The World: Crystal ball-gazing in the UK and over the Pond

Steve Henry, United Group's creative director, notes the varying attitudes towards embracing the future in the UK and US.

Ever since man walked out of his cave on a sunny day and then got hailed on, he has attempted to predict the future.

And while "future marketing" conferences have been with us for a long time, they've largely been getting it wrong for years. For instance, when the young Alex Bogusky was at a conference 15 years ago, he heard someone predict the death of advertising (because of the internet) and the death of magazines (to be replaced by VHS tapes that we could all fast-forward through).

But the failure of both those predictions hasn't stopped people from continuing to prognosticate. Nor, in fact, did it stop Bogusky from chairing one of these events - the New York Future Marketing summit 2006, which had a very palpable excitement about it. And not simply because Bogusky is the best-looking man in advertising.

Bogusky kicked the thing off in playful mode. He said he reckoned there was a 99 per cent chance that product placement would play a big part in future marketing and a 100 per cent chance that he personally wouldn't care.

But then things started to get exciting; and people went on to make some very provocative suggestions about the future. Starting with Bogusky himself, who asserted that in the consumer-empowered internet era, it's consumers who own the brand. Not agencies and not marketers, who act as brand guardians - but the people who buy them.

He illustrated this with a series of viral stills created by people playing with the Burger King ad character, "the King". These people had created versions such as Bush King (based on merging George with the advertising spokesman), Elvis King (or King King as he is known) and Porn King (use your imagination).

The more provocative of these might never have got the thumbs- up from Burger King's marketing department - but you have to let that stuff go, was Bogusky's very apt point. I personally wanted to see Martin Luther King King and Billy Jean King King. Not to mention King Dong King. Believe me, this is the essence of marketing in an era of user-created media ...

Bogusky was followed by a gripping session led by Piers Fawkes, one of the breed of A-list bloggers in New York. Fawkes also has links to one of the sexiest new agencies in the city, Anomaly - an agency built out of complete disregard for traditional advertising approaches. Basically, a group of ideas people from many different disciplines sitting together at two long tables in a loft in Soho.

Fawkes' panel included ethical marketers and trend-spotters, who lashed into traditional advertising with a gusto that was oddly infectious. These people challenged advertising's arrogance, its intrusiveness and its ubiquity.

As one of them said: "I don't want to live in an ad." If you consider that the A-list bloggers are major opinion-formers, as I do, then it was salutary to hear how little they cared for traditional ads.

Then the debate heated up further - with a client called David Carson (from the mega-successful website Heavy.com) saying that ad agencies, despite their protestations of being business partners, were in fact nothing more than the "hired help", with a view "from the cheap seats". Then Barry Wachsmann from R/GA (a multi-platform agency that is heavily based on digital creativity) said: "Traditional advertising is just a factory that's been around for too long."

In New York, they even had two sessions with students from the VCU, the leading national advertising college, demonstrating how they would operate in this exciting future. Talking about interactivity, trust, brands as cultural icons, user-created media - and celebrating change for its own sake. As one of them put it: "Consumers don't want to play the game anymore - they are the game" - ie. get into the blogosphere and use the new tools that are developing there.

The New York summit was followed a week later by one in London - both being the brainchildren of Alex West, something of a guru in the field of all things new.

The chairman of the London event was Scott Goodson, the intelligent founder of Strawberry-Frog - and a Canadian. England struggles to find a national football manager from its own shores and now, apparently, looks to Canada for someone to champion its future marketing. Scott enthused about creating cultural movements for brands and operating in an online world.

He was spot-on and a good 60 per cent of the British audience agreed with him. In that quiet, understated, not very excited, British way.

The London event had some very good stuff - including a fascinating presentation from Jean-Paul Edwards of OMD, who talked of big upcoming trends. For instance, the idea that in the future, people will "live" in computer games.

But a presentation in the afternoon seemed to sum up all that was worst in London - a feeling that "All of this will pass, we don't need to worry about it". As one speaker said: "It'll only happen in five years' time, after I've retired."

At least the London conference had clients from several big client companies - Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Microsoft - who all seemed more clued-up than the agency people in the audience. If New York is ahead of London, it looks like some client companies are ahead of either city.

So - what's the answer?

Well, of course, no-one really knows. It might be moblogs, prosumers, avatars or multiplatform creative for a platform-promiscuous audience. (Please, someone put that into Pseud's Corner.)

But, on the evidence of these two conferences, the readiness of British and American ad agencies for this future is markedly different in both countries. The whole thing feels like a Wild West frontier town, with the rules changing on an hourly basis.

The Americans feel like they're enjoying it, the Brits feel like they're walking around saying: "This isn't cricket."

Sorry if that sounds like a racist, stereotypical dig. Perhaps it's better just to say that New York is five hours behind London ... and, when it comes to the future of marketing, about five years ahead.

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