Where Human Behavior and Business Intersect

Social anthropologist turned strategic planner Abigail Posner studies our emotional connection to the digital space at ZOO, Google’s creative think tank for agencies and brands.

posner_abigailApplying her social-anthropology background to a career in advertising has helped Abigail Posner develop a unique perspective on human behavior and business — which she’ll share as a Convene-sponsored keynote speaker at DMAI’s Annual Convention next month.

Abigail Posner’s role as the head of strategic planning at the ZOO, Google’s creative think tank for agencies and brands, is to make sense of human beings’ deep emotional relationships to the digital space, and to convert those insights into strategic and creative efforts. It’s also her passion.

When she takes the stage for the opening keynote at DMAI’s 2016 Annual Convention in Minneapolis next month, sponsored by Convene, Posner will show her audience how developing an anthropological mindset is key to “Cracking Creativity: Re-Engaging Our Innate Creativity for Greater Productivity and Growth.” Here’s what she means by that.

How does your background in social anthropology inform your thinking about creativity?

There are a lot of elements to the study of anthropology that I think are critical to whatever industry you’re in. The mentality of an anthropologist is that people don’t do things for no reason, that people are smart, and that they are usually doing something to better their lives. They may do things that are seemingly mundane or could be even considered inane, yet they actually have a lot of value to human beings. And we just have to decipher it.

With that assumption, you can really ask yourself a whole different set of questions than maybe you normally would. Then you can take that to the world of commerce or even technology. I took that to advertising, where we realized that in order to truly motivate people to buy something, we couldn’t just look at the obvious answer. We had to go deeper and investigate the role these products and brands have in people’s lives. By employing this same mentality and techniques to uncover or decode people’s decisions, you have a whole wealth of understanding about who these people are, and you can be better suited to motivate them.

How do you apply your anthropology mindset to the digital space?

You see people are doing all these crazy things: Why can’t we live without our phones? Why are people spending so much time on Snapchat? Why are they watching cat videos? It just seems so inane. But if you actually look at it with the lens of an anthropologist, really what you are saying is, “No, people are doing these things for a reason.”
By understanding that, you can create better, more meaningful content in these places and spaces. That means better ideas, better connections with the other people, the customer, and more money at the end of the day. That’s how anthropology fits into this.

What will be the main message of your talk at DMAI?

How to really help everyone in the audience to be more creative, which is the holy grail. We live in a world, especially now, where we can’t afford not to innovate, and not on a small scale either. This is a group of people [destination marketers] who host other groups of people [meeting professionals] who need to be innovative, that’s why they are coming to this conference — so they can somehow spark their own creativity. So the very people who are going to be hosting [meeting professionals and groups] have to understand what is going to help them stoke their creativity. The destination marketers themselves have to be creative, and coming up with creative solutions to help their own customers be creative. It’s kind of like a double whammy.

The reason anthropology fits into that storyline is that one of the key elements of being creative is being able to just ask why. Why are people doing what they are doing? That’s the first step you have to take. I think many people stop at the what. What are people doing? What is happening? For us to really be creative, you have to be insightful, and to be insightful you have to ask why.

Not everyone in the audience might self-identify as a creative type. What’s your take on that?

Everybody can be creative. We all have it inherently within us, but we lose it along the way. We have the power in our brains to be creative, but there are things along the way that stop that. More than ever, today we have access to tools and resources that can allow us to spark that sense of creativity better than ever before.

Now, what do I mean by the tools? I’m not referring to Photoshop, or a 3D printer. To me, those are just vehicles to express your creativity; they’re not necessarily ways to spark your creativity. What I mean by the tools, I have to explain from a neuroscience standpoint. What happens as children is our brains are highly elastic. The neurons are being developed and they’re synapsing at a very high rate. A synapse occurs when you have the connection, the linkage, between the neurons. Synapses — the neural reaction to ideas — occur when at least two seemingly unrelated notions or concepts are brought together to reveal something novel.

Another tool that we have at our disposal is the new world of collaboration. We live in a business world, thanks to technology, that values collaboration like never before. Before it was a zero-sum game: I better get to the top of that ladder and you better not be in my way.

[Where Good Ideas Come From author] Steven Johnson talks about adjacent possibilities, about the fact that no inventor just has this eureka moment. What happens is they see something over here, and they see something over there, and they go, “Wait a second.” They’re very attuned and adept and comfortable in making that connection. I think we lose that comfort at making those connections [as adults]. The reason why children come up with connections so quickly is not only are their brains elastic, they don’t filter the way we do as adults. If you and I walk across the street, we are busy looking at our emails and we kind of know if the light changed or not, if there is a car making a turn.

That’s the extent of the stimuli we care about. We’ve learned to filter out the sounds, filter out what’s the difference between the street and the sidewalk. For a child, all of that is accessible as fodder. They see things we don’t see. They see the posters on the way, the red fire engine running by. Being exposed to all that stimuli, they start making connections, connecting things that are seemingly distant.

What does that have to do with the digital space?

Thanks to the digital space, you’re exposed now to so much stimuli, and none of that stimuli — unless you put blockers on your computer — is filtered. So if I walk into the “house of Instagram,” or the “house of YouTube,” I am exposed to so much. There is no filtering by some network. There is no one telling me this should be 30 seconds long or this should be two hours long or you shouldn’t have a swear word or it should make sense and have a beginning, middle, or an end. It’s all there, and you’re exposed to all of it. It’s kind of this new world anyway, so there’s no sense of what are the rules.

Because of that, you start seeing these connections, you start putting things together. Your synapses start firing. Then other people can get exposed to that, because it’s all one big World Wide Web. They go, “Wait a minute, let me add something else to that.”

Another tool that we have at our disposal is this new world of collaboration. We live in a business world, thanks to technology, that values collaboration like never before. Before it was a zero-sum game: I better get to the top of that ladder and you better not be in my way. Now the only way to succeed is by working together. It’s through those combinations of people that you can also have that multiplicity of stimuli and making connections, and get to those ideas.

What all of this is showing is that we can tap into that brilliance in all of us if we seek human insights — we ask why people are doing what they are doing, and apply it to business. And then we let ourselves be open to multiple forms of stimuli and make connections. See what our brains are connecting for us.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.