Q&A: Grant McCracken on the value of culture

In his book, Culturematic, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken looks at the value of tracking culture and explains how to master this space. McCracken, who is the keynote speaker at Pro Create in Toronto on Oct. 30, spoke with Marketing recently to explain the title of his book, provide real-life examples of culturematic and how brands can […]

In his book, Culturematic, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken looks at the value of tracking culture and explains how to master this space. McCracken, who is the keynote speaker at Pro Create in Toronto on Oct. 30, spoke with Marketing recently to explain the title of his book, provide real-life examples of culturematic and how brands can use it to their advantage.

How do you define Culturematic?
I’m defining a culturematic as a small experiment designed to make culture out of culture to create innovation out of culture. And that means you are working with some sort of cultural materials and combining them or experimenting with them so you get something new – you get an innovation that you send out into the world and see if you get a reaction. One way of talking about a culturematic is to say it’s one way to make a meme. I think it’s a good way to make memes because we’ve probably had enough kitten videos for a lifetime. For example, the stuff done by [LA advertising executive] Budd Cudell who began to tweet as if he was an employee of the advertising agency in Mad Men and located in the mailroom. So now he’s broadcasting a set of tweets that give us a privileged access about the advertising agency in Mad Men and kind of an insider’s view of what’s happening at the agency. So for the price of a twitter account, which is zero, he made himself a part of this larger cultural project. That’s a good example of a culturematic.

Can a culturematic exist offline?
There’s been lots of offline work. Here’s one example: the mayor of Ithaca New York wanted to make a point about parking in the city and wanted to protest how much of the city was devoted to cars and specifically to parking lots. So people showed up one morning to discover that he had turned his parking spot in the city lot into a tiny park. He went to the garden supply store and got sod and laid the sod down on his little parking spot. It’s a classic kind of culturematic because it’s witty and fun. Not necessarily very practical, but it made the point beautifully that this entire parking lot could in fact be returned to a more natural condition if people rode their bikes to work. But it’s a good example of how someone is playing around in the real world.

How can brands latch onto these ideas?
Brands have really been getting in on the action in a big way and creating some fantastic culturematic. My favourite example at the moment is the one from Virgin mobile. They’ve created two characters, Sara and Spencer, and put them together and called them Spara. They can go hire celebrity spokespeople but that’s extremely expensive and not very effective. They went out and hired a young actor and young actress, impossibly beautiful, and started sending them to celebrity events. They start getting photographed in the celebrity magazines and they start to interact with other celebrities. One of them actually started to go out with a real celebrity so she was more than a celebrity in name only. And they did some really cunning things. There are magazines that will show celebrities in the same outfit and ask which is better. Virgin figured out what a certain celebrity was going to wear, they had a designer do a variation and then sent out their celebrity in to the public eye in this dress. Inevitably the comparison photos started to show up online. It was a clever way of using the media and the media hunger for photos or news stories.

A lot of people assume that marketers and advertisers are keenly aware of cultures and trends that at the very least relate to their own target audience. Why aren’t more marketers/agencies seeing these opportunities?
I guess the old rulebook of marketing said you communicated with as much clarity as you could manage through repetition. The new rulebook of marketing says, experiment, try stuff, you can always take it down. There’s huge advantage to be had from just trying stuff and in a sense we’re kind of prospecting. It’s very hard to know what’s going to work out there. It’s very hard to know what will become a meme. I think there’s a huge benefit now to trying new stuff. That’s the whole point of cultematic: not to bet everything on a single bet, but to try lots of little experiments and monitor them closely and then bootstrap as we go.

What is a fair amount to spend on culturematic?
That depends on the relationship with the client and the resources, but I think the thing about culturematic is they’re incredibly cheap to do. That’s almost their signature. The woman who started reality TV in North America called Mary-Ellis Bunim was thinking about how to make a new TV show. She thought, traditionally, how you do this is a pilot as a proof of concept and those pilots can cost a fantastic amount of money – often $2 million. She didn’t think it was promising, so she got some kids and put them in a house with cheap cameras and see what happens [MTV's The Real World was born]. So the ratio of what she could have spent – $2 million – to what she did spend is mind boggling. With fantasy football, people manage their own teams. You can fund all of fantasy football teams for the amount of money it costs to pay the minimum salary of a single player in the NFL. So these things are incredibly cheap to do and I think that’s one of their benefits is that we can afford to take this chance because it’s not like we’re betting the farm.

So much of advertising these days is based on ROI. It must be hard to convince clients to experiment without some sort of guarantee.
It’s a great point. When we insist on ROI as the only way to think about a budget, what we’re saying is we can’t take a chance. The other example, when teaching at the Harvard Business School I would refer to something happening on TV. They would look at me like I’d just lost my wits. I asked ‘What’s the matter?’ They said, ‘Well, we understood when we came to HBS we had to put that aside it was all economics all the time and we weren’t ever going to talk about culture again. It’s either off the table or on the table, which is it?’ Everybody who is under 35 or 40 really knows their culture unbelievably well. They know the music, films, TV, the internet. It’s their lifeblood. So we send those people through an MBA program in many cases and we just say forget all that. They end up coming out of those programs knowing less about contemporary culture than when they went in – even the people in marketing. It’s totally nuts from my point of view.

In your book Chief Culture Officer, you contend that companies need someone to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary cultural trends. Where in a company should this position live?
I think you put it in the C-suite and that person should then serve the marketing people, the HR people, especially the innovation people. I think they can make themselves a servant to several divisions inside [a company]. It should not be seen as a way of replacing the CMO, whose work is absolutely critical, and it should not be seen as a way of replacing the advertising agency, but I think they would be happier if they had a CCO inside the corporation serving inside as their champion.

When a company goes searching for a chief culture officer, what are the key characteristics to look for?
What you want is somebody who has a real breadth of curiosity. The CCO should be passionate about the way they think about culture. I think absolute humility because it’s not about you, it’s about the culture inside and the culture outside. You need someone there to serve HR and the CMO and to make themselves useful. They have to take for granted that other people don’t know about culture, so no sneering.

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