Minister of culture
Anthropologist Grant McCracken, AM’76, PhD’81, brings popular culture to corporations.
By Katherine Muhlenkamp
Photography by Christopher Toumanian
In 1995 HBO appointed a new CEO, Jeff Bewkes, and programming head, Chris Albrecht. Over the next decade, the two invigorated the premium cable channel—and revolutionized television. Series such as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos became popular, then iconic. The duo’s secret to success? “We just ask ourselves,” Albrecht explained to Fast Company in 2002, “‘Is it about something?’ Sopranos isn’t about a Mob boss on Prozac. It’s about a man searching for the meaning of his life.”
Not so fast, says Grant McCracken, AM’76, PhD’81, in his December 2009 book, Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation (Basic Books). The show was about a mob boss on Prozac—and that’s what made it so successful. Bewkes and Albrecht tapped into American culture, adapting for television the popular mafia film genre, replete with grand emotional gestures, dramatic violence, and a high-flying yet anxiety-riddled protagonist à la Michael Corleone or Henry Hill. The HBO execs were acting as “chief culture officers,” in McCracken’s terms, and the corporate world needs more people like them.
A chief culture officer’s responsibility would be akin to what McCracken has been doing as a business consultant for more than 20 years—observing and interpreting American society to understand what the culture values. McCracken, who trained as a cultural anthropologist, says companies hoping to create relevant and sought-after products must be attuned to the “ideas, emotions, and activities that make up the life of the consumer.” Without a deep understanding of popular culture, he writes, “the corporation lives in a perpetual state of surprise, waiting for the next big storm to hit.”
Instead of depending on a 20-year-old intern to explain what’s happening in the world, CEOs should appoint a CCO: someone in the organization’s upper echelons who studies ever-changing preferences in music, technology, and television among Americans of all ages, as well as “everything beneath the surface,” such as the fridge magnets families use to transform a house into a home (or to keep the take-out menus handy). His thesis has struck a chord: BusinessWeek named Chief Culture Officer one of the best innovation and design books of 2009.
The concept of a CCO stems from McCracken’s anthropology background. A Vancouver native, he wrote his dissertation on self-presentation and gesture exchange between aristocrats and commoners in Elizabethan-era London. He delved into the nuances of Elizabethan clothing, a topic that helped him secure a professorship in the consumer-studies department at Ontario’s University of Guelph, where he taught a course on the history of costume and another on the psychology of contemporary clothing.
After making that initial leap from Elizabethan London to the 20th century, in 1990 McCracken became director of Toronto’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, where he organized an exhibition about Toronto teens. To prepare, he asked teenagers roaming the mall to explain their social categories: surfer-skaters versus rockers, Goths versus punks, and so on (his favorite item from the exhibit was a punk leather jacket emblazoned, “Help the police, beat yerself up”). Representatives from Coca-Cola saw the exhibit and asked McCracken to consult for them. “They thought, ‘Perfect—someone who knows about contemporary culture,’” he says. “‘This guy can help us understand what’s happening to teenagers.’”
That assignment spurred McCracken to become, as he describes it, “a self-funding academic.” A research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, he spends half the year conducting anthropological research on contemporary North American culture and the other half as a consultant, traveling the continent to carry out ethnographic interviews with client-identified subjects of varying age, income, location, and ethnicity. When he consulted for ConAgra Foods, for instance, McCracken spoke with families about their notions of food, cooking, and home. He also interviewed chefs, nutritionists, and other food professionals.
Before Chief Culture Officer McCracken published seven books, including Culture and Consumption I (1988) and II (2005), which took an academic approach to how culture and commerce shape one another. All the while, he’d wanted to write a practical book about why corporations should monitor popular culture but wasn’t sure how to frame the argument. Then in October 2008 he addressed designers at an American Institute of Graphic Arts conference. While encouraging them to share their cultural knowledge with higher-ups at work, he threw out the term chief culture officer. “You could feel this little perturbation run through the room; people kind of snapped to,” says McCracken. “And then at drinks afterward, people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘CCO—that’s perfect.’ One actually said, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’” McCracken realized that he’d found his hook.
Hoping to write the book for fall ’09 publication, he returned to posts he’d written for his blog, and the mounds of material he’d collected through his consulting interviews. Obliged to keep private information he gleaned for the corporation, McCracken could cast a wider net for ethnography. “All the stuff that the corporation doesn’t need or care about, you can draw on for anthropological purposes.” He could use, for instance, ideas culled from observing the actions and preferences of others.
While consulting for Domini Social Investments in 2004, for example, he interviewed a suburban Kansas City couple. Their home was heavily adorned with an Egyptian motif—they had embraced what McCracken, in a September 26, 2006, blog entry, calls “the Black Athena scheme,” referring to a 1987 book that argues that classical Greece was influenced by Egyptian culture. Although the decor didn’t come up during the interview, McCracken saw the furnishings as an indicator of how an academic theory can infiltrate popular culture: “What made this data precious,” he writes, “is that it showed that an idea that was merely an idea when published in 1987 was now a reality, a powerful personal identity, some 15 years later.”
With Chief Culture Officer now published, McCracken doesn’t think companies will begin hiring CCOs overnight. But a slow change is possible. “I haven’t heard from anyone who runs corporations saying, ‘We looked at the book, and we think you’re right.’ But I am getting e-mails from people who say this book has changed their sense of what their professional life might be,” he says. “That’s really thrilling.”