Chief Culture Officer: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Grant McCracken‘s book, Chief Culture Officer, makes a bold declaration: corporations must institutionalize the study of culture in order to make things that resonate better with consumers. He proposes doing this by creating a new C-level executive: the CCO. The CCO is responsible for keeping the corporation in touch with culture, and to find ways to align the corporation with the culture of the moment. In that way, the corporation can affectively integrate with larger cultural moments, connect in an authentic way, and increase its own profits.

This framework sounds wondrous: the public gets a corporation more attuned to what they want. The corporation gets a larger customer base. And the CCO gets to sit on top of the pile.

But, you know what they say about things that seem too good to be true, right? The sad reality is that the type of role that McCracken defines would surely be doomed to failure.

Make no mistake, McCracken paints a seductive picture. The CCO is the person that understands the entire cultural landscape, and is willing to be early and be wrong often to get things right sometimes. The challenge with this approach is that no one in the C-suite would get to hang around long enough to make that happen. The average tenure for CMOs is a mere 27 months (PDF). And CEOs have only 20 months to show that a major decision has impacted the bottom line.

All of which means that the CCO will be out of the job before they have the chance to show their value.

But, despite this premise, there is a lot of value in the book, and it is a call to arms for the creative class to rally around. In the end, my ambivalence about the premise was eclipsed by my desire to be sucked in to this wonderful world where cultural literacy was not only appreciated, but also rewarded. Where conversations about why “Two and a Half Men” is popular is worth more than the fleeting Likes and Stumbles that a blog post might get, and is seen in a larger context of relevance. (In answer to that question, McCracken’s conclusion is that TAHM showcases a ‘unrepentant man’ in Charlie Sheen, which he sees as an emerging cultural trend; I think he’s right, but will take it one step further – the unrepentant man is culturally relevant right now because of the relative loss of status of white men in American society. Blurred gender lines and increasing ethnic diversity are threatening, and the unrepentant man provides some salve from the cruel vagaries of the world).

Oh, to live in this alternate universe!

If you are a person that finds relevance in culture; that is naturally interested in why things are the way they are; have a anthropological curiosity; and find value in understanding cultural phenomena (admittedly, like myself), then you will want to sleep with this book wrapped in your arms. It’s easy to love because it’s so validating – McCracken says that cultural understanding should be cultivated. It should have more data, and be studied with more rigor. And it should be rewarded.

Imagine the joy of being able to study long term trends like demographics, norms and mores, the Census, generations, globalization, changing ideas of family, and digitization! Now layer on top of that responsibility for understanding short term trends like pop music, fashion, seasonality, cable TV, magazines, social networks, and internet memes! And also to be seen as the hero that makes companies culturally relevant like Steve Jobs, Geoffrey Frost (who shepherded the Razr through Motorola), and Chris Albrecht at HBO. Where do I sign up?

But, it’s tough to imagine creating a systematic process for the work that these visionaries have done. Or maybe it’s just so completely overwhelming that it seems impossible. When product development and marketing budgets plan for only incremental improvements, then there is almost no room for a revolutionary product.

Interestingly, though, there is a very efficient system already in place to assimilate culture. Large corporations can bring management expertise and scale. Small organizations bring speed, inventiveness, and unexpected ideas. When small companies are onto something big, they become acquisition targets for large companies. Thus, the cultural understanding from the nimble guys gets passed to the big guys to scale. There is much ballyhoo in management literature about creating companies driven by innovation. But, the reality is that the large companies that McCracken speaks to in this book can often just acquire innovation once it’s proven itself out. (As a side note, this is a huge danger in the film industry currently. There are only two kinds of movies being made now: studios make tentpole films, and indie directors hustle to put together $1-5M pictures. What’s missing is the in-between films – the ones that give a director that’s made a solid earner at $3M the chance to work with a $10-15M budget, and gross $80M. There’s no way to scale up.)

In fact, the whole strategy of acquiring cultural relevance by acquisition seems to be just what’s happened with of McCracken’s own examples. He laments that Mary Minnick was passed over for the CEO job at Coke in 2007. She understood that consumers were reevaluating soft drinks – less soda, more Gatorade, Red Bull, coffee, and bottled water. But, Coke has brought many alternative beverages into its brand family (Fuze, Hi-C, Minute Maid, Powerade, Diet Coke Plus, Caribou, Illy, Dasani, vitamin water). They might have made more money if they built all these brands themselves from scratch. But, how many misses would they have to endure before finding those hits?

McCracken himself declares that the CCO has to be willing to be wrong often, and early. But, corporate structures have a notoriously low tolerance for being wrong. Small companies allow much more latitude, because they have to be more risk tolerant as they pursue growth.

So, I’m left feeling ambivalent at the end of this book. I’m not sure if we can realize the vision of the CCO. But, I sure as hell would like to give it a shot.

3 Replies to “Chief Culture Officer: Nice Work If You Can Get It”

  1. Jamie, thanks for a wonderful review. It's just what author hopes for, intelligent, passionate, engaged, alert. But of course I'm sorry that your skepticism wins out. Not that I don't get the case for skepticism. I do. The good news, I think, is that the corporation will be obliged to get serious about culture. It will be obliged to go against it's nature. Thanks again. Grant

  2. Grant,

    I'm skeptical because I care. I want the argument to hold up to intense scrutiny by believers (like me) so it has a chance with nonbelievers.

    And also, I wonder if the system we have – a system of integration by acquisition after marketplace validation – is so terrible. Maybe coloring outside the lines to create something revolutionary must come from outside the dominant cultural hegemons. And, maybe all cultural movements must steel themselves to the reality that they will get co-opted by commercial interests.

    Looking forward to our continued conversations on how to push cultural to a more relevant corporate consideration…as a first step, what about a pure quant viewpoint? Is anyone tracking the metrics associated with Glee (to use a recent example of yours)? Not just the Nielsen's, but also the social media buzz (volume, sentiment, testimonials, etc)…and how is that data being disseminated?

  3. Jamie, But the current system misses as much as 80% of our culture. Much too selective, way to partial. Yes, culture metrics are key. Best, Grant

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