The Agency Issue: Interesting Jobs

For Cultural Anthropologist Kate Barrett, a Day at the Agency Is Field Research

Former Academic Is One of 12 Specialists at Olson Investigating Consumer Motivation and Behavior

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In a special series on unique agency jobs, Ad Age introduces you to three executives who get paid to have their finger on the pulse of music, nightlife and culture. Last in our three-part series is Kate Barrett, a doctor of anthropology who left academia to become an associate director of cultural anthropology at Olson, Minneapolis. (Here are parts one and two in the series.)

Kate Barrett is a doctor -- not in the medical sense, but in the bookish one. Armed with a Ph.D., the University of Chicago- and Emory-educated 40-year-old last May made a radical move: She traded academia for agency life, taking up a post at growing Minneapolis-based indie shop Olson. There, Ms. Barrett works with a staff of 12 other anthropologists.

Kate Barrett
Kate Barrett

Ad Age: What sort of skills do you bring for the agency and clients?

Ms. Barrett: Most of us who come out of cultural anthropology would probably fit best in planning or strategy because what we really bring is a really strong perspective on what makes a community tick, what is meaningful to them, and how can you find that out. There's enough movement in advertising these days that it's not just about pushing a product; there's a sense of trying to find the right people who will really like your brand or your service. You need to play in that space of motivation and connection, and that's where anthropologists come in.

Ad Age: What do you do in a day?

Ms. Barrett: A typical day for me includes writing a blog for Olson called "Field Notes," so I look through the week of news events, at a wide range of sources, to see if there's any themes or patterns and how can we use that to feed creative and think about technology and think about strategy in a way that is more rooted in traditional anthropology theory. The one I'm working on this week has to do with death and remembrance -- between Japan, and Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro -- I'm looking at, How do we honor people? I work on a couple of big strategic initiatives too, like training for employees and a two-day work session for clients that is modeled on the process of fieldwork. Also, Olson has recently bought three companies, and I'm also working on a way to tie them together that doesn't feel icky or weird but ties together the strengths of these different offices.

Ad Age: How does cultural anthropology translate into understanding consumer behavior in today's digital world?

Ms. Barrett: We bring a lot of that to life when we do work for clients. For example, a lot of our clients are targeting moms and families and one of things we do is collect lists of mom blogs and parenting advice and analyze what [they] say about what modern moms think about. For example, all of cat litter advertises to women who are over the age of 45, but most people get their first cat at the age of 25, so why aren't people talking to them? And we look at what people talk about online vs. what they would talk about in a face-to-face interaction, so we also look at some of the differences there, too.

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