Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Anthro Spectacle @SXSW: How Anthropology Captured the Imagination of Marketing Tech


I live in Austin, Texas. Along with breakfast tacos, Willie Nelson, and scorching hot summers, Austin is the home of the international conference known as South by Southwest (SXSW). It’s actually three conferences (Interactive, Music, and Film) rolled out over ten days in March. Much of the Interactive portion is about technology, media, and brands. SXSW brings in close to 300,000 people and is now recognized as the prime national stage to launch new products and brands.

Those of us who have lived in Austin forever lovingly (or not so lovingly) call this colossus “South by So What.” Traffic gets even more snarled and all the restaurants are packed. But having spent a good part of my professional career in advertising, I find the Interactive conference an increasingly fascinating spectacle. But “the most valuable business weekend of the year” is hardly a hive of anthropological thinking.

So I was truly honored—and more than a little surprised—to receive an invitation to speak this year on the panel “An Anthropological Approach to Reaching Customers.”

Interest in the panel (which SXSW gauges prior to the event) was so great that the conference organizers asked us to present an “encore” session. We filled both to capacity: 2000 people filed in to listen to the panel. The sessions received so many “likes” on the SXSW platform that we were the fifth most popular panel out of about 100 branding and marketing sessions (for context, the most popular was Gwyneth Paltrow’s interview about her lifestyle brand Goop).

Why did anthropology capture the imagination of the marketing tech community on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas? Was it substance or spectacle? This is the story of anthro’s cameo at SXSW—with, I hope, an incitement to gear up your Geertz and engage in spaces where a bit of theater can connect anthropology to important shifts in social and business landscapes.

How we (anthropology + me) got there in the first place

The panel organizers said they found me through LinkedIn, Twitter, and my own company website, Luminosity Research. That’s pretty straightforward. I know the importance of clear positioning, so my social media profile and content clearly place me at the intersection advertising and anthropology. I have PhD in Advertising from the University of Texas at Austin. I was also a Partner with Practica, an anthropology consulting firm. I am currently finishing an MA in Applied Anthropology from the University of North Texas.

When I accepted the offer to speak, I was eager to meet the other anthros on the panel. Much to my surprise and dismay, I quickly learned that I was the only person on the panel with any background in anthropology. Neither of the other two industry professionals had any direct exposure to academic or applied anthropology. What would be the anthropological contribution of the other panelists? How did they plan to represent anthropology? Would I be able to make subtle (or not-so-subtle) corrections to their understanding of anthropology? I was skeptical, but whether this performance was headed for triumph or catastrophe, I was thoroughly intrigued.

The origin story of this invitation that seemed to come out of the blue finally surfaced when I met the other panelists face to face in Austin. They all flew in from New York; we talked over shandies and white wine. In fact, it all started with two British expats drinking in a New York City pub. These two old friends were commiserating over the sorry state of the advertising industry. By the second round of drinks, they hatched the idea of a SXSW panel. They wanted something different…something that could offer a “big picture” perspective. So, they pulled “anthropology” out of their, uh, well let’s just call it their “imagination.”

Who were these people? Dave Etherington is the Chief Commercial Officer with Place Exchange, part of the outdoor digital firm Intersection. Dave came to advertising after a career at the Guardian in London doing special projects like producing concerts in Second Life. Dave and his team are changing the way outdoor advertising is sold from traditional methods to programmatic-style buying and selling.

Dave’s good friend in that New York City pub was Louisa Wong, Chief Operating Officer of Carat North America. Those of us in advertising are very familiar with Carat, the largest media company on the planet. Carat helps advertising agencies and clients plan and place advertising across all media channels. Last year, Carat posted $14.6 billion in billings for 2018. That’s big, and Louisa runs the daily operation for the US market.

So, there you have it. Dave wrote the panel description and title with colleagues. Alisa Stern, a colleague of Dave’s at Intersection, would be the moderator. Louisa, a luminary in the media advertising world who could draw a crowd, would be the panel’s headliner.

These are not bit players in the advertising “ecosystem,” as they say. Dave and Louisa are C-suite executives who are transforming the way media advertising is practiced. It was their position as UK outsiders, educated in the social sciences with individual agency (and perhaps that second round of drinks at the pub), that gave them the creative chutzpa to propose a panel on anthropology.

A series of conference calls to prepare for the panel turned into discussion sessions in which Louisa, Alisa, Dave, and others asked me questions about anthropology’s contribution to advertising practice. They raised issues such as privacy, data, and personalization, and with each answer came more probing, deeper questions. It like was a graduate seminar with some of the smartest, most experienced, most curious people I have ever met.

Alisa, our moderator, decided that our SXSW panel would follow the same general format that our discussions had taken on. I would jump start the session with a sort of “mini-lecture” that would define anthropology and then trace the relationship of anthropology and advertising through academia and practice. Alisa would ask Louisa questions that would give our COO panelist an opportunity to showcase her bird’s eye view of the industry—the challenges and the opportunities. Alisa would ask me questions inspired by our conference call seminars plus other questions that seemed to come straight out my class lectures at Texas State University—big, juicy, open-ended questions that reframe phenomena and stimulate thought.

“Anthropology, are you ready for your close up?”

That was my Green Room tweet before the panel began. It was a rarefied space, that Green Room, just one floor above the hotel’s big ballroom. Free coffee, soda, and Topo Chico were available, but the real value was quiet time away from the crowds to collect our thoughts. Of course, Louisa, Alisa, and I spent the time checking email and social media updates. But we knew this was the real deal when Green Room personnel told us, “People are already lining up in the hallways!” And sure enough, when we were escorted to the grand ballroom, we saw a SXSW worker standing in the middle of the room shouting at the top of her lungs, “Please raise your hand if you have an empty seat next to you. We still have crowds outside trying to get in. Let’s make room people!”

To be honest, I was nervous. As I looked out over that massive crowd of marketing, media, and advertising professionals, I retreated to an internal place for strength. In my mind, I started reviewing the countless books, chapters, and journal articles I have read that inspired my love of anthropology. This wasn’t about me. Instead, I was here to tell the story of Boas, Malinowski, Geertz, Turner, McCracken, Miller, Sunderland and Denny. My role was to introduce, translate, interpret, and even do a little evangelizing about anthropology’s contribution to advertising practice. Of the many people who have contributed to the intersection of anthropology and advertising, I told of the scholars who have moved me personally in profound ways.

Anthropology is not my first professional home, but a discipline that I discovered and fell deeply in love with shortly after earning a PhD in advertising. To me, anthropology represents a mid-career correction that finally places my personal and professional values in alignment. At the same time, I can’t ignore my advertising and marketing roots. Extending the metaphor, I am an acculturated professional: I returned to graduate school to learn anthropology theory and find community, but I still retain unique cultural markers from my prior advertising education and experience. Which is why I introduced my SXSW mini-seminar with the full disclaimer that “I speak anthropology with an advertising accent.”

After the panel introductions, I began by asking how many people in the audience self-identified as anthropologists—with a BA, MA, or PHD in anthropology. About 15 people raised their hands. In the second encore session, I was a little more relaxed. I asked “all the anthros” to raise their hands. Then, true to the outgoing, optimistic spirit of Austin, SXSW and advertising, I said “Give it up for anthropology! Anthropology in the house!” …pumping my arms in the air like I was at a rock concert. I then said, “This would never happen at the American Anthropological Association conference.” The incredible irony of my juxtaposition got a laugh from the audience and, with that, I took Alisa’s first question… “Dr. Gigi, please tell us. What is anthropology and how does it relate to targeting customers?”

Here are the links to both sessions. The panels are the same in both recordings, but the audience Q&As are different. Also, we were all little more relaxed and natural in the second session.

An Anthropological Approach to Reaching Customers
An Anthropological Approach to Reaching Customers Encore


In the end, the question remains: Why all the interest in anthropology at SXSW? Given some time and money, perhaps we could have done some ethnographic interviews to find out. But in lieu research, let me offer some possible reasons.

Anthropology is more than tactical

Anthropology might have stood out because most of the panels within the brand and marketing track are somewhat tactical (i.e. case studies on successful digital campaigns, ways to creating authenticity, creating content that drive clicks). One of the sessions even more popular than ours was titled, “A Psychologist and an Ad Guy Walk into a Campaign.” Perhaps social science research is so siloed and contained to academic journals and conferences that, when it does make an appearance in a professional business setting, attendees flock to learn something that seems to offer a promise beyond tactics. As Louisa said, there is a large-scale need to “help our people ask better questions.”

Having big data ≠ understanding people and context

Another more significant reason might have more to do with be the place that the digital advertising community finds itself in now. Back “in the day,” John Wanamaker’s pithy phrase ruled: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Now thanks to cookies and other online tracking tools, marketers are awash in quantitative data at each point in the customer journey that feeds the programmatic buying and selling of online advertising. Sure, advertisers now have better views into which half of their advertising is wasted, but they still do not know why. If they don’t know anything about their consumers “beyond the click,” they don’t really even know what those gobs of data mean. Reliance on digital consumer behavior data is isolation assumes that people live the totality of their lives completely bounded by their online behavior. Even worse, as Louisa explained, performance marketing and retargeting are degrading online experience in ways that hurt brands even when they successfully convert sales. Perhaps marketing professionals are realizing they need to understand this thing called “context.”

Regulations require new business models

If being perceived as “creepy” and annoying for following people around the internet doesn’t force brands to find new digital advertising models, downright regulation (or the threat of it) will. There is movement at the national level for privacy laws that could dramatically limit the ability of social media platforms and websites to collect and monetize people’s digital behavior data. The General Data Protection Regulation in the EU is already doing this. What would happen if a significant number of American consumers take back ownership of their data and don’t allow websites to track their online behavior? Brands know they have to re-think the value they deliver. They need a more holistic approach to understand what people value in the first place.

Is Boas rolling in his grave? Some of my anthropology heroes might have raised an eyebrow at getting evoked at a digital media conference in service of advertising and marketing. But then, what better time to introduce ideas like context, holism, and positionality. Perhaps now is the teaching moment when digital marketing professionals are ready to understand that “privacy is not dead,” that phenomena like privacy, data, personalization, and value are fundamentally cultural phenomena, their meaning constantly emergent and embedded in messy context. Perhaps now is the time that big and thick data researchers can ask better questions together. More to the point, perhaps now is the time that marketing professional are ready to hear my very simple, closing thought: “Hire anthropologists!”

Image credit: Roddy Knowledge @RoddyKnowles via Twitter, 11 March 2019.


Sales-Driven Soothsayers: Anthropologists as Trending Trope in Today’s Public Imagination, Sarah LeBaron Von Baeyer

Business, Anthropology, and Magical Systems: The Case of Advertising, Brian Moeran

Ethnographer on Wall Street, Rachel C. Flemming



E. Gigi Taylor, Luminosity Research

Gigi Taylor is the founding principle of Luminosity Research based in Austin, Texas. Previously, she was an assistant professor of advertising at Texas State University and a Partner with Practica Group, an anthropology research consultancy. Gigi started her advertising career as an account planner at Publics & Hal Riney in San Francisco. She holds a PhD in advertising from the University of Texas. Her research has appeared in both advertising and anthropological journals and conferences.