parts together is difficult. And then at the same time, that time spent isn’t going directly to make the product better or make the advertising better or more effective.
Grant: Right. Exactly.
Bud: At the end of the day, it’s hard to say what exactly all that effort has bought you. This isn’t exactly the most hospitable environment for a good idea.
Grant: Yeah. It’s like the great whale called Ford has all of these barnacles kind of attached to it. And they have to feed. They have to sustain themselves. They’re like pilot fish following a shark or something. Yeah. Totally.
Bud: [laughs] Well, most brands are like that. My experience with Ford was, happily, the exact opposite. But I suppose that anyone who has money right now, especially with what the economy is, answers a lot of phone calls. I suppose it’s the nature of our industry now – the splintering. It forces brands that outsource this work to juggle a myriad of teams and organizations to see anything through.
Grant: Yeah. And it will privilege the existence of people inside each of their organizations who are not necessarily the most creative, or the most interesting. And so that even after the agency detaches from this client, it will be different.
Grant: It will be less indie. That’s interesting. So, you–just to talk for a moment about Undercurrent. You were saying that the two founders have different approaches to culture?
Bud: Right. Well, I can’t give away too much of what makes us special, but we have, Josh Spear, who comes from an entrepreneurial/blogging background, he’s been blogging at Josh Spear for a quite a while now – one of the first people to actually make a real go of it. And he uses his site to highlight the newest and most interesting things he’s seeing.
Bud: He’s definitely not what you’d call a trend hunter, that he goes out and makes these documents that say, "Orange and red and violet are going to be the big colors next year." But he’s kind of, he was tasked from a very early stage of identifying these small groups doing really interesting things, and kind of staying ahead of that. And then Aaron Dignan, who comes from branding, and I’d also say from kind of a Behavioral Psychology background–really starts to think about motivations of people, and how they work together in a more collective/collaborative way. And so together, that’s an incredibly powerful kind of duo, I think.
And that’s, I mean, if I can say, I think that’s what has made us successful today. Is those two viewpoints coming together. And then we have, the third partner who’s incredibly talented in actually building, running an agency and understanding how the agency world works.
Grant: Right. Is he Canadian?
Bud: No, he’s not Canadian. [laughter]
Grant: Often it’s a Canadian. And so, your role in Undercurrent?
Bud: My role, I’m a Strategist at Undercurrent. So it’s the day-to-day strategy work of identifying a brand’s objectives, identifying the places they want to play. And crafting a strategy, either for something that’s as quick as the next two weeks for a project. What a project would look like over the next six months? To what should this giant global brand look like in 2014?
Bud: And kind of taking the long view for them that way.
Grant: Right. Right.
Bud: And everything in between.
Grant: Yeah. And how do you do that? I mean, that’s a ridiculous question…
Bud: Right, right.
Grant: …so I’ll leave it to you. But how do you do that?
Bud: For me, it’s about trying to understand the small, small subcultures themselves, and actually digging in… research… surveys… focus groups… or just peering in and asking critical questions. I also think it’s both easy and critical to create digital experiments that can collect data for us about what people are doing/saying/sharing and how they interact with new stimuli. I very much focus on the data we all tend to cast off during our normal every day digital behaviors.
Bud: So if it’s…
Grant: I love that notion of people "throwing off data."
Bud: Right! And there’s just so much intelligence that brands could be capturing out there. Based on that data. And everyone’s really just sticking to these things print out as pretty trend lines over time. Real data, valuable data, is usually a bit messier than that. At least at the start.
Bud: So a brand manager or marketer might say, "let’s just look at sentiment." Sentiment can only offer so much. Because it doesn’t say the influence of that person speaking. It doesn’t really say how that conversation is affecting people in a connected network. It’s just a percentage that you can track over time. But we can look at what people are talking about…your brand, and the words that they associate with them. And also, who are these groups? You know, that are actually speaking about it? Is it a tightly-wound group? Is it a large but not very connected group that’s talking about it? And what does that mean for anything you want to do there? What can you learn about these barely connected groups before you try to influence them?
Bud: And then I look at the brand. I suppose that’s a bit backwards from how it’s done traditionally. But people come first, corny, but true. Understanding how and why people behave the way they do is the first step to understanding what they can do on your behalf. But it means starting with the mess. Starting with the tiny interactions and seeing where they lead.
Grant: Yeah. The "macroscope."
Bud: Right, right. Yeah.
Grant: Is that your term?
Bud: No, it’s actually a term I’ve borrowed. I can’t remember the originator but it’s a great one. It’s like watching these tiny interactions kind of funnel back into a larger system.
Grant: Right. Oh, there’s something I wanted to ask here. And then somebody started vacuuming.
Grant: Oh! You said that the people at Undercurrent, Undercurrent sort of sees you as somebody–you said you can "do stuff quick." And then you have sort of disposable time. And it sounds like the–Undercurrent’s quite happy to have you use that in risky ways. Which is to say you try stuff, it doesn’t work, well, that’s OK.
Grant: Can you take us through that?
Bud: I can say that I work for and with people that trust me to use a small percentage of my time to experiment. I think Undercurrent understands the importance of intellectual curiosity – we work in an industry where it’s almost enough to simply sound right – these are the so-called experts. But it’s not enough to simply sound right – you need to be right – especially when someone is paying for your thinking. So I’m allowed time to experiment and to do ridiculous things. like, pretend to be a fictional character from a TV show on Twitter. And I’m also allowed to read an inordinate amount of information everyday that makes me smarter, and makes me better at what I do.
Bud: And once you have, say, 20 people inside your walls that have that time, it’s only multiplicative. It only makes you smarter on a much larger scale. when everyone can kind of share with one another the really interesting things they’re finding, the conclusions that they’re drawing, and can question each other. And that time to draw those conclusions together, to hash things out, that’s sacred time for any organization.
Grant: Right. The Mad Men Experiment. Could you just, for the record…
Grant: …take us through what you were thinking and how you got involved in that? And the question I’m especially interested in was, was that for you? Or was that for Undercurrent? Or, does that difference really not make any difference?
Bud: Right, right. it’s definitely still kind of a blurred line. You know, what these activities are for, and who they’re for. But when I started The Mad Men Experiment, it was–at first it was just, I saw a couple characters on Twitter and I thought that was amazing. I thought, "I love the TV show, I love Twitter," and I loved how advertising people loved the show and loved Twitter. It was the perfect environment for the right kind of exercise.
So I decided to create a fake character that could "insert himself" into the scenes that he’d be able to comment on. Kind of like a "Puck." Someone who can sit off-scene a bit and make judgments, or commentary.
And really, from there, after all the accounts were shut down, and Twitter took them down, and people were outraged, you know. It really affected me from just my point of view of how culture happens, and how narrative exists for a fan, and how people should be able to play with it.
I grew up watching Sci-Fi. My memories of being a kid and watching TV with my dad was, we watched "Star Trek: Next Generation" every day. When he got home, my father is a contractor–so when he’d get home he was exhausted. And we didn’t have a lot of conversations. We just watched Star Trek.
Bud: And, you know, the idea of the Holo-deck, even into "Star Trek," I think is fascinating. There are characters on a TV show creating their own narratives inside the TV show.
Bud: So they played with narrative in really interesting ways. And that’s how I saw things. And growing up–when I was a kid, too, I made my own comics and things like that. This idea of when I take characters and do really interesting things with them, that’s an expression of my fandom. That’s an expression of my passion for the show.
Bud: And to attack that as a content creator seems just incredibly dumb. There’s no other word for it. And so when I saw that, I built the website WeAreSterlingCooper.com to be a manifesto and a catalog of different articles that people were writing about what was happening. It captured all of the characters’ Tweets, and it was there to stand for something. I think sometimes we need a crystallized message of exactly what’s happening inside these micro-communities to reverberate more loudly. That was the right moment for that, I think. : I mean it obviously kind of worked out that way.
Grant: Yeah. How did it shape, form what–I take it–it never worked back to the show itself?
Bud: Right, right, right.
Grant: You’d hoped it would, right?
Grant: Just tell us, in a perfect world, what your hope was that the show might actually embrace…
Bud: Right. I was hoping that the creators of the show would see the very specific behaviors that were going on. And the behaviors that were going on were people were asking the characters hint-questions right before the show would air every Sunday. They’d want to look for a hint. Because at first, everyone thought these characters were actually created by the show. And so they were actually expecting to get kind of teased before the show started. And then there were lots of conversations going on between commercial breaks about, "Oh my God, did you see this?" and they expected the characters to reply back to them.
Bud: And then off-season, I was really hoping that that would be a time that they could play around with narratives. Bring in, you know, third-party characters that no one’s even heard of before. Kind of like play like a little offstage action going on, there.
Bud: And that’s just what I was hoping is that they would come to some of these people that have proven themselves over weeks and weeks of time, writing really amazing content. Working together in really collaborative ways. And tease, even if the brand just teased out a little bit of information that Sunday before the show had aired.
Bud: And then it would look like one of the Tweets were really prescient about something that would happen. And that would create a huge spark of interest. Especially on Twitter. Because Twitter is such a medium for media fandom. Like that’s what’s happening on Twitter right now. It’s full of people expressing their opinions about shows they’re currently tuning into, and things that happened last night.
And it’s a perfect environment for that kind of thing to happen. And it’s just Tweets. It’s such a small investment of time and creative energy to be able to send a few characters’ waves, and just see what happens.
Grant: Yeah, yeah. and it’s like that "Share it Now" you were talking about in your Slideshare deck. It allows, Twitter does–I don’t know what the number is–hundreds or thousands of people. And because it means that everybody can only communicate in these tiny bursts, then many more–there’s an absolute relationship to how tiny the message is to how many people can actually participate, I think.
Bud: Right, right. It’s also interesting because what it takes to actually become a trending topic on Twitter is interesting. It really doesn’t take much. It takes only about a thousand Tweets per hour. Last time I measured it.
Grant: And so, a very small conversation between–a very small but passionate group of people can actually push things into trending topics. And then that–trending topics bring so much attention to things. So it’s a great place for brands to play with. Especially media brands.
Bud: Yeah, totally.
Bud: Like, they should play in that space as often as they possibly can, throw out as much content to these creators as they can to hope–to spike those trending topics.
Grant: Right, right. And so, "Mad Men" had a celebrity effect. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I know about you.
Grant: Is that…
Grant: "Here was this guy who…." Right? And that would just point around. And it was like, it was galvanizing. It was like, really? You know. It was really this magnificent act of poaching. Taking something that was in the mainstream, and making it–giving it this trans‑media presence and stuff. So it was really–people were agog at the sheer imagination and the daring, and the–I perhaps shouldn’t have said that. ‘Cause the next question is, how did it change your public persona?
Bud: Right, well…
Grant: And your private one for that matter?
Bud: Well, I mean, I can also say that at the time I was trying to publish the report, I received quite a few anonymous emails that had threatened me…
Bud: …about ever working in advertising again.
Bud: Right. [laughs]
Grant: From who? [overlapping] Who would write something like that?
Bud: Well, I mean, the interesting thing is, when I published the report, actually, the head of rather well known agency called my boss. And just asked, "Have you read this thing? Have you seen what he said?" It was really insane, because I had tried to actually get him on the phone before I published it to ask him a few questions to include in the report.
Bud: And I very much, you know. I never intended for it to make anyone a villain. It was just a really complex story that I could tell. And, everyone’s point of view, there’s definitely a lot of validation for it. But he would never speak to me. But the first call he made, when it came out, was to my boss who just said, "It’s great, isn’t it?"
Bud: And then he hung up the phone. I thought that was a shame and so, at first, it was like what am I actually doing here? I am so ignorant of how the advertising industry itself works. It’s a bit like that. But also, people kind of came out of the woodworks. People who have been creating and supporting fan-fiction for a long time expressed interest in what I was doing, and they’ve since shown me incredible support in many things I’ve done.
I think too, it’s just about I found the right time, and I had the right point of view for that right moment. I think for anything I’ve done that has actually gotten popular that’s really it. I had the right point of view at the exact right time, and found enough people around me that were willing to help me push that.
end of part 1
Grant: You’re making it sound as if you just happened…this is just a piece of good fortune, but if you do it often enough it’s not good fortune it’s you consulting what?
Bud: It’s about conducting a thousand tiny experiments every year.
Grant: Oh, and some of them work and some of them don’t.
Bud: Some of them work and some of them don’t. And it’s about constantly reading and constantly staying on top of different conversations and taking the temperature of many, many different people. And asking them their opinions on wide-ranging things. So as I wrote my report, I asked many of Henry Jenkins’ researchers questions about the topic. And I sought out everything written about fan-fiction, transmedia, and content creation I could and some I used and some I discarded.
It seemed like what was going on with conversations around trans‑media really made sense with what was happening inside fandom – and the consortium kids at MIT knew this and were already blurring the line.
And there seemed to be these merging subcultures, all going towards the same place. And I tried.‑‑and what I wrote was trying to pull these together and say, "We’re all going to the same place here."
Grant: Right, and that’s an academic place, or do you mean a cultural place?
Bud: Right. More of a cultural place.
Bud: Fueled by those small academic groups. They were the ones asking really interesting, tough questions. I mean a lot of times it’s frustrating because they are such unanswerable questions. But they are really puzzling moments. I think if you put enough of them together and experiment with them, really interesting things could happen.
Grant: Yeah. So you do experiments that draws other people in, or drives them out, but whatever happens that is all grist for the mill. That’s all kind of data you can use to take the temperature of the moment.
Bud: And I can use that later for anything else I’m doing, because I’m testing a few of my hypotheses. Another example is a site I built that allowed anonymous strangers to exchange secrets via email, At Your Secret Service. I had watched these overlapping groups of friends go from visiting PostSecret every week to posting a personal on Nerve.com. And for some reason, those two behaviors together interested me. Maybe it’s because my best dates have always involved spilling way too many secrets to a total stranger…
But I thought, how can I build something that start that interaction? And what happens from there? Like if I just get two balls going down the same hill together, how do they collide? And a lot of things I wondered with that was just about peoples feelings about anonymity online, and the security of personal information. It’s like a big thing to play with, before I go and talk to a major brand who might want to put money against a kernel of an idea. It’s good that I have experimented with it before, and I understand people’s reaction to it.
Grant: So sometimes it’s instrumental but sometimes it is just a brute curiosity.
Grant: What will happen if…?
Bud: So painting YouTube videos was just extreme curiosity. Because it’s also one of my hobbies that I enjoy, painting, because it’s a hobby that I have that I don’t obsess over. I can just be completely awful at it and it’s important to have a few of those. Because everything else I do I trying to be better than myself at. But that was one I could just be like, "it’s time I can unwind and not obsess over this." But now it’s become that, simply because of the success of that painting. But that was really just me saying I don’t think there is a lot of difference between our shared experiences watching the same videos on YouTube as it was painting animals on the cave walls.
I know that sounds kind of ridiculous but a shared experience that we had with one another and things that we talk about. So I was thinking, "What if I painted those? And could I sell them online?" Just enough to recoup the canvass and the paint. And it ended up being‑‑selling for $1000 and the canvass and the paint cost me $50. It is just amazing the way that just happened to work.
Grant: So this is kind of your world as a laboratory and you try different things. It sounds like you welcome inspirations, you welcome new ideas when they’re inspirations and you are not doing a careful serving process where you say, "Yes, this is a good idea because it will accomplish this goal, or give me this kind of data, or speak to this clients need." Something comes in over the transit, just, well‑‑you tell me. It doesn’t seem like you are doing a careful auditioning of these ideas. Many ideas come over and how do you recognize the ones you want to follow up on?
Bud: It’s a bit of questioning labor and how labor intensive these things are. How quickly can I execute a very, very small nugget of my curiosity? Just to see what it will turn into. Can I build it from there, and that’s exactly what I tell my clients to do as well. Find that speck of dust that could turn into a pearl and just see what happens, meaning measure the hell out of it. Instead of aligning every bit of resource that you have in your agency and your brand to execute a single idea; Do a thousand tiny small experiments, and the ones that actually start to catch on fire, start putting wood on them and see where that goes.
Grant: So you want them doing a thousands things?
Bud: I do. And it could align and it should align with their overall strategy. So if it’s a Pepsi, it’s the idea of multiplicity. The idea that they can create these diverging messages and diffuse them out to the world. They should be doing an enormous amount of things at once. And trying to create meanings inside different communities. Because that really fits their brand. They’re not continuity, like Coke would be. They have the freedom to express themselves like an artist.
Grant: Totally. Totally. But however many ideas you have, not all of them‑‑and even after you’ve said, "Can I execute this quickly?" You still have more ideas than you can execute.
Grant: How do you sort?
Bud: I sort by keeping a really engaging group of people around me that I can bounce ideas off of. That’s step one. Ideas tend to vomit out of my mouth, too. I don’t hold them or keep them precious. I don’t keep anything to myself. I talk to anyone I possibly can that’s around me and say, "I have this idea." Or "Do you think this is interesting, too? Maybe we can do this?" And their reaction to it, I gauge if they find it interesting. If this incredibly bright, diverse, and interesting group around me finds this interesting, there might be something to it afterall. And then I think about things like, "How quickly can I execute? Can I execute it by myself? How many more people do I need to involve in this to make it happen?"
And sometimes an idea requires an army. I’ve tried to launch a website plannerreads.com, that grabs all the aggregated shared items from all the planners that I could possibly find on the Internet. And just accumulate them and say, "these are the most shared topics right now. These are the articles everyone is reading."
That was just something where I needed to get an army of people together to make that happen. But that benefits all of us, because now there is a resource out there where you can go and find this all. And see, here we are, and this is what were interested in.
Grant: And where is that?
Bud: It’s plannerreads.com. It’s constantly broken, and I’m constantly trying to change things. And I’m not exactly sure what it will evolve into but there it is. Step One. I also come into ideas because I notice behaviors that are shared among like‑minded people. There’s just so many of us inside Google Reader and there are so many of us who express ourselves by sharing things, sharing different advertising topics that we’re currently reading. So what can I do with that behavior? And what can I do with that data?
Grant: I love that idea of people just streaming with data. I know when I was reading your Slideshare deck about now. I like the idea of people sort of streaming through a "now." And then I like the idea of, I don’t know quite‑‑the visual is something like, you know what I mean? Like if you do the visual that shows‑‑that shows, I don’t know. Anyhow, sorry. I just like that idea of everyone giving off data.
Bud: It’s like a comet’s tail, right? And it’s just there waiting to be looked at and tracked and understood. And also what we’re really missing is how does that data change over time? And what can we learn there?
Bud: What are my behaviors now that I didn’t have six months ago?
Bud: How are my behaviors changing? And we could track most of that. It’s sitting out there. Dormant. But at the same time, brands are fine spending millions of dollars for research with focus groups of a hundred people. I’m making it sound too easy – it’s a monumental challenge, collecting that data, and extracting insights from it. But it’s there. The opportunity. The oil’s there, we just have to drill for it.
Grant: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m interested in how guilty I am of a kind of amnesia where my ideas are changing and I’m not fully aware that they’re changing. So it’s only when I stumble upon an old email that I think, "Man!"
Bud: [laughs] Right.
Grant: "I don’t think that!" But obviously I once did and I somehow quietly concealed the transition from the old idea to the new idea. So it’s useful‑‑I like the idea of something imprinting function. It’s like stamping, you know? So you have that stream that’s passing through you. And if, just to get an imprint at some interval. It would be interesting just for individuals.
Bud: And making guesses. I like to make guesses and just write them down. Where do I think…? A lot of people seem to be using Foursquare. When do I think Foursquare will hit 300,000 users? And I’ll write that down, and come back to it later.
Bud: You know? And just try to make guesses about how these new things that are popping up on the Web, what will exactly happen with them. Or, like, where Lady Gaga will be a year from now? It will be interesting. Interesting question. How many actual records will she sell of her next album? If Apple releases the fabled Tablet, will the stock go up or down? Stack up your assumptions, make a guess, write it down, and figure out where you went right or wrong.
Bud: And record as many of those as possible I think. Because if you don’t know your hit or miss rate, it’s really easy to buy into this idea that you understand what’s going on. Because that’s the dark side of digital, is that you can surround yourselves with only people who are like‑minded. So you could constantly have this feedback saying, "Yes, we’re all correct, at all times."
Grant: Right, yeah, yeah, no. exactly. And then there’s that terrible kind of self‑congratulation that people have, ’cause they’re all in the know.
Bud: Right. Yeah.
Grant: But you’re not very different from somebody who doesn’t have a clue. They have a little noise‑making contest in this room, every‑‑just about this time. So…just making a racket. Yeah, very good.
Bud: I think it comes, my idea of experimentation just comes from being a coder. Growing up, playing with code. But I was never really trained in how to program. But the idea of, "I think I can make this because I see something over here, and I see something over there. And I think I can do something with that."
Bud: And teaching kids that, I think, is really important. Teaching them to experiment with possibilities, not just code and code structure. But just, can you make that happen? What’s the possibility of that?
Grant: Yeah. Yeah. Listen, we’re going to get driven out of here. How are you doing time wise? It’s 3:00.
Bud: I’m fine. I’m actually off today.
Grant: Are you? Then I’m just going to pause this. Just start this. So we were just talking about the‑‑this place where this is, maybe….shoot. It’s not very stable is the trouble. Something, put it all‑‑that sugar dish was perfect as a stabilizer. But if we just leave it here that maybe will do. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4. If you could just say a couple of things?
Bud: I’m just talking now. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4.
Grant: That’s pretty good but it’s not tremendous. Keep talking if you would?
Bud: My name is Bud Caddell I am [laughs] testing the microphone on your recording device now. [microphone noises]
Maybe, I might have something in my bag you can prop it up with.
Grant: Oh, that’s a good idea.
Bud: Or maybe my bag itself. I’ve got two books, that might work.
Grant: Totally. [laughter] Great.
Bud: Maybe in between them?
Grant: Sure. Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to work. But maybe if that just gets us closer to it.
Grant: Can we just go to the washroom?
Bud: Yeah, yeah.
Grant: Yeah, so I’ll be right back. [long pause, background noises and distant talking until 48:07]
Grant: Ah, so where were we? This is an amazingly uncomfortable couch, isn’t it?
Bud: It is.
Grant: It’s like…
Bud: This middle cushion.
Bud: I like the elephant head on the wall, though.
Grant: Isn’t this amazing? It’s like younger gentlemen, killing everything that moved.
Bud: Right, it’s safari in the library, you know. [laughter] I like it.
Grant: God. It really is, there’s a wonderful museum in Montreal on like the campus of McGill that like it is itself a museum piece.
Grant: it captures that Victorian enthusiasm for cataloging and stuff and there’s a way in which this is kind of an archaeological remainder.
Bud: It is.
Grant: So you cast the net wide, in terms of listening, you were saying, to 400 blogs, reading 400 blogs.
Bud: Right. Right.
Grant: And how do you choose those 400?
Bud: I try to choose them based on some kind of diversity. I don’t want to read too many social media blogs, I don’t want to read too many advertising blogs, I try to make sure that they are written from different points of views, written by and for completely different audiences, I subscribe to five or ten, you know, just image‑sharing sites.
Bud: Where people can kind of post what they found across the Internet and I watch what is trending there, that to me is just as interesting as what’s going on right now.
Grant: Sorry, what was that, where do you see the, where are you most interested in seeing stuff trending?
Bud: In image‑sharing sites?
Bud: So those are sites where people have an account where they can grab images from across the web and say, "this is what I’m sharing right now."
Bud: And you’ll see, you know Britney Murphy, the actress who just died?
Bud: And before I read that on the New York Times or anywhere else, her photos just took over all these photo sites. Like people were just cataloging like every movie she’s ever been in, every shot that they could find about her, across the Internet, and I saw this slew of them, so I knew something must have happened.
Grant: Right, right.
Bud: You’ll see Johnny Depp trend on certain days and you’ll wonder why or what new story about him has caused that to happen. It’s just a really interesting way of looking at a different kind of output. And, and, wondering why those kind of interactions are taking place. And I try to grab from as many different sources as possible and I’ll always to keep it if it interests me, you know, in any way, even if it’s just purely curiosity’s sake, it’ll stay on my reader for awhile, and I’ll kind of demo it and if it doesn’t really fit or if I’m not getting as much value from it, I’ll kick it out.
And I’ve tried to, you know, I’ve tried to weed that reader down to maybe 200‑300 blogs. My ability to make it through my Reader is dependent on the work that has to get done in my email box, though, of course.
Grant: Mm‑hmm. Mm‑hmm.
Bud: And I go through my reader at such a fast clip.
Grant: You must.
Bud: I do.
Grant: And you must, I sort of, I guess it’s just me, but I sort of have to sit and then think, look at something and then read it and then sort of think about it, so I’m really slow but it sounds like you just sort of blast through.
Bud: I burn through it and I look for things that stand out to me based on topic, based on what I’m seeing and I’ll save those posts to go deeper on later.
Bud: But I go through it so fast, I want a foot pedal for my computer. One that so I can just keep tapping my foot to go to the next item while I’m eating or writing or anything else.
Grant: Right. And are you good at framing? I mean, I’m kind of good at, I mean, you know, I see what I see, but it takes me a lot longer to go, well, what is this? You see a glint of something in a blog post and you think, oh this is just another point of view. Assembling that point of view, it’s like, you know dealing with an old fashioned Hollywood camera, like a team of men kind of have to like move it to get the new view perspective, but it feels like you’re pretty nimble in that regard.
Bud: I think it just comes from empathy. I try to assimilate or try to understand people’s point of views quickly when I encounter them.
Grant: Mm‑hmm. Mm‑hmm.
Bud: And I try to dissect how they see their world. And it helps that I’m just a really good sponge. If you put me near someone, and near someone who has talent or ability or interests that I have no idea about…
Bud: I really try to glom onto it and figure out how it works.
Grant: What is that? Where’s that from, you figure, in your case?
Bud: Well, it’s funny because you know, like I said, my father is a contractor.
Bud: And he has this amazing ability to take apart any machine and put it back together and watching him do that as a kid was amazing and unfortunately, I got none of that ability myself. You know, my brother and my sister can take apart anything and put it back together, my sister took apart an Apple IIE when we got it as kids and put it back together and she was six.
Grant: Whoa. Whoa.
Bud: And so my, I have that ability to kind of disassemble things and reassemble them, but for ideas or point of views – I think that’s the manifestation of my father’s gift. And so when I meet people, that’s what I really do, I try to "suss out" their motivations, their filters, in order to see the world they see.
And literally I’ve collected so many different kinds of people over the years – it’s an amazing tool to use to see things from different perspectives; like trying on new eyes, how would Aaron see this? How would Jamie see this?
Grant: Nice. Nice.
Bud: And how can I understand all of it in the context of what I’ve seen before.
Grant: Yep. So you have, you have a set of pattern recognitions, depending on people you’ve worked with, whose characteristic pattern recognition you now sort of decoded and internalized.
Grant: And, that you need Aaron’s pattern recognition, that just happens, I’m assuming, just when you’re engaging with a problem that’ll just swim in.
Bud: Right, right.
Grant: It’s not because you, you’re not in fact canvassing possibilities, that stuff’s purely intuitive, unconscious.
Bud: I feel like it, right. Like when I’m reading something or when I’m seeing a new headline, you know I really do, it bounces in my head almost in his voice.
Bud: He’s in my head dissecting it for himself.
Grant: Nice, nice. And so a lot’s coming in and it sounds like you’re not always having to reach an opinion about what it is you see. That’s you read some stuff without reaching a conclusion and it, it has a kind of latency, is that the term people are using now? It exists in your pre‑conscious mind and you’ll call upon it later, if and when it’s useful.
Bud: Yeah, I definitely try to reserve my point of view for things until I, because when I’m at this, my behavior when I’m going through my reader is such a fast‑paced behavior, that I don’t want to subject things that I’m seeing to a direct point of view at that kind of speed. Especially because, you know, I’m dealing with very subjective topics when it comes to culture itself.
Grant: Mm. Mm. So you’re moving back and forth from the microscopic to the macroscopic?
Bud: Right, right. And it’s‑‑it really is a frenzy of attention splitting and then a very, very, deep dive on it later. I’d love it if I could say it’s a very conscious switch on my part but it really is just part of my process at this point. It happens when it happens – usually when something repeats something a friend has said, or a colleague questioned, or I’ve seen from the past.
Grant: Mm‑hmm. So you’re casting the net wide, you’re taking lots in, oh are you using any particular software to keep track of, to tag things and sort them and keep them?
Bud: I use Google Reader to burn through a standard set of sources, the 300+ blogs. I use Delicious to catalog things that I’m actually going through and find some value in bookmarking for later consumption. I use Twitter to bounce through what my social graph is sharing at the time and to also throw out nuggets of ideas myself. See that’s another thing, I test my point of view of things, by sharing the link and attaching only a sliver of my point of view, where I’m kind of headed with it, and I send that out to, you know those 3,000 people that follow me on Twitter and they echo back to me such a splintering of their opinions and their takes on things.
Grant: Right. And is that truly a splintering or do you end up seeing that there are three different points of view, or there are three points of view but only one of them interests you and you discard the other two, or… How do you organize the public’s reactions?
Bud: I think I… Right. I think I see extremes. I think that’s how people want to express themselves there. And that’s the trap we find ourselves falling into, I suppose. You know I’ll get back three extreme points of view based on what I just shared, and I can weigh those against each other and say, "Where in the middle of this does this actually lay, or is it one of these extremes?"
Grant: Yeah. And are you keen to find that middle position?
Bud: Personally, I like to view things first through as much of a black and white lens as I can to try to, you know… And see what falls into those accepted filters already. First and foremost, is this one of those rare occasions when something is black and white? But when it doesn’t fit that box, or it confuses me and I’m perplexed or puzzled, that means there’s obviously more nuance to it. And that’s when things‑‑alarm bells go off in my head and that’s when I know to dive deep into things.
Grant: Nice. I don’t know if‑‑but in the book, I talk a bit about working with my advisor at Chicago called Salens, who stops and finds something in my paper, and that was a good paper, but because he’s got something that he can’t make work. And that’s when you see him stop and really begin to think about, "Is this something new in the world for which I need new categories?" Or, you know, "There’s something imperfect about my categories and how might I change them? And having changed them, what happens to the thing I think I have here?" Is that kind of what we’re talking about here?
Bud: I think, absolutely, that’s exactly what it is. And that’s when you’ll see me‑‑I think my coworkers will laugh about it, but that’s when you’ll see me just stare blankly at my computer and get up and go to an empty whiteboard and I’ll start drawing or diagramming things. That’s the moment when something does not compute with a very finite set of rules I’ve given myself to use as filters – and that means things can actually begin to get interesting.
Grant: Right, nice. So lots coming in with…in moments of examination and reflection, and then lots goes out in the hundreds, thousands of experiments a year.
Bud: Something, you know.
Grant: Whatever it is.
Bud: Something like that.
Grant: Yeah. But that’s you kind of almost taunting the world. I mean, I have this image, kind of, of a child with a stick. [laughs] Forgive me now, I’m not diminishing you.
Bud: [laughs] No, no, no.
Grant: Yeah, but it’s almost like, "If I provoke the world, what will it do?"
Grant: Which is… Is it kind of like that?
Bud: Yeah, and I think that’s the route I take with blogging, too. I’ll throw out a point of view or specific topic with a really sharp point of view that I know isn’t really well‑formed or isn’t, you know. I know that it’s going to cause people to say something, and that’s the interesting part for me; being able to have people to respond to the things I write and say…And then also they bring me, not only different points of views but different research that I haven’t read yet, different work on the topic. Like today when I said, "Is social media plateau‑ing?" I said that to cause a reaction.
Grant: Right, and you got one from me.
Bud: Right, and I got… I checked my phone just now and I got someone who is arguing your same point of view, that it’s something that’s more known. But I know that when I say that, I’m going to call out two camps, and each camp is going to have their point of view. And it’s impossible for me to understand what they’ll bring to the table beforehand, but that reaction to it I find so interesting. I’ve actually talked to some successful bloggers and they tell me that they craft a blog post and then they take out the last two paragraphs. You know, they take out that resolution.
Bud: They keep it in conflict, they keep people wanting to come back to it.
Grant: Right, that’s brilliant. And I always feel obliged to end with a punch line.
Bud: [laughs] Right.
Grant: And I like that idea of withholding the punch line. That’s really good. What should I ask you here? So it’s kind of like a distributed thinking. When you provoke the world with an experiment or with a blog post that is unfinished or deliberately, maybe, antagonistic, it forces the‑‑the world will, so engaged, reply, and that becomes part of the thinking you have at your disposal. So you kind of engage the world to help you think a bit?
Bud: Yeah absolutely, and I can do that in a lot of different ways.
Grant: Right, ’cause the traditional… you know the French, Classical model, it’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis, or something, and you’re kind of letting somebody do the antithesis and then you do the synthesis. But it’s kind of like it’s a distributed… Do you think…? Is that a… I find it a useful way of thinking, but I’m not sure you do.
Bud: Right. I also have a personal fear of following my own arguments too far down the rabbit hole. In college, if a professor asked for a ten page essay, I’d turn in 25 pages. And somewhere on that journey, I’d draw bizarre conclusion, bizarre even to me, and all too often, lose the plot. I didn’t need the starter’s pistol, I needed the bit of tape you break at the end of the race to say, "stop."
Bud: It’s protecting myself from my own obsessive thinking.
Grant: Right. You’re the opposite of the guy I heard speak last night who was apparently kind of the world‑ranking expert on Broadband and, you know, public access to, you know, digital access. And he wouldn’t let people have the conversation they wanted to have. And people would ask him questions and the most obvious question was, well, "What’s…Where are you going with all of this?" You know, he kept sort of setting up these observations, and you think, "Great. The punch line must be coming."
Bud: [laughs] Right.
Grant: And it wouldn’t come. And so he was kind of stage managing…he was wrangling the conversation in the most annoying, least productive way. And it’s like you’re reaching out happily, provoking…What’s…? Yeah. I mean some people would say reading 200 or 400 posts a day, that’s a recipe for, you know, total intellectual chaos. But that doesn’t actually trouble you. It’s when you begin to assemble ideas and work them out and write them out, that’s when you… That’s the moment where… What? You sort of climb aboard this topic and take it where…go wherever it takes you. And even if that’s not a coherent, logical stream of exposition. Sorry, I’m just sort of babbling to myself.
Bud: Yeah. I’m definitely… It’s certainly, at times, reading this much can be disruptive to just trying to get something done, or trying to focus on a specific topic. But I think it’s really important sometimes. I have the great fortune to be paid to think, and so I should put myself in situations where I’m mentally uncomfortable. Where I am, you know, almost suffering information overload because that’s the time for me to make decisions.
When I have that much information coming at me, that’s when I can make a decision to limit, and that’s when I can make a decision to focus, and what to focus on – having to make that decision in my process is really important to me.
Ultimately, me saying the same things that I know, with a lack of information from the outside world, is boring. It’s boring to me, and I feel that it would be boring for other people.
Grant: And if what…If what your firm does is think for companies, for other firms, and if the world is maximally confusing, and various, and emergent, and hard to read, then you’re sort of precisely the embodiment of what Undercurrent is supposed to do. And to that extent, precisely what it is the corporation needs, to the extent they understand what they’re signing on for when they engage you. That’s the headlight on the locomotive, isn’t it? Somebody is kind of thinking, "What do I see before me? And can I think it? And if I can’t think it, what would I need to think instead?"
That’s a very‑‑Geez‑‑the corporation lived a pretty simple world, and it had a handbook, and it wasn’t that complicated. Then you develop rules, you "re‑routinzed’ the world, and now it’s just off. So unless you’ve got somebody doing what you do…
Bud: And taking it back to what a brand manager, these days, is responsible for is overwhelming. They’re responsible for all ends of production, all ends of actual delivery of product. They’re responsible for the advertising, for the marketing, for reporting. There’s just so much they’re trying to juggle at the same time, I think it’s too much. I think they’re overburdened with that. And then adding on information intake with that is frightening to them. Now they have to go read blogs plus they have to manage the normal day-to-day? It’s overlooked when we talk about what brand managers should be or shouldn’t be. Just all the other responsibilities that they’re forced, right now, to tackle.
Grant: So every brand manger should be thrilled to have you or somebody like you in there on their behalf. But most brand managers, because they are creatures of some vanity, as we all are, like to think that they do the heavy lifting. That if something is going to be taken away from them, it should be the lower order intellectual activities, to free them up for the deep thinking. And in point of fact, how do you finesse that?
Bud: We were fortunate for a while that we came from the Internet. And the Internet is such a novel, strange, quirky place.
Grant: You knew they didn’t know.
Bud: Right. It was a known unknown. We could almost come in like Jack Hanna on late‑night TV, and show you an ocelot. Like this is what a kid looks like on the Internet. And as that becomes more known, I think we’ll be more challenged to provide added value with our role – which is spectacular, really. So I think it’s up to us to move higher up the food chain, honestly, and to come in at the CMO or CEO level, and to say "This is what’s needed for a real change across the organization."
And it’s up to us to show how an organization can benefit from digital technologies. Not just, "Let me tell you how small groups work on the Internet." But how can technology empower the small groups that already exist inside your giant brand that employs tens if not hundreds of thousands of people? And how do we use those people already using digital technologies in a really interesting, beneficial way? Take the idea behind PlannerReads, capitalizing on the shared behaviors of a group, and apply it inside your organization.
Bud: So all of us must grow our own skill set, I think, to survive. Make ourselves more uncomfortable.
Grant: It’s nice. It’s a conspiracy of smart people, finally. And it’s people smart enough to know the real order of difficulty we’re looking at as we try to solve problems and the kinds of intellectual activities you’ve just described. To know that those are necessary, to know that there have to be moments when you don’t know and you put yourself in a state of real discomfort. What’s the famous line from George Bernard Shaw, "Most people would rather die than think. Most do."
Grant: Right? We get comfortable with our categories, we use them over and over again, and it’s that climbing out of that, it’s like getting out of a capsule without a suit on. Right? It’s not pleasant not to think in the ideas that make thinking easy. It’s quite horrible in a way. Unless you’re pushed into it in a moment of inspiration. Just suddenly you have an idea, and you went through all the pain of transition, somehow it happened to somebody else, you don’t know, but you just got the idea for nothing.
Grant: You didn’t have to spend anytime in the world doing this. That’s all right, I’m just babbling.
Bud: For me, pain is often‑‑and pain and being uncomfortable are the best catalysts for thinking. Brands are too untouchable. Brands have amassed too much power for themselves. So they never really have to be uncomfortable unless they want to make themselves feel uncomfortable.
Grant: And in a weird way, maybe the CCO becomes the detonation box that you have inside the C suite. You have the person who is prepared to make themselves exquisitely uncomfortable so that other members of the C suite don’t have to, "That’s what we pay you for, to spare us that discomfort." [laughter].
Bud: The whipping boy of the organization.
Grant: Yes, totally. I still like the William James’ notion about the "routinization" of religious experience, and he says, you know by the medieval period, "If Christ himself had wandered up the steps of the Catholic Church in Rome, they would have said ‘There, there, thank you very much. Go, keep moving, we’ve got this under control. We know what religion is, we know what divine inspiration is, we know who God, all of this stuff is mapped, thank you. We don’t want you.’" The corporation gets exactly there. It’s just this weird tension. It’s a kind of creative destruction thing going on constantly. You have to be absolutely certain about certain things to make your way on the world. Then you have to destroy that certainty to get to what’s, sorry, I’m blabbing.
Bud: It’s at the intersection to me. Like understanding how process works, how your products are made, understanding how people work inside an organization, those are the known knowns. Those are the things, as a brand, that you should have a clear point of view on. But where you interact with regular human beings, that’s the really interesting part –– if you can forget for a moment that you know how that’s supposed to occur, that’s when the real curiosity and the real insight can happen. But perhaps unfortunately, brands have agencies to sit at those points of intersection. And so the agencies may get smarter at times about intersecting with real people, but the brand itself has very little insight into that. They have retail agencies, they have digital agencies, they have traditional agencies that create and learn about these interactions.
That’s why I also think the future of the agency model is one that becomes a data hub or an insight engine for the brand, and they need to be able to come back to them with those insights in a really packaged and interesting way.
Grant: Yes, come back to the corporation?
Bud: Come back to the corporation and say, you know especially the AOR model, "We’ve been your agency of record now for two years. Where’s the data? Where’s the insights that you’ve gleaned from this data that say like, how you’re consumer is changing, or how your involvement with them has changed over time."
Bud: And that just is missing.
Grant: Yes. Well I think I’m running out of questions, and it’s my fault. There are a million things to ask, but maybe we should call it a day. If I may, I’ll look through what I have, and see what else I need to ask you, if I could follow up.
Grant: But this has been great.
Bud: Yes, thank you so much.
Grant: No, hey, my pleasure. Thanks a million.
Transcription by CastingWords