BY Catherine Black 5 MINUTE READ

At its core, anthropology is the study of someone’s behaviour in a natural context. So, if you want to study a lion, for example, you’d go to a nature reserve, not a zoo — and you’d live with the lion rather than observing it from your car. In the same way, anthropology in an ad agency environment is an immersive approach that helps marketers understand the context of their product, by engaging with customers in their ‘natural habitat’.

In a typical ad agency, the strategic planner writes the client’s communication strategy.
It’s usually fairly formulaic: containing a diagnosis of the problem, a competitive analysis, a positioning piece, and then recommendations. This strategy usually also involves research— either desktop research done by the strategists themselves, or market research provided by the client. But here’s the problem: This kind of market research is usually very product-specific. And even if it’s customer-focused, it’s in the context of that customer’s relationship with the product.
Crucially, because a communication strategy is used to inform the creative brief, the ads that are produced as a result are almost always product- or customer-benefit focused. The problem with this is that an ad may be solving an artificial problem identified in a focus group,when the actual need of that brand’s wider customer base is completely different.
There’s another, more innovative approach to research, and it involves using a concept that’s usually only thought of in a very academic context: cultural anthropology. So, what is the study of anthropology, and how can it be applied to the commercial environment of an ad agency?


  •  At its core, anthropology is the study of someone’s behaviour in a natural context. So, if you want to study a lion as an anthropologist, for example, you’d go to a nature reserve, not a zoo—and you’d live with the lion rather than observing it from your car.
This immersive approach is precisely what drove Warren Moss, MD of full-service business-to- business agency Demographica, to consider hiring an anthropologist to give him these key insights.
It was also a deliberate way to set the company apart from its competitors. “When we started doing the research,” says Moss, “we realised that, globally, not many agencies use anthropology in their market research—and certainly no one in South Africa.”
With this realisation, he approached recruiters to help him find an anthropologist. “They swiftly came back with nothing,” he says. Next, he decided to approach the Wits Anthropology Department—the head of the department, to be precise. “He was naturally very suspicious,” says Moss. “After all, there we were, an ad agency that, to an anthropologist, seems like a company that sells things people don’t want, which is of course something that’s totally against the ethos of cultural anthropology.”
But eventually Moss won him over, and his search led him to recruit anthropology master’s graduate Claire Denham-Dyson onto his team. It didn’t take Denham-Dyson long to produce her first key insight for Demographica: that people buy from people, not companies. “But it doesn’t end there,” she adds. “People also buy from people they like.”
Given this, it was clear that Moss and his team needed to create a sort of chemistry between the seller—their client— and the client’s prospective buyers. As a B2B agency, the challenge was to see whether Demographica could create this chemistry through a piece of communication.  It became clear to Moss that using an anthropological approach worked far better in a B2B context than in a typical business-to- customer agency environment. “Anthropology in B2C is always going to be limited because of the volume of people you’re marketing to,”he says.“After all, if your target market is 30 million people, you can’t do enough research to justify how you get to insights relevant to everyone in that pool.” Fortunately for Moss, this didn’t seem to be the case in a B2B scenario, where one is usually only marketing to a few hundred or even thousand people at most.
But even in a B2B context, every person within the business to whom a business is selling has their own motivations, triggers and emotions. The buyer also has influencers around them, so you won’t only be selling to the financial director, for example, but also to the sales director, payroll clerk and tax specialist.


  • So how does this anthropological-informed strategy work in practice? An example is when Standard Bank approached Demographica to help market its attorney trust accounts to notaries and conveyancing attorneys across the country. “We started off by researching who their sales subjects were,” says Moss. “It turns out that they’re A-type perfectionists—basically what you’d get if an attorney and an accountant had a baby.”
Moss and his team then pitched their big idea based on this finding to the bank, and the resulting campaign was called “Dot the I’s and Cross the T’s”. The agency did a desk drop of a pen and a worksheet pad filled with contract speak, where none of the t’s were crossed or i’s dotted throughout the text. They also made paper coffee sleeves for law chamber coffee shops that contained text typos and spelling mistakes all over them. The idea here was that the people who cared about this type of thing would take note of it.
Another practical application of anthropology in a marketing context was when Demographica was tasked with rebranding and renaming Zurich Insurance, a global commercial insurer. Based in Zurich, the company was divesting out of the southern African market and selling to a Canadian private equity firm, so the new entity needed a completely different name and corporate identity.
Moss’s team started the project as they always do—by speaking to real people involved with the company. This meant spending time with everyone from staff and managers to insurance brokers who dealt with Zurich Insurance, whether they loved or hated the company. “We realised from these interactions that people in this particular business weren’t just employees,” says Moss. “They were practitioners who cared deeply about the end result for their customers, for example, by giving advice about a building that would actually lower their premiums.”
Once they discovered this new view of the company as an ‘artisanal insurance business’, it was easy for them to create
a brand and name—Bryte Insurance—that had the corresponding feel. “In typical market research, you’d create a brand you think the market wants. In our case, we believed the brand should be representative of the people working in it, as it’s then far more authentic and believable,” says Moss.
The key characteristic of this unique approach can be summed up as follows: In traditional market research, you have research subjects, but in anthropology you have participants. It’s this anthropological perspective that helps provide a holistic understanding of exactly how a brand should be targeted based on a real underlying problem, and then craft a successful creative campaign on the back thereof.
If agencies are able to do this successfully, as Demographica managed to do with Standard Bank and Bryte Insurance, this means engagement and response rates will be dramatically higher. After all, any ad man would agree that if you want to sell successfully, you have to show that you resonate with your customer’s world.