Wednesday 29 October 2008

Meaning Management - Grant McCracken

I had one of those 'oh shit' moments about planning recently. I follow Crispin Porter reasonably closely, more because of the cultural framework of the United States that their work illuminates than the brilliance of their creative. I get the feeling Crispin understand the macro task more than most and that gives me a kick. I like it that their work annoys people and yet they still get hired. I believe they play a broader and more intelligent game than just the commercials that the industry obsesses about.

Big Bucking Chicken was very memorable. A mate I grew up with in Southampton, and I would endlessly goof around saying 'bucking hell, for bucks sake, buck me' the list goes on and it's nice when an ad agency can deal the obscenity card with charm.

Getting back to my epiphany, I've followed the run up to, and execution of the long awaited Microsoft work by Crispin because I had strong views on how to solve the Microsoft communication challenge which sounds arrogant (and is) but there are some basic denial dimensions when it comes to Microsoft that nobody discusses openly and yet they are the issues, that if addressed can shift the brand to where it needs to be. Embracing the truth is a brilliant start. It's also the most challenging isn't it?

So when the Seinfeld and Gates work came out, contrary to the widespread chorus of derision I was up for it. It may not be as brilliant as we perhaps expected, but a quick deconstruction ticked off a few valuable boxes and then I subsequently wrote about it here just as the follow up work came out which was much stronger in my view. Whatever anyone says, it got talked about an awful lot. More than say an incredible brand like Nokia who have failed to deliver an ad that resonates.

The first endorsement I came across the Seinfeld and Gate's work, that added to my own thoughts was from Grant McCracken's blog Cultureby. It's often a challenging blog. It can be uphill to grasp some of his conceptual conclusions. His posting is prolific, and can seem daunting when there is a backlog of RSS feeds to catch up with, but they are best digested distraction free with time to go over the points that at first glance can seem either cryptically elusive or elliptically bloody simple. Maybe they're the same thing sometimes.

In any case, because I've been dropping by his blog for some time I'm quite fond of Grant's writing, it's the strength of conviction, spectrum of creative writing styles and unequivocal impatience with mediocrity - the man does not suffer fools at all. Like it or not Grant has an ace way of demolishing even his own academic peers. I'm sure this must be quite incendiary for the colleagues it's aimed at, but it pleases me no end that making chums is not the point of his Blog.

So anyway, Grant identified that many people were confused by the MS work. What was the point? And this is where Grant sort of says his plain stuff that has much more depth then is easily captured. He wrote: "The microsoft spot has a clear task: to rebuild the the Microsoft brand. It is using Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates and a particular situation to perform an act of "meaning manufacture"

That's the first pointer at a really important reframing of the quality end of planning. "Meaning manufacture" As if the fundamentals of signifier and signified can be remanufactured, hammered into shape, retooled for fresh purposes or stripped bare, skim the head gasket, grind the valves and rebore the cylinders to achieve new tasks or maybe it's time to deliver on tougher and evolved performance expectations.

He goes on in the Microsoft post to say "We can say it is good meaning manufacture. We can say it's bad meaning manufacture, But we can't be mystified a) that this ad exists, b) what it means to do, or c) what it has to do with "selling computers"

I agree, how can anyone not grasp what is being done. Sure the inexplicable is present in the narrative, but isn't that de rigeur for any self respecting piece of communication to leave gaps for the individual to fill in, or if struggling, to enjoy amusement through absurdity. Who cares? Most of it is as it is. But then the killer words emerged for me.

Grant writes "Microsoft is utterly out of touch with contemporary culture, and Bill Gates is, as someone once said of Dick Cavett, "spectacularly gentile" which is to say, utterly out of touch with contemporary culture. The Aquatic Life was a world too far. Some day. Perhaps someday this will be the 'sufficient act of meaning management.

This is where Grant serves up a bit of intellectual corporal punishment. I've had to look up Dick Cavett. My mobile is not playing fair and it seems from the clumps I caught that he's an inner circle Television celebrity from the golden era of American TV. I'm not sure how an Emmy Winner can be spectacularly gentile; I'm genuinely confused but if I were looking for an off the cuff comparison could the same thing be said about Mrs Palin? Ostensibly an executive fishwife with a nose for plain talking that fits sweet in a barren nature reserve with puffy fingered politicians in denial of Russia's proximity and the whole country of Canada before the U.S. really starts?

I could go on. Grant refers to "The Aquatic life" too. I'm stumped for the time being and so is the concise search engine results on my phone.

I'll get back to the point I want to make. It occurred to me that at the most cerebral end of advertising planning our job is 'meaning management'. I looked back into the archives and saw that there were many references to this reframing of the planning function and realised that it had slowly but surely seeped into my brain. So there it is. In my opinion we're either flogging stuff or working at a higher level and it's called Meaning Management' and Grant McCracken owns it. I wrote to him a quick mail to explain that I think it's ironic it took an anthropologist to explain my job to me and I hope you are as enthused by the term as I am when looking at tasks that fit the bill.


  1. Try the life aquatic - don't know if that's what Grant meant.

  2. You're right John. There's a reason for the mistake that's awkward to explain on this mobile but thanks for letting me know.

  3. nice post charles. if i had to narrow down my blogs from 200 to 2 or 3, grant's would make the cut. he's really in a league of his own.

  4. It's pure intellectual thuggery and I love it Dino :)

  5. Anthropologists can explain a lot, including financial crises:
    And yes, Grant does provide a lot of insight into the advertising world :)

  6. Thanks Anjali. Just for fun though because I know you are a first class scholar, are there any bits of the post you really disagree with because I'd welcome that from you. :)