Originally published on Medium, January 21, 2020
Recently the marketing team at Twitter put culture at the heart of what they do, in that most precious territory, the value proposition.
This is great, I thought. A company as connected and powerful as Twitter using culture to describe what it does, that has to be good for us all.
Because, let’s face it, we have all struggled to put the culture idea on the agenda. People give it lip service, but when it comes to hiring people to supply cultural intelligence, not so much.
I see a lot of really big talents languishing for want of a more sophisticated approach. Culture is always and everywhere in the work of the creative, strategic, design, digital, innovation, social, marketing, content creator and curator. But it is almost never acknowledged as such. AND THAT MEANS THE PERSON WHO IS HELPING THE ORGANIZATION CONNECT TO CULTURE IS NOT GETTING THEIR DUE.
After work, everyone, including senior managers, goes to the bar and talks about culture. They talk about what they are watching on Netflix, and this is entirely cultural because a Netflix show cannot matter unless it resonates with something in us and that cannot happen unless the show resonates with something in our culture. But back on the job, the senior managers forget this. It’s back to business as usual. It’s back to business without culture.
Why isn’t culture identified in the value proposition of the corporation? It comes down to four problems. (Well, four will do for starters.)
1. OK boomer
Partly this is a generational problem.
This spring I wrote an essay on Culture and Design. (Let me know if you want a copy.) I had been reading Design Thinking statements, and none of them mentioned culture.
I opened my essay by noting this was like listening to an economist talking about economics without talking about value or a physicist talking about physics without talking about energy.
I sent this essay to someone in the Design Thinking field. Here’s how he characterized what he thought I was saying.
“I am the culture guy. I believe culture is super important. So I am going to write 22 more pages on why the culture guy thinks culture is more important than non-culture people do.”
For this person, my essay was a form of special pleading. Because for him, culture is a minority interest. And, no, you don’t need to know about culture to talk about design.
This person has been taken captive by all the old generational stereotypes. For him, culture is additional, superficial in both the conventional and the literal sense of the term. It’s a thing of surfaces, something we slap on, something we can therefore strip away. And that is the job of smart, tough minded people. They take pride in removing anything that doesn’t speak to the practical, the utilitarian, and the consumer’s pursuit of economic self interest narrowly defined.
This is what boomers think of culture. It’s the way they exclude it from business. Thus do they short-change their professional responsibilities. Much worse, thus do they force their organization to compromise its navigational instruments and understandings.
2. A branding problem to be sure
The culture idea has many variations on the theme. Time to rethink and relaunch. Some people insist that culture means “corporate culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “high culture” (and it does but not only). Some think it means “popular culture” (and it does…) The culture we care about sits above all of these. It’s like language in several ways but particularly this: it operates silently and invisibly to supply a grid that divides the world into categories. As William Gibson says, “We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.” We could think of culture as the software we install in that hardware called the brain to make the world make sense. This is what we mean when we talk about the culture of Ethiopia, France, or Scotland. It supplies meanings without which life in Ethiopia, France or Scotland is largely mystifying.
Culture means the rules and meanings with which people grasp the world around them. Imagine an hour in Manhattan if you were from, say, the Mongolian steppes. You would be in a state of astonishment. And this is not because Manhattan can be percussive and even concussive, but because you don’t have the cultural template in your head that lets you grasp what you are looking at.
But culture is also the rules and meanings with which people craft the world around them. Some people are very good at meme making. Others not so much. The difference depends upon whether you have managed to divine the grammar of this emergent form, figuring out how to use it, and put it to work. American culture is restless and innovative. It was only a few years ago that there was no such thing as a meme. Then, for a moment it was a wild experiment. Now it’s a standard creative voice. Ours is a culture under constant reconstruction.
3. Frankfurt School
We understand why the Frankfurt school was so deeply suspicious of culture, but their thinking helped create several generations of academics who could not see American culture except as an act of manipulation and false consciousness. And this created generations of students who loved culture, who lived culture, but struggled to find a way to take it seriously.
Now they take it seriously. Now they decode our culture with an eye for subtlety and nuance. Now they invent culture in the form of memes, fandom, blogging, pop ups, videos, remixes, and all that editorial comment on Twitter. But thanks to the Frankfurt school, these people don’t always have a formal idea of what they are doing. A meme has nothing to do with a blog post which has nothing to do with a video. The world is a collection of discrete events. For want of an idea of culture they cannot see the bigger picture or the deeper one.
4. Sloppy thinking
Take the notion of the gift economy. We all know to genuflect when this term comes up. We get a little teary eyed at the thought of people giving of their creativity freely. But let’s be clear about this. There are millions of kids writing many more millions of lines of culture. They are (almost) never compensated. As a result these authors will have to work at McDonald’s again this summer. Even a small amount of value would free them to refine their craft, in the process building their art and our culture. On reflection, it occurred to me that the only people who really profit from the gift economy have tenure and big fat professorial salaries. (See my bad tempered essay, (sorry, Clay,) called The Gift Economy: a reply to Clay Shirky).
The point: until we build an economy that rewards and funds culture creators, we are starving our culture and excluding a generation (or two). A 14 year old fan fiction writer doesn’t need to make much money, just enough to free her from the french fry line. I can’t believe that some brand hasn’t taken the leadership position here. Oh, wait, perhaps Twitter just did. Spotify recently made steps in that direction. And Patreon is of course one variation on direct fan support.
Given what we know, making a culture for culture shouldn’t be that hard. We understand the sociology and anthropology of how communities form. We know how to build networks. We know how to wire a world with Twitter and Instagram. Right?
The trouble is we are not pack animals. We’re quick to wear the culture badge on our sleeve, but not to join the lodge or pay the dues. This could change.
For starters, we want a bulletin board in which people talk about the problems they are working on.
I’ll start. Here are the problems I’m trying to solve.
▪️ Reading the future
I am working on a “big blue board.” (Yes, it’s a stupid name. But if you saw the Board you would understand.) This attempts to combine big data and thick data to create an early warning system to see the future coming. At the moment, I am tracking the crisis in retail, the effects of the gig economy, the change in the status of pets in America, the way we are rethinking status and privilege, the decline of ownership, something called “rewilding,” and 200 other trends. The problem here: as the world becomes faster, more chaotic, more disruptive, everyone is trying to figure out how to see what’s coming. (Rita McGrath at Columbia just published a book called Seeing Around Corners.) Can people who get culture make a contribution and if so what?
One of the big challenges: getting the data. In turns out, people would rather reveal the intimate details of their sex lives and financial standing than share corporate data. I don’t know how we solve this problem. But we have to.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the investors were unable to get their mitts on good data easily. And along came Michael Bloomberg and his terminals. Somewhere out there in our culture culture there is someone who will do for cultural data what Bloomberg did for financial data, and make themselves fabulously wealthy into the bargain.
▪️ Working on our novel
I’m finishing up a novel called Anna about a couple of guys who go to LA, install massive computing power in an old warehouse in Chinatown, and begin the hunt for the secrets of Hollywood. They are discovered by a Hollywood celebrity who understands that popular culture is capricious and that she must change to survive. The point of the exercise was to find a lively way to tell the story of culture. Did it work? Kinda sorta. I had to teach myself how to write fiction. Not sure how well I did.
The point of this there are lots of media in which to conduct our study of culture.
▪️ Working on theory and concept
One of the problems with culture is that it is so very amorphous. One of our first requirements then is a nice, clear, compact definition of what culture is.
My current definition says culture is meanings and rules. The trouble with most marketing, branding, design, strategy, and innovation is that it uses culture without ever treating it as culture, and it works with a small piece of culture without any sense of the larger architecture of meaning from which this comes. This is fine for clients. But those of us who work with culture need, I think, to construct a great vaulted ceiling that shows all the meanings of American culture and a sense of where they been and where they are going (hence the Big Blue Board). We need the entire “periodic table,” so to speak. (Apologies for the welter of metaphors. Anyone suffering whip lash or nose bleeds is asked to report to the Medium nursing station immediately.)
Here’s a good example of rules. Many young women (some men, and a lot of Canadian men interestingly) used to end a sentence with an interrogative upswing. This is sometimes called “uptalk.” We have seen some women undertake a new strategy. Now they end a sentence with a “vocal fry.” This replaces the upturn with a downturn. (Kim Kardashian may or may not be the innovator here. In any case she served as a super agent in its diffusion.)
This cultural rule says “end a sentence with a question mark even when it is an assertion.” And that rule is now being challenged by a new rule that says, “end a sentence with a down turn.” This rule springs, in part, from the gender meanings with which we define femaleness. This is American culture in action. It is almost certainly feminism in action. (The upturn communicates uncertainty. The downturn says, take it or leave it.) The actors rarely see that they are obeying rules. Because culture conceals itself. But these rules are nevertheless active and formative. We use a great many rules in the “presentation of self in everyday life” as Goffman called it. These days it feels like the famous Goffman formula could also be written the “construction of self in everyday life.” We are all works in progress. We change (as/and the rules do).
Clients don’t need to see the vaulted ceiling that shows the meanings of American culture. They don’t need to see the rule book that contains the instructions for “being American.” But our work gets better when we do. When we advise clients too often we do not give them detailed rationales for our recommendations. Worst case, creatives “just know” they are “on to something.” Eesh! In an age in which things change so fast, the cost of error is so high, and CMO tenures are so fleeting, we have to do better. We have to be able to say there is a system, a discipline, and a profession.
This will have a sorting effect. Clients will be able to choose their consultants more intelligently. And that means consultants will begin to get the clients they deserve.
I am always having a discussion with myself when I should be having that discussion with the culture community (aka the culture culture). Recently I have been asking whether it is enough to call culture merely “meanings” and “rules.” Maybe , I thought, I want to add “conventions” to my definition.
Here’s how that went. I was working for Netflix on how TV was changed. I needed a good way to talk about this change. Raiding the field of political science, I decided to posit a contract between viewers and showrunners. The old contract said things like “on TV, bad things can’t happen to good people.” Once we identified with a character, no harm could come to them. Now of course bad things routinely happened to good people. (I wrote this up for a Boston conference. You can find it on Slideshare here.) The argument to make here is that the revolution on TV can be seen as a rewriting of the contract between showrunner and viewer and this can be seen as a change in our cultural conventions.
Ok, now I have a problem. In the heat of the moment, I used “convention” to explain the data. But it’s neither meaning nor rule. So have I changed the model…or not? This is culture theory as an open question. I think we should all have models. And one of the points of culture culture is precisely to compare and contrast these models. There is a ton of work here. Let a 1000 models bloom.
▪️ Moving and making meanings
Culture does not confine itself to the conventional expression of conventional meanings. We are constantly inventing new meanings (e.g., new ideas of femaleness) and giving them new expressions (e.g., vocal fry).
In fact, our culture continues to rethink the way it works with meanings. We can posit 4 approaches.
In the first, we use marketing, advertising, design, innovation, social media, and PR as informed by research, planning and strategy, to put meanings (old and new) into brands and services. This is a simple process of transfer. The ad transfers meanings from culture to brand. It is almost exactly like metaphor. “Look, X is very like Y” invites us to take what we know about X and use it to think about Y. “He ran like a gazelle.” “The world began with a big bang.”
Thus in the early 1960s a print ad in Life would show the new Lincoln sitting at the verge of a fox hunt in Connecticut. “Look,” said the ad, “this car has the same meanings at the fox hunt. Surely you can see that.” Hilarious, yes, but it spoke to the status aspirations of a rising middle class. This is what marketing in general and advertising in particular spent most of the 20th century doing. (Except of course when the ad was merely an informational exercise. And in this event, no one, not the agency, the client or the consumer, could conceal their disinterest.)
Stage 2, starting some time in the 1990s, grew tired and resentful of this kind of meaning making and said, “Oh, please, this is just so dumb. Surely we can manage something more interesting.” The “alternative” 90s preferred a meaning-making strategy that combined unlikely meanings, meanings that did not “go” together. This would put Tarantino, Beck, Jay-Z, and Frank Black and the Pixies in the same category. The effects were arresting. We were looking at the systematic violation of the “combinatorial” conventions in our culture. The effect was “fresh.” We liked “fresh.” Increasingly, “fresh” came from combinatorial violation.
Stage 3 is an exaggeration of Stage 2. In this stage (still active) some of the best culture came out of a deliberate collision of genres. Because genres were dying. They were simply too predictable for our new interpretive gifts. So we put things into the particle accelerator and ran them together. The effects were explosive. “Cyclotron culture” was fascinating. See Jon Caramanica’s account of the album by 100 gecs. “This duo’s debut album, 1000 gecs, smashes electro-pop, dance music, punk and dozens of other rapid-fire reference points into something genuinely new and exhilarating.”
Stage 4 sees the advent of a new kind of meaning making. This is subtle and cunning. Less about colliding culture and more about braiding and splicing it. This is about acts of ingenuity that the culture creator cannot perform unless she is fully the master of culture and that the rest of us can only “get” because we are so much better at culture. Not everyone is. Nas X was asked why he thought Billboard had removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart. He suggested “the song’s ingenuity might have intimidated them.” When this kind of meaning making works, it provokes the smile people wear when confronted by something really clever. You know the one. I wrote a book about Stage 4 meaning making called Chief Culture Officer.
Until we are prepared to put the idea of culture at the center of all these creative undertakings (advertising, social, PR, branding, design, planning, innovation, experience, activation, marketing), it is hard to see that there is one world here. It’s harder still for creatives to see what they have in common. Culture gives us the opportunity to embrace the whole of marketing and creativity in a single point of view.
There are several interesting puzzles here. I think the very gifted Mark Earls is wrong to say that all culture is the repetition of culture. I think there is a cultural grammar that is genuinely generative. But this too is an open question. What are the specific techniques with which people make movies, ads and memes? How is culture drawn upon and given to, that’s the question. (Mark has a new book out called Creative Superpowers.)
I think people are wrong to say that the only meaning that matters now for brands are the ones marked “social purpose” or “social advocacy.” These matter to be sure. But they are not the only meanings that can make a brand vibrate. Quite apart from the problem of cause fatigue, as Tanya Dua calls it, there are almost an endless provinces of meaning out there. And the good marketer is Marco Polo.
Peter Spear and I have been trying to have this conversation since December. (See his excellent blog That Business of Meaning.) I thank him for the provocation.
▪️ Working on method
We are pretty good, most of us, at using ethnography or something like it. Time to add new methods.
More and more, I am using big data and AI. There is too much waterfront in our diverse, changeable culture for us to depend on qualitative data alone. Or put it this way, only quantitative data can tell us where we should be collecting out qualitative data.
We also need to think more about how to present our work to the client. One method is “scenario planning” which I first got to see in action at Herman Miller. It’s a useful way to present alternative futures. But more important it helps engage clients in the problem solving. See the recent book by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon called Moments of Impact and The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.
Again, we are not pack animals.
But surely, we can build an institutional lattice work!
In a perfect world, we would have a university home. While Syd Levy, John Kelly and Rob Kozinets were still there, this was the Kellogg business school at Northwestern. Ditto the magnificent group Henry Jenkins built at MIT. (He has since moved to USC.)
I am always impressed by how many people with a gift for culture have a connection to Brown University. (Take a bow, Ken Anderson, Kate Hammer and Brad Grossman. See Brad’s Zeitguide here.) Who is responsible for Brown’s contribution to the cause? Suggestions please.
Londoners are unusually brainy when it comes to matters cultural. I couldn’t possibly name everyone who has impressed me there but I’m going to try: Russell Davies, Amelia Torode, Henry Mason, Andy Dexter, Leanne Tomasevic, Richard Wise, John Curran, Lee Sankey, Tracey Follows, John Willshire, Petar Vujosevic, Nick Morris, Johnny Vulcan, Nick Sherrard, Adam Chmielowski, Beeker Northam, Stuart Smith, Jon Howard, Martina Olbertova, Frederica Carlotta and Ben Malbon.
But what was I saying about institutional homes for the study of culture? Ken Anderson is at Princeton at the Keller School. Caley Cantrell is at VCU Brand Center. Rob Kozinets is at USC. I wonder if Michael Diamond could be persuaded to build something into the School of Professional Studies at NYU. Maybe Rob Fields could build it into his Weeksville Heritage Center. Or perhaps now that Amran Amed has colonized the world of fashion (see his revolutionary Business of Fashion) perhaps he would love to climb the vertical and assume control of the cultural high ground.
But of course we don’t need an academic locus. In a post bricks-and-mortar age, we have world-building technologies of our own.
But someone will need to stand up and nominate themselves as the still center of the storm. This person would need the networking gifts of a Napier Collyns. He or she will need the strategic genius of a Sam Ford (now preoccupied by his new assignment at Simon and Schuster.) I had a great conversation last year with Sam Hornsby at Havas. He would be great at this. Sparks and Honey is deeply capable when it comes to the culture idea. Perhaps CEO Terry Young would consider taking on a broader mandate. Robert Morais and Timothy Malefyt have created a home for Business Anthropology. Maybe they would be prepared to cast the net to include those who are interested in culture but are not anthropologists. Or maybe it could be Samantha Ladner, Patti Sunderland, Phil Surles, Eric Nehrlich, Sophie Wade, Ed Cotton, Collyn Ahart, Dan Gould, Faris Yakob, Martin Carriere, Clay Parker Jones, Garth Kay, Melissa Fisher, Rick Liebling or Gillian Tett. I wonder if we could persuade a brand or an agency to create a fellowship so that someone could spend a year setting up a “Culture College.”
Most of all, we need to establish a place in the minds of the clients who fund our work (those of us who live outside the academy). This has to be a shared task: books, conferences. The only thing we don’t want to share is the clients themselves. That would be wrong.
A change inside the corporation?
A change has to be made in the American corporation. This is what makes the revelation from Twitter marketing so exciting. Finally someone is prepared to lead with the culture idea. And if it’s good enough for Twitter, surely it’s good enough for Delta and American, NFL and MLB, Hertz and Avis, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Ford and Chrysler, CBS and NBC, Netflix and Hulu, Microsoft and Apple, and all the brands struggling for oxygen.
Surely, there is a change in the works. I read with interest a story in Variety called Change or Die: 50% of Media and Entertainment Execs Say They Can’t Rely on Old Biz Models, Survey Finds.Yes, get rid of the Old Biz Models. Please.
And there was a great article on the HBS website called “NFL Head Coaches Are Getting Younger. What Can Organizations Learn?” It draws on a piece in the Washington Post by Adam Kilgore which includes this passage.
“For years the league has been a place where coaches hopped in lateral cycles and the upward flow of creative offensive schemes stopped at the college level, with most teams running similar, risk-averse offenses, and innovation taking root slowly.”
The HBS piece concludes,
“This conservative approach to hiring seems to have changed in recent years. As early risk-takers have been rewarded with high-profile success, others have become more willing to take chances themselves.”
Perfect, I thought. Perhaps we can hope for a changing of the guard at the American organization.
The younger you are, the more you treat culture as an obvious good, a useful instrument, and the very heart of your personal interests and identity construction. There are a couple of generations waiting to take their place in the corporation, to be valued by the corporation, to be paid by the corporation, to be advanced by the corporation to the C Suite. Enough with “let’s ask the intern.”
The time for culture is coming. But we keep saying that. How do we hasten the day? Thank you, Twitter, for taking the initiative.
A couple of things I’m liking
Madsbjerg, Christian. Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. New York: Hachette Books, 2017.
Peter Spear has an excellent blog called That Business of Meaning.
Chris Perry has an excellent blog called Media Genius.
Katarina Graffman has a wonderful TED talk about culture here.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sam Balsy for thoughts on the first draft.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He is a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project. He consults widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Sony, Boston Book Festival, Diageo, IBM, Nike, and the White House.