An Interview with Grant McCracken

Grant McCracken, anthropologist, and author of "Culturematic"
Grant McCracken, anthropologist and author of “Culturematic”

Grant McCracken is a man of many interests and titles, which befits someone who takes such a wide-ranging approach to culture, marketing and messages. A senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and a Research Affiliate at MIT, McCracken, who holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago, was the founder and director of the Institute for Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which focuses on cultural and socio-political issues of international significance examined through works of art. His 2009 book “Chief Culture Officer” led to the creation of that title among many corporations, and has led to McCracken consulting for many of them as well. He recently took time out from his busy schedule to talk with us about his 2012 book “Culturematic”, which we reviewed here.

beginning

Agency Review:

In the opening pages of the book you describe the impetus for the idea of the culturematic, but, and we mean no disrespect when we ask this, where did the idea for culturematic really come from? Because we have a feeling that this wasn’t just a random thought that showed up in your brain one night because three disparate stories were pinging around your skull. We live in a world where thousands of disparate stories are pinging around all the time. Instead, we would bet that there had been some unresolved questions nagging at you for a while. Why? And when did it start?

McCracken:

No, really, it came from the accumulation of anomalies, to use the language of T.S. Kuhn and his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s when strange data begin to accumulate that you know there is something wrong with your models. Then you have to go back to the drawing board. What ideas can you invent that will make the stories sensible instead of odd.

Agency Review:

Sort of like when Sherlock Holmes says “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

McCracken:

I’m not sure Culturematic does that, but I tried.

Agency Review:

All right, well let me pivot that question a little bit, because I agree with you that one of the indicators that you’re in a new era is when you see more and more “outliers” – so many that you begin thinking “wait, maybe THEY’RE not the outliers any more”. So why do you think you started seeing these new anomalies? What’s changed?

McCracken:

Wow, so many categories and rules are now up for grabs. The way we define organization, especially. These just kinda of liquefied. The way we define the self. These kinda multiplied. The way we design homes, define families, raise kids, all of these are up for grabs. The thing about anthropology is that you are always aiming for something like a comprehensive view, a holistic vision. And these days, yikes. You look around you and the world is streaming with change. And there is no reason to think this is merely a transitional moment, that eventually things will settled down. You can feel the acceleration. Whosh.

leap

Agency Review:

You make the observation in “Culturematic” (which we echo in the review) that the volatility and chaotic nature of culturematics means that they are exactly the opposite of the kind of thing that most businesses want to embrace. They are not safe, they are not numbers, they are not, quantifiable and tried and true, they are not what everyone else is doing. And yet, as you imply, they are essential for success. So how do you educate companies so they understand their value – and then how do you encourage them to make that leap into the unknown?

McCracken:

We could think of them as a little discovery vehicles. We launch them to see if they can detect blue oceans of opportunity or black swans of disruption. We used to have ideas (plans, strategies) that did a pretty good job of looking out ahead of us, preparing us for the future. But of course these days everything happens faster, we get less warning, the world gets ever more inscrutable. In that case, we want to place a series of “little bets” as Sims calls them, small experiments that will help us understanding of what the future holds.

Agency Review:

So doesn’t that imply that business must fundamentally change – away from the “one big bet/create greater efficiency by specializing” model, and towards one of greater diversification? And if so, who do you think has figured that out and is moving in that direction already?

McCracken:

Yes, absolutely. I was recently doing some work for Herman Miller, the furniture company. They helped define the office place in the US after World War II and they sat down recently to have another go at this. And they assume a place in which the organization can stage something that is multiple, dynamic, diverse, experimental – less a single stolid monolithic organization and something that feels like many organizations in the mix listening to the world with new acuity, and constantly working and reworking what they take to market.

movement

Agency Review:

We make the point in the review that we believe the real idea behind culturematic is a sort of culture-wide clarion call for the generation of ideas. And that’s a pretty big thing. But pretty big things are often not immediately embraced, or very well received – they tend to be disruptive, chaotic, painful and messy. “Culturematic” came out in May of 2012 – how has your call been received? Are you seeing a movement of culturematics? Are you seeing a backlash against the very idea?

McCracken:

I think it’s fair to see that Culturematic met with dislike or puzzlement. Well, no, the English seem to like it. Americans and Canadians, not so much. And really there is no place for me to hide. I am both a marketer and an anthropologist….

Agency Review:

That sounds like an exceptionally volatile, and valuable, combination…

McCracken:

It’s my job to figure out how to communicate clearly. I guess the big idea here is that a lot of innovation comes from hacking culture or creating cultural arbitrage. But of course for a lot of people culture is invisible. It’s the dark matter of the marketing world. The book says simply, “Look here for new ideas. Work with culture. And here are some of the ‘devices’ – the Culturematics – that help you work with culture in order to discover opportunity.”

Agency Review:

But do you think that the idea of “hacking culture” is something that’s been around forever, or is it something unique to our time. If it’s the former, can you give some examples; and if it’s the latter, again, why now?

McCracken:

I think the great flood of culturematics comes from the shift from passive recipient to active participant, from accepting things as somehow inevitable to seeing them as artifacts of a moment, a group, a class, and of course all the new meaning making technology we have access to.  My personal favorite, I talk about it in the book, is someone taking a foreign language film and supplying english language subtitles that make the visuals work perfectly – that’s a pretty wonderful act of hijacking or hacking culture.  Recently we saw an outburst here in the states of people recasting TV shows in a new and imaginative ways.  They really opened up the stories.  Naturally, none of this needs to see the light of official day.  It’s enough to think.  The work I did for Netflix this fall tells me that people are watching TV with a new eye for the casting, scripting, directing choice they would have made.  Our culture is running fast from popular culture, to culture plain and simple, except in this case we have more people participating, working from more and more diverse points of view.  To see a culture, our culture, change this much in just a few decades makes the pulse race and, I am waiting for this any day now, the eyes bleed.  When Newton Minow as the head of the FCC for JFK declared American TV a wasteland, that was for many people an official, the official, judgment of popular culture; that it was stupid and more to the point sterile.  That nothing – certainly nothing good – would ever come of it. He was wrong.

connections

Agency Review:

The examples you use throughout “Culturematic” of Chuck Lorre, Fantasy Football and even “Celebrity Autobiography” reminded us of the seminal science television show from the 1970s, James Burke’s “Connections”. Again and again he explained how the path wasn’t what had been taught to us – the orderly progress from one successful discovery to the next – but more often than not involved failure, or the repurposing of one success’s dross, or greed or accident, or the application of one failure to another problem that created success in another direction. First, are you familiar with the show, second, do you think that’s a fair assessment of the real path of progress, and third, do you think it applies to the ideas in “Culturematic”?

McCracken:

I don’t know the show. Thanks for the head’s up.

Agency Review:

You can see some of it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS_Mh4liZ80&list=PLMNa_9j-t_z4CDoRqzcFqbrJ0ZvQP2B2a&index=2 Tell me what you think…

McCracken:

I think things get easier when you posit a thing called “culture” and you begin to investigate it in systematic way. But again, it is not something everyone has the education or inclination to take seriously. That’s why I wrote my penultimate book, “Chief Culture Officer”. I got tired with people in the organization not getting culture and I thought the way to do this is just to make sure there is someone in the C Suite who gets culture. Then it’s less important that other people do.

Agency Review:

Hold on – why is it less important for people to get the importance of culture if there’s a Chief Culture Officer? I mean, there’s a Chief Marketing Officer, but it’s not like everyone else in the organization can just forego understanding marketing.

McCracken:

I’m fighting an indifference that has a way of turning into hostility. So I just wanted to get someone to pay attention to the topic. But as I argue in the book, it is the CCO’s job to encourage everyone in the organization to help listen to culture. Now that guy with all the tattoos in the mail room becomes a window on the world instead of an object of curiosity. Interestingly this book met with a more sympathetic response. People got it.

Agency Review:

Why do you think people got that, and apparently are not getting the idea of culturematics? “Culture”, and “Corporate Culture” especially, would seem to be exceptionally squishy concepts for most businesses to embrace, whereas at least “culturematics” are active, are machines, do things…

McCracken:

Exactly, thank you, sir. That was the plan, to make the idea of working with culture and experimenting with culture as tangible, as apparently mechanical as possible. But I think the word just mystified people. And the last anyone wants these days is to be more mystified.

future

Agency Review:

Because culturematics are so intimately connected to the culture (hence the name), one would assume they are very sensitive to culture’s changes. So, in the time since you conceived of culturematics, what about them has changed? Is the idea essentially the same, but the executions are new? Or have they themselves evolved? And what does the future of culturematics look like?

McCracken:

I continue to love the idea. I continue to believe in it. I think it is one of the surest ways for organizations to discover opportunity, to jump the chasm, to discover blue oceans, etc., but you may be the only person (outside of the UK) who looks on the book with approval.

Agency Review:

I do, actually, for what that’s worth. Because think the ideas – that the elements of culture are not static, are not stones on a pathway, are not just the end product but are evolving, changing, machines that can be used to make and reveal other things, things we’ll need to navigate the future – is not only tremendously exciting, it’s also an interesting way at looking at things like phones, the internet, music – all of which are in a state of flux. But then again, I’m a fan of Eno – whom you cite in the book of course – and believe a lot of this resonates with stuff he’s been saying and doing …

McCracken:

How will Culturematics evolve? Well, we will have to get the idea out of the book and into the world to see.

Agency Review:

But isn’t part of your argument in the book that culturematics are already out in the world – we just have to see them. It’s like William Gibson’s famous line, “the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed”. For example, I think about our mutual friend Noah Brier. One moment he and I are arguing about what brands mean and how they exist in people’s minds, and the next moment he’s evolved that into a culturematic called “Brandtags” which creates tremendous noise and interest – and the next moment, he’s using it to help cyber security companies.

In other words, aren’t culturematics already here, and already evolving?

McCracken:

They are everywhere and all around us. And occasionally I will see someone working on a brilliant new idea, and I think, “well, that’s a perfect Culturematic.” I never say anything because insisting on your language is just a weird piece of intellectual imperialism. My dream is that I will get a call in a couple of years from someone said, “your book was quite useful. We made a bunch of Culturematics.” I was just at a conference and a kid gave a great paper and I said to him afterwards how much I admired his speaking style. And he said, “of course you do. I stole it from you 10 years ago.” That would be grand.

You can read our review of Grant’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Grant here.

Illustration of Grant McCracken by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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