Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.
Tell me about your current position and what it entails.
I’m Group Planning Director at Bernstein-Rein, a full-service ad agency. Essentially, planning consists of two primary areas. The first is to conduct primary research, mainly qualitative but also quantitative to some degree, and secondary research. The other is to synthesize what we learn to derive and distill insight into strategies for marketing and design. I hesitate to say it’s done to develop marketing campaigns because a campaign is only a portion of a good marketing effort. Typically, the work results in findings that are applied in everything from business development to product/service design to advertising.
A typical day may involve coordinating a large-scale project that combines fieldwork, creative brainstorming, library research, etc. Or it might involve reflecting on a given topic and developing ways to use that knowledge to develop a new product idea or channel strategy. I probably spend as much time managing teams, mentoring people, and working with creative teams as I do anything else.
Above all else, though, my role (and the role of my team) is to develop actual insights. Facts and insights are not the same thing and yet that is precisely what a great deal of market research seems to present. Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context. Insight is the act or result of understanding the inner nature of things. From a business or design perspective an insight is a statement based on a deep understanding of your target consumers’ attitudes and beliefs, which connect at an emotional level and provoke a clear response which, when leveraged, has the power to change consumer behavior (in other words, to get them to love you and buy your stuff.) Insights are not poorly constructed inferences based on statistics derived from unrelated questions. And yet, this is precisely what defines “insights” to many. So, when all is said and done, the bulk of my job is to uncover patterns and come up with ways those insights can be applied.
How does a researcher transcend from reporting on mere “facts” to the ever-more-useful “insights”? How did you learn how to do this in your career?
On the one hand, part of it is simply a matter of experience. Think of the difference between an Anthro 101 and a graduate seminar devoted to something like kinship. The 101 course is meant to be a survey, something that can impart the most necessary elements of the field, including kinship. But it’s a distillation. If you transfer that to a business situation, it’s a matter of getting to know the business and the specific needs of the project (a campaign strategy vs. a variation on a campaign). On the other hand, it’s a matter of defining the variable you can change, how those variable impact the system you are studying and how the business can capitalize on those variables. So it is a mix of defining a system of meaning and all its parts, but it’s also a matter of time getting to know the discipline and the company. Finally, I think there is an aspect of it that does indeed come down to faith. Insights don’t emerge from the middle of the bell curve, they lie on the outskirts. And since we ultimately have to give direction in some capacity, it’s a matter of deciding what we believe we can act upon, what the client’s risk tolerance, is and what its long-term goals are.
Talk about your anthropology background and your career in business and consumer research.
I, like many people, I’m sure, fell into my career by simple dumb luck. I was looking into doctoral programs after completing my MA in cultural anthropology when I got swept up in the dotcom boom of the late 90s. My area of study had centered largely on semiotics and systems design, so I suppose it was a natural fit to fall into web development and design. Later, I picked up a graduate degree in human-computer interaction. The first half of my career centered on a mix of design and marketing research, but I came to the realization that simply doing the research and presenting the findings wasn’t sufficient, and that companies needed someone to tell them what to do with it in simple, clear terms.
There are two reasons for this. The first is very simple – companies build things to sell, and research without direction is a luxury, not a solution. The people in most companies aren’t trained to do this sort of thinking, nor do they have the time to commit to sifting through mounds of information to uncover complex patterns and simplify them into something usable. The second is a little more complex. People are risk averse and developing insights and plans for using those insights is inherently risky. Data points are simple and nonthreatening. They’re clean. Numbers carry no risk. But they don’t get at the “why” behind a problem and they don’t tell you what to do next. My role is to provide new direction and to make sense of complex issues, to uncover what other people don’t see. But it’s also to serve as a buffer, as a way of deflecting personal risk for people inside a company.
What are one or two of your favorite research projects, courses, or experiences as an anthropology student?
I took a seminar on how concepts of space and place are constructed and interpreted in Japan. It took something we often take for granted, how space is used, and peeled back layers of meaning in ways I hadn’t considered. It examined the roles of language, history, creation of self, etc. in how people define and interact with their environment and with each other. The study of space/place is something that fascinates me to this day.
The other would be my first course on field methods and research design. It sounds like an obvious one, but the professor I had, Donald Stull, laid the groundwork for how I do fieldwork (or oversee it) to this day. From gathering data to building rapport to the interpretation of findings. The course even influenced how I write up what I find. It involved my first taste of real fieldwork and grounded my belief that rigor and analysis are the hallmarks of good work.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?
I am most passionate about the simple of issue of how ethnography is conducted. Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group. Data collection methods are meant to capture the social meanings and ordinary activities of people in naturally occurring settings. Unfortunately, anyone who is comfortable talking with strangers can now hang out the “ethnography” shingle, and I think it’s bad for anthropology and bad for the client. Methodology matters, as does training, and simply being comfortable with asking people questions does not mean you’re equipped to interpret what you see and hear. I’m able to do a fair amount of math (I made it through calculus with a decent grade), but that doesn’t mean I should be doing someone’s taxes. The same can be said for a lot of people calling themselves ethnographers today. And it matters because when a client chooses to do ethnographic research, they need to know that they are getting what they paid for – people who understand the theoretical models governing cultural behavior and the training to tease out good, solid insights.
How have you used your anthropology training in your career? What specific training, skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you?
Anthropology has been the cornerstone of my entire career, whether conducting research or interpreting findings to developing a business strategy. Anthropology is more than a set of skills; it is a way of looking at the world and making sense of what we see. I could point to people like Mike Agar or Michel Foucault as influencers of how I think about fieldwork and data, and I’d bore people to death (or come across as a pretentious ass). All of the people we read in grad school have unquestionable influences on how we do what we do. But at the end of the day, I think the central point is that anthropology has shaped how I think about the world around me and how I interpret what I see and hear.
For example, when doing work for a new product line for Miller Brewing a number of years ago, we could have asked the obvious – how does it taste, what about cost, etc. But the fieldwork led us in a different direction so that we were learning about how people construct identity, how they use beer as a symbol in creating group affiliation and how people understand time. Complex systems of meaning, again. The results produced breakthrough branding and marketing that radically bumped sales. Traditional research wouldn’t have gotten them there.
How have you navigated the business world as an anthropologist?
In the past, I’ve used the term “anthropologist” (my title at a former company was Chief Anthropologist), but I tend not to anymore. For one thing, people simply don’t know what it means and often associate it with archaeology. “Planner” is, for better or worse, a known commodity. That said, I make a point of letting people know my training and background. A large part of it is simply to get them to start a conversation so they understand the trajectory from which my ideas come. It helps make sense of why I do what I do and how I do it. That includes both my team and the people we work for, internal and external. The dialog help create a frame in which all parties are comfortable. Another part of it is, to be completely honest, to add a sense of credibility to our work when dealing with clients. It qualifies our expertise and moves it from the realm or guesswork to legitimacy.
Conveying the value of anthropology is always a bit of a challenge. The easiest way is to simply point to the work and the outcomes. But it also involves directly engaging people from outside the discipline in the work we do rather than handing off a report or lecturing when we have our findings. At the end of the day my role is to find solutions to problems first and to be an anthropologist second. So the more I can directly engage people in the insights process, the more likely they are to see the value in what anthropology brings to the table.
You mention the importance of rigor and deep analysis in the work you do. In a business environment where decision-makers want things done as quickly and cheaply as possible, how do you maintain a level of rigor and analysis that is acceptable? What advice do you have for people trained in anthropology, a discipline that values high quality work, for adapting to business culture?
This is, in my opinion, the hardest thing of all and unfortunately, I think we’re currently in a cycle of fast and cheap, so it has become harder still. However, I stress the end results and the gains that come from good work versus mediocrity. When I did work for Listerine, the work was extremely involved, but the end result was a simple message that doubled sales; the findings also kept them from making several big product development mistakes.
I also tend to think and talk a lot in terms of metaphor, and equate it with being a restaurant. You can be McDonalds, which is perfectly fine, or you can be The French Laundry in San Francisco. The former has low margins and high traffic. Expectations upon dining there are minimal. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. If, however, you aspire to be The French Laundry, you can expect high margins, high expectations, and people willing to book reservations a year in advance. Both of these models are viable and the same can be said for any business. You have to be honest about what kind of company you want to be and understand that cheap, mediocre research and strategy won’t get you to the really breakthrough ideas and plans, no matter how much you want it to. Good ideas stem from good work, mediocre ideas stem from mediocre work. Cause and effect.
What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
I still go back to the project I did for Miller Brewing on a product they have called Sparks. It no longer has the same ingredients, but at the time it was something of a combination of malt liquor and an energy drink. Needless to say, it was an unusual drink. Ultimately, my team did fieldwork across the country that led to major breakthroughs not only in their marketing, but in the product itself, in package design and in branding.
Another is the work I did for Underwriters Laboratories in helping them develop a unified website for global operations. The work spanned six continents and resulted in a system that was both elegant and functional. We got to understand the culture of engineering in a way that, I believe, hadn’t been done before and allowed us to bridge cultural gaps that the client initially thought couldn’t be done.
How is practicing anthropology different or similar to how you envisioned it when training as a student and when you first started out?
For better or worse, anthropologists have been extremely good at selling the benefits of the discipline. Unfortunately, we haven’t always been good at selling the reasons behind its successes in business. There are a lot of people claiming to do ethnography who have little experience in research design or training in social sciences. Ethnography is the buzz word in market research these days, but fieldwork isn’t as simple as it might seem. Although ethnographic research is a remarkably powerful tool for marketing if conducted properly, the challenge is in how to uncover deep, often latent, practice and meaning, then convert findings that go well beyond surface-level observations or sensational statements into something that can be used to innovate and sell products and services.
In other words, it isn’t enough to go out and conduct a good interview. An ethnographer worth his or her weight in salt is one who learns to see beyond the surface and find information and patterns that the untrained eye might overlook. This isn’t to say that only people with an anthropology or sociology degree hold the key to some special knowledge or map of the human psyche. It is to say that legitimate ethnographers have learned through training and experience to see everything as data. Legitimate business ethnographers have learned to translate that information into something more than interesting information; they’ve learned to translate that information into something useful and applicable to their clients. Unfortunately, rigor has been lost. On the upside, businesses have come to understand the value of looking at problems in a different, anthropologically-informed way, which is a major plus to my way of thinking.
As you put it, part of your job is to uncover useful insights that will essentially help companies get consumers to be more loyal and buy more stuff. What do/would you say to the anthropologists out there who have a problem with this particular application of anthropology and your work for big corporations?
There are indeed many anthropologists who would and do take issue with this position. The are also anthropologists who would take issue with my devotion to good bourbon. Or the fact that I tend to lean toward a structuralist perspective in analysis. I kindly remind them that I didn’t join a priesthood with a clearly defined canon when I went into anthropology and that while there are shared tenets (e.g. do no harm to the people we study), debate and variation in perspectives has been the hallmark of our discipline. I’ve met people who avoid the marketing side of business even as they help design a website for R.J. Reynolds, as if not handling the marketing side makes them somehow less complicit in propagating smoking. It simply isn’t true.
If an anthropologist can’t stomach the realities of business then they should stay away from that path. This isn’t to say I think our work should be devoid of a moral compass, but I do think it comes down to a matter of choices, individual perspectives, and being completely honest with yourself. I, for example, won’t touch certain industries or organizations (e.g. R.J. Reynolds), a decision that is grounded in a fair amount of reflection.
What advice do you have for anthropology students for marketing their skills to prospective employers?
First and foremost, learn how to translate findings into something simple, clear and useful. While we may care about the details of a study and how we got to our conclusions, not everyone does. Learn to tell people what they need to know and why they need to know it first, then go into the details. Remember, they are looking for answers that will lead to developing something that will move a product or service forward. Second, learn to work with a range of personalities. I’ve dealt with creative directors that want to get into the details and learn as much as they can about the people they are designing for. I’ve also dealt with creative directors who have little interest in digging into findings and simply want to know the one, single kernel of information that can direct their design. Finally, learn not to work in a vacuum. Anthropologists have often developed their skills in a lone-wolf context. They learn, they report, they move on. Be willing to work in a multi-disciplinary team and learn how to manage a range of perspective to get at the best solutions to problems.
Is there anything you think anthropology training programs could do better to prepare students for the working world?
I don’t think most programs prepare their students well for the realities of a business environment. Part of it is very mechanical – how to develop a budget, how to source contractors, how to develop tools that a multi-disciplinary team can use in the field. Another part is training in perspective, or learning how to balance depth and quality of research against the time and monetary constraints of a business. Often, timelines are extremely short and money is tight. Learning how to adapt is crucial. This isn’t to say that departments should teach people to do shoddy work, but it does mean preparing students for the realities of business culture.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think the one thing I would want to impart is that as an anthropologist, regardless of the title you end up hanging outside your office, everything is data. Every moment is a learning moment. Our search is, at least to my mind, a search for meaning. That is an ongoing process that never ceases, whether you’re in the office, in the field, or having drinks with friends.
Check out Gavin’s writings on anthropology, fieldwork and business at his blog, Anthrostrategy. You can also read this 2010 interview with Gavin over at Ethnosnacker, where he discusses application versus academia, watered-down ethnography, and other related topics.