Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Interview with Gavin Johnston of Two West

I am starting a whole series of conversations with my peers from around the globe to better understand how they think and how they work. Starting with Gavin Johnston of Two West who have offices in Kansas City and Los Angeles.

Siamack: Hi, Gavin! What shall we talk about?

Gavin: application vs. academics

Siamack: Can you please start by introducing yourself...

Gavin: absolutely. I'm Gavin Johnston, chief anthropologist at Two West Discovery & Design.

Siamack: Can I have a link to it? What kind of explorations do you specialize in? And are you an anthropologist

Gavin: Yes, we're at www.twowest.com. We focus heavily on messaging design and semiotics. So translation of symbolic life into marketing and brand design.

Siamack: Your clients?

Gavin: Sprint, H&R Block, Miller Brewing, DDB, United Healthcare, have been our principle clients, but we have numerous project-oriented clients too.

Siamack: Are you an academic? I am interested in methodology/tools you apply

Gavin: I was, but I have a certain distaste for academia. Theoretical work is tremendous and grounds what we do, but it rarely finds its way out of the university and rarely has direct input on society, so I've kept relatively clear of academic settings for the last ten years or so.

Siamack: Are you an anthropologist by education?

Gavin: I am an anthropologist, specializing in linguistics and ethnography. I fell into this by dumb luck about ten years ago.

Siamack: When and why did you fall out with academia?

Gavin: An up-coming child was the real drive. I joke, but there is truth to it. A friend saw an opportunity and we jumped, not knowing we could make a living. After about two years I realized we were doing better work than academia was doing, at least as it applies to design and real-life use. Our company, however, had difficulties since we had no business experience.

Academia seems mired in rehashing theory, espousing unidirectional political and economic views and maintaining disciplinary walls. It is frequently about defining a person’s identity more than it is about finding answers. I'm of the opinion that good work comes from a range of experiences and dialog. Academia is driven by maintaining those walls.

Siamack: What has influenced your approach?

Gavin: The biggest influences are structuralism and deep-dive field work. We go in assuming everything is data and we will be with key informants for at least 6-10 hours at a time. Ideally, we’re in a setting for multiple days. Context mapping is a key element as is lexical dissection.

Siamack: What are the biggest challenges to your approach?

Gavin: Clients seem to give push back on timelines. We prefer longer sessions but it can be difficult to pull them into that model. I think it's a matter of the goal, frequently. If the goal is marketing, a cross- functional team is central to what we do. Context mapping is essentially mapping where language utterances occur and comparing them against what is literally mapped in the physical environment. So it combines workflow and real life movement (and material culture) with what is being said.

Siamack: How do you convey your findings?

Gavin: We limit what we actually show them because, frankly, they're usually looking for the big idea. We demonstrate linkages b/w concept vs. reality. So shopping, for example, is about being a good mom, entertainment, etc. So the idea is to give different trajectories. I think we interpret and uncover the right questions. It is half science, half intuition I always tell people.

Siamack: How do you 'manage' intuition?

Gavin: People are obsessed with science as numbers. I think it's about discovery. I use examples to manage it. A friend of mine works at JPL (NASA) making robots. I can’t do that, nor do I want to do that. I CAN uncover the strangeness and complexity of the human condition.

Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. Don't get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it's difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms -- they simply don't speak the native tongue. Some, like myself, are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their "anthropologist" identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Another discipline?

Siamack: Is there something else to yourselves?

Gavin: I don't worry about the titles much. "chief anthropologist" sounds cool, frankly. Ethnography could be a powerful tool, but it's being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless. What we do is uncover meaning and complexity -- systems of meaning. If someone can uncover a good term for that, they will be a millionaire

Siamack: I'll get working on it.

Gavin: There's a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. I think it comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook. One thing I'm hoping is that anthropology programs will change and get back to their roots.

Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.

Siamack: favourite insight you can share

Gavin: telling miller brewing that no one cared as much as they believed about the taste meant opening up design and marketing in new ways. cheap beer has nothing to do with beer connoisseurship and everything to do with making people feel equal in a social setting. Guinness is about being smarter and cooler. It is about having mastered a more nuanced sense of taste. Miller Lite is about an iron worker and a CPA (accountant) sharing experiences. It is a populist beer that signals an invitation into the drinking circle rather than excluding people. It is expansive in nature rather than restrictive and therefore fits into specific contexts driven by cross-subgroup social interaction. The result for miller was to incorporate more realistic drinking venues into their ads, start messaging around the shared experience (unlike Bud Light, which is about humor) and start hosting “parties” in places like Culver City -- midway between white collar and blue collar.

Gavin: Clients think ethnography is a panacea and it isn't. It is one of many methods in a system. To really articulate our value I think we have to drag clients into the field and point out where the mistakes were made. I think we also have to demonstrate how it makes them money. We deliver a lot of info, but avoid telling them what to do with it. We have to start telling them what to do. As a company, we make every client sit through a day or two where we work with them to build something meaningful at the end. It makes all the difference in the world.

Siamack: Thanks so much for your time, Gavin. Really enjoyed our chat.

By the way, this was a Skype chat. Half talking face to face and half typing. Which is a surprisingly easy way to chat and discuss. If you feel I omitted any questions or have any questions of your own, please let me know.


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