Thank you for reading. I'll be Out of the Office. For more than a decade, I misattributed a key cultural anthropologist's technique, "Off the Veranda", to Franz Boas.
"Off the Veranda" was in fact pioneered by Bronislaw Malinowski, an anthropologist of acclaim. I didn't remember his name. I only remember the name of the concept for feeling it was too simple to need one. At the time of his landmark insight, it was customary that anthropologists would infer understanding of the peoples they were studying through the works of others, from a distant armchair on an elevated veranda. Malinowski's steps forward were quite literal, down the stairs from the elevated separation of his veranda to meet his subjects of study in person. It made sense to him that if he wanted to understand them, he should talk to them.
Agencies keep demanding hours. Teams stay late, come in early, work threadbare through weekends; the demands of any new project are a challenge to embrace. An inspired team may not leave the office for days, save to get something to eat, shower and steal a quick few moments of sleep.
Reference to the world then ends at the exposed brick walls of the office. Groups spend all of their time creating work to connect with consumers, limiting their access to conversation with anyone anything like the intended audience.
Thousands upon thousands work in advertising agencies globally. This is hardly a fraction of a percentage of the world's population. It's easy to forget, most people don't work in advertising.
While it's important to focus on the work, it's most important to recognize who you're creating this work for. In anthropology, as in advertising, studying a subject or researching a consumer from a distance is far removed from any conversation with a person.
Substitute a bean bag for an armchair and an open floor plan for a veranda, and ad agencies work in anthropology. Each often infers meaning of culture from distant, out of context data, jargon, focus groups - divining ways to communicate in mass with demographics they rarely speak to as individuals.
We live in an age where it's steadily becoming harder for people to know each other. I sincerely applaud the U.K. for establishing its Minister for Loneliness; hopefully other nations will soon follow. Advertising factors deeply into this challenge, collectively defining the brand of popular culture. It's an agency's responsibility to keep mediated communication human. Word-of-mouth is still the best form of advertising - it's also real conversation.
To get people talking, you have to know what they enjoy talking about. You don't have to take any drastic action to understand them. You just have to leave the office sometimes.
About the Author:
Kevin is one-half of Peach Key, a husband-and-wife design / communications agency based in Lake County, Florida. In addition to client work, sometimes he writes about opportunities in miscommunication.