I’ve been sceptical about professional business clairvoyants since
I watched the futurologist, Watts Wacker, dressed appropriately enough
as a cowboy, expound his views on ’the 500-year plan’ to a captive
audience of marketers on board the Oriana.
While the average tenure of most marketing directors is 18 months, the
first word that comes to mind to describe the appropriateness of the
500-year plan is not suitable for use in a respectable trade magazine,
so I will restrict myself to one that starts with the same letter -
baloney. However, I rather hoped that the feature we commissioned for
this week’s issue (’A Load of Old Crystal Balls’, p22) would dispel
those doubts and explain the crucial difference between Mystic Meg and
Sadly this was not to be. I still can’t escape the fact that there are
few ad campaigns that last even ten years. And when they do, they tend
to evolve as the reality of the world becomes clearer and more
As one eminent agency boss put it to me last week: ’Our planning
horizons tend to be a little closer than most futurologists like to work
with, say a week or two!’
Even if this slightly irritating fact weren’t true, there are two
further reasons why industry-leading agencies don’t need futurologists.
First, they don’t have a great record of getting it right: the paperless
office, for example, has been forecast forever. Now look around your
office - see what I mean? Second, there are plenty of reputable
companies around which offer fascinating insights into where the world
is going - the Henley Centre, for one - without trying to make a science
of the process. They use proper words like scenario planning or trend
Reading the contributions to our feature from four agency futurologists
(one of whom, rather tellingly, eschews the label) I find most of their
utterances general enough that they can be argued to be right no matter
what happens in the future. To be fair to them, they’re useful in one
respect: providing provocative material for brainstormings. By setting
up extreme positions they stimulate people to raise their sights
slightly, and get them to think more adventurously about the plans they
are putting together.
Marketing directors like their agencies to have access to these educated
guessers - especially when times are good and they can be indulged.
Management consultants, however, are also educated guessers, and I’ll
bet they are every marketing director’s preferred futurologist in times
of recession or strife.
My conclusion? Futurology’s probably not a bad new-business wheeze.
Especially if you haven’t got a reel.
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