The human zoo

Ogilvy Discovery Group takes an anthropological approach to consumers

Canadian Business, May 26, 2003 

Six guys walk into a bar. They drink, they talk, they laugh. They all seem pretty similar, except for one guy. He’s loud and overbearing, even for a male in his 20s in a bar. His contributions to the conversation are labored, or late. Worse, his high-fiving attempts are embarrassing. While his buddies knock fists to signify assent, Mr. High-Five hasn’t noticed, and he compounds his mistake by leaving his palm up expectantly. “We saw rank and hierarchy changing constantly, sometimes moment to moment,” says anthropological researcher Emma Gilding as she plays a videotape of the boys’ night out in Philadelphia. “This assignment was tougher than some. But we got what we needed.”


What Gilding and her cameras needed was information that would help sell Miller Lite beer. Miller believed that better understanding consumer behavior could help make its product the focus and fuel for a ritual like a night out with the guys. Researchers with video cameras went along on several boys’ nights out in Philadelphia and San Diego, saying little and recording everything. Gilding watched all that videotape — about 90 hours’ worth — identifying patterns and themes. She edited those hours down to concentrated montages that demonstrated the stubborn and stunning recurrence of those patterns and behaviors. “A lot of their conversation was made up of bizarre stories, anecdotes with punch lines . . .  Here’s what that led to,” Gilding says, cuing up a TV commercial in which a trucker picks up a hitchhiker and pulls out a ventriloquist’s dummy once they’re rolling. The alarmed hitchhiker bails out. The spot’s last 15 seconds reveals him telling the story to his friends in a bar. The anecdotal ad for Miller Lite cheered retailers who had been grumbling about ineffective marketing, reversed a sales decline and won favorable notice from advertising folks.


Gilding and Johanna Shapira run Ogilvy Discovery Group, the only behavioral and strategic insights unit owned and operated by an advertising agency, WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather. Working out of the agency’s West 49th Street headquarters in Manhattan, the two women have scrutinized all kinds of human behavior — including diaper changing and parental bonding, female incontinence, cancer patients dealing with chemotherapy side effects, Mexican ‘tweens, small-business owners, international high-end travelers and beer drinkers — with the same care and attention more commonly focused on the Yanomami of the Amazon or Papua New Guinea’s Rotokas-speaking people. “Everybody in marketing has done an awful lot of focus groups,” says Shapira. “After seeing this, it’s, ‘I can never go to another focus group again,’ because this is so much different; it’s just such a new kind of information.”


New in advertising, anyway. Anthropologists study humans and their culture to understand how and why people do what they do. Advertisers want insight into consumers, and in this realm, understanding means profit. “There’s no new behavior,” Gilding says. “It’s understanding what’s actually there. You sit and you live and you learn what it’s like to be somebody else.”


Advertising agencies traditionally rely on a couple of methods to figure out what consumers are thinking. One is polling: select a sample of the population that typifies the people you want to sell your product to, then ask about their preferences, habits and what annoys them. Do that a couple hundred or a couple thousand times and tabulate the results. Or try focus groups: identify a dozen or so people you want to sell something to, get them together and have them react to your product, your commercial or your questions. Do they prefer the chocolaty coating or the pillowy mouth-feel? Is a second glove box more or less important than a fourth cup-holder or a second backseat video monitor? Do that a minimum of four times and tabulate the results.


The problems with both approaches are similar: people generally try to say what they think an interlocutor wants to hear. A couple of questions into a telephone poll, for example, a subject will often form some idea — right or wrong — of which answers are being sought, and will offer responses that seem “right,” even if they’re not true. That happens in focus groups, too, where group dynamics can warp results further. One strong personality can skew everybody’s answers, either by forcing agreement or intimidating dissenters into silence.


Anthropology and ethnography avoid those problems — and yield better information. (Anthropology is the study of people in groups; ethnography is the systemic recording of human cultures.) Advertisers can hire academics to study career women in West Vancouver, say, or people who drink white wine in Winnipeg or skiers in Saskatoon with the same methods they apply to pre-industrial hunter-gatherer societies. “Ethnography is becoming a much more important source of insight,” says Hy Mariampolski. His company, QualiData Research Inc., with offices in New York and San Francisco, is a pioneer in the field. “If an advertiser wants to better understand a consumer’s emotional connection to their brand, it’s better to go to where those brands are used or consumed or purchased, and discover the emotional connections that consumers have with those brands in context.” Bell & Howell’s development division in Canada was one of QualiData’s first clients; it hired the firm in the mid-1980s to find out more about the culture of record-keeping in large organizations.


The use of ethnographic or anthropological strategies in market research has exploded in the past five years. Increasingly, anthropology researchers consult part-time for marketers, or leave academe to study consumers for corporations full-time. A New York firm called Housecalls Inc. does precisely that, and its founder, Bill Abrams, wrote The Observational Research Handbook in 2000. Abrams worked in advertising, but moved into ethnographic research out of frustration with the limits of focus groups.


Gilding alleges that Abrams and others don’t do true ethnographic or anthropological research, although they use many of its techniques. Her rigorous academic background makes her very particular about protocol and procedure, mainly interfering with the study subject as little as possible. “We don’t do product intervention,” she explains. “We don’t sit with someone who has shampoo in their hands and say, ‘Now tell me about the shampoo; how do you find the shampoo?’ We’re looking at the decision-making process around the brand. The brand is a symbol, and you have to assess the relevancy or the potency of that symbol within a culture.”


Gilding, 34, started doing ethnographic research using videotape in 1990 while studying performance and culture for a post-graduate degree in her native England. A friend at an ad agency asked about using the same techniques on consumers. Gilding wound up working with him for a year, then launched her own company, BCR UK (BCR for behavior and cultural research). After five years working for clients throughout Europe, she says, “I started phoning around agencies in New York, because I wanted to be global, and this is the epicentre.” In 1999, Ogilvy & Mather offered her a job in its Manhattan headquarters, where she would edit videotape in a converted closet. That’s since grown to three video editing suites, a full-time staff of six, and assignments throughout North and South America and Europe.


Gilding’s Canadian colleague, Shapira, 37, has worked all over the world, often figuring out how to launch or more effectively market North American products in such far-flung places as Vietnam. Growing up in Vancouver and working there and in Toronto helped foster cultural curiosity and awareness, along with her thorough knowledge of advertising culture. The combination of talents made Shapira a natural as the Discovery Group’s managing director. “The difference is Johanna,” Gilding says of their complementary strengths. “It’s like we’re building a house: I’m putting up the roof — the big-strokes person — and she’s putting the dots on the curtains.”


Together, Gilding and Shapira hire documentary filmmakers and anthropological researchers (rather than advertising folks) on a per-project basis. The field workers are careful to be as unobtrusive as possible during the time — from a couple of days to a week or more — that they’re studying and videotaping their subjects.


Attitudes, answers and candor evolve through the course of a study. Gilding says the first hour typically yields “perfect respondent” answers: what the subject feels he should say. But that gradually gives way to greater honesty. In a study of patients with heart disease that Gilding conducted, for instance, a subject initially said she couldn’t figure out why she was stricken. Later in the same session, she admitted that 20 years of cigarettes and a bad diet may have contributed to her illness. Getting deeper, more thorough information demands patience and time that polling or focus groups don’t have — like a week to move in with each of their subjects. Nor can they uncover the understanding that comes from listening to a woman talk about the radical changes in diet that heart disease demands while methodically unwrapping a meatball sandwich the size of a football. “If we do have specific questions we can’t get answers to through the course of the research,” Gilding explains, “we’ll gang them all up at the very end, in the last hour. That way, at least, the subjects will answer honestly.”


But doesn’t talking in front of a camera make people stilted and self-conscious? Shapira says the camera’s effect is positive; subjects are forthcoming to the point of being confessional. The less the researcher says, the more information a subject volunteers. Attention to rigorous protocols ensures “clean data,” says Gilding. The subjects are as unspoiled by market research as possible: Ogilvy Discovery’s recruiter automatically disqualifies candidates who’ve been in focus groups, for example.


That kind of depth and purity comes with a price. Anthropological market research costs more than other kinds of inquiry. Housecalls charges about US$33,000 for one of its studies. Other kinds of ethnographic research cost between US$40,000 and US$100,000, depending on complexity. By contrast, a simple Internet survey of 150 people costs about US$15,000, with greater complexity pushing the price higher. Focus groups typically run between US$3,500 and US$5,000 each.


Being part of an advertising agency means Ogilvy Discovery has to apply what it learns. The research is merely the first step. “We say, ‘We know this. Now what?’” Gilding explains. “Nine times out of 10 it’s behavior modification; how do you get people to do something different?” Ogilvy & Mather offers something it calls 360-degree branding. For that to work, everybody who works on a brand needs to know how it’s seen, lived with, thought of, what it means in the deepest cultural sense.


Critics charge that advertising eliminates regional and cultural differences; we’re all just consumers now, regardless of where or how we live. But Gilding and Shapira’s work shows culture is mutable, shifting and composed of more than just language, geography and belief. It demonstrates that the mass of consumers comprises more differences than anyone could have guessed. The deeper the two women explore, the more differences and truth they find.


They’ve taken their techniques to Europe and South America. Now, they want to make that capability permanent and global. “North America’s up and running, so I’m going to set up what I call ‘trade routes,’ so that around the world we have lots of Discovery Groups, and all the information should become available, managed, productive,” Gilding says. “No one’s actually successfully done that — not in advertising, not in business, not even in cultural studies. It’s quite a magnificent challenge.” Today, beer drinkers in Philadelphia. Tomorrow, the world.