A LOAD OF OLD CRYSTAL BALLS?: Futurologists talk a good game, but are their predictions of any real use? John Tylee interviews exponents from both sides of the Atlantic and separates the strategic insight from the star-gazing

Imagine stepping into a time tunnel and emerging on to a suburban street in the not-too-distant future. It’s a muggy summer evening in the company-owned town but the executive returning to his subsidised home is spared any sweaty discomfort by his air-conditioned suit.

Imagine stepping into a time tunnel and emerging on to a suburban

street in the not-too-distant future. It’s a muggy summer evening in the

company-owned town but the executive returning to his subsidised home is

spared any sweaty discomfort by his air-conditioned suit.

Skipping over the robot mower, he opens the front door and heads for the

kitchen. He could kill for an ice-cold Bud. Fortunately, the ’smart’

fridge has already recognised that beer supplies were running low and

alerted the home delivery service to restock.

While he awaits his wife, out jogging with her rented guard dog, he lets

the stress ebb away in front of the ’virtual’ acquarium occupying an

entire lounge wall. Tonight they’ll be having another go at starting a

family by snuggling up to study the latest mail order catalogue

detailing egg and sperm donors.

Is this the brave new world where the advent of cyber sex will allow you

to have multiple orgasms without bothering with the foreplay, or the

ultimate manifestation of the Orwellian nightmare?

Maybe both. Which is why consumers are ambivalent about the future,

fearful of what it might hold and even yearning for the comforting

reassurance of yester-year. If there’s one certain thing about the

future, Marian Salzman says, it’s that people are retreating into the

past - ’because they know what happened next’ - and woe betide any

marketer that fails to acknowledge this contradiction.

Salzman, director of brand futures at Young & Rubicam in New York, is

advertising futurology’s most high-profile advocate. Whether it be on

the Oprah Winfrey Show or through the pages of Time Out, the Wall Street

Journal and the Independent, this veritable talk machine has turned into

a hot and controversial subject during the millennium run-up.

Not least because the speed of technological change and a new generation

of ad-literate consumers is forcing more advertisers to think well

beyond short-term competitive advantage.

Salzman’s collected thoughts on smart fridges, virtual fish tanks and

temperature-controlled clothes - even on video conferencing replacing

conventional school lessons - have just been published in the UK in a

book co-authored with Ira Matathia, a former senior executive at Chiat


Whether any of their predictions are worth taking seriously or are the

products of hyperactive imaginations is an open question. Agency

planning directors, though, are generally unimpressed with what they

regard as a bunch of flaky soothsayers. Many believe they have lost

touch with reality and that giving something so abstract and imprecise

an ’ology’ endows it with a scientific status it doesn’t deserve.

The future, they argue, simply isn’t predictable. Nor does it have to be

complicated. ’There’s only ever going to be 24 hours in a day,’ Joe

Staton, the futures director of Ammirati Puris Lintas Worldwide, points

out. ’People will still get up, eat and go to bed. Predicting what

they’ll do isn’t rocket science.’

Keith Lucas, a senior brand strategist at Ogilvy & Mather, has


’People get wowed by this kind of stargazing but although it produces

all sorts of fascinating concepts, I suspect that much of it is of

questionable strategic use.’

Max Burt, DMB&B’s planning director, insists that ’understanding the

general trends is what’s important’, while Clare Rossi, Grey’s chief

planning officer, cautions that futurology will only ever be as good as

the calibre of the experts whose knowledge it taps.

It’s certainly true that the wealth of material thrown up by futurology

is worthless unless it enables marketers to shape the future to the

advantage of their brands. It has already led to some expensive

mistakes. A UK high-street fashion retailer bought pounds 250,000 worth

of research by the doyenne of futurology, Faith Popcorn, only to realise

several months later that it hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with


Bad mouthing of futurologists within planning departments is seen as

sour grapes by its exponents. Planners, they argue, resent being usurped

as clients turn to growing numbers of specialist brand strategists for

independent advice. Not surprisingly, agency futurologists walk a

political tightrope. ’I never attempt to translate my findings into an

advertising idea,’ Salzman explains. ’That’s when I hand over to a

planner. Agencies are still byzantine when it comes to cross-over


Given such scepticism, it’s doubtful that futurologists will ever be

able to assert with confidence - as a gullible early visitor to

communist Russia once did - that they have seen the future and it


Next: The Flow of the Future, by Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia, is

published by HarperCollins, priced pounds 14.99


Willis refuses to be labelled a futurologist. He’s a brand strategist

whose priority is to advise advertisers not what the future holds for

them but how they can create their own.

He says the biggest problem confronting advertisers and consumers alike

in the coming years will be the management of time. The growing numbers

of ’cash rich, time poor’ consumers will have to be accommodated. There

are simply too many choices and people will need lots of help in making

the right ones.

Financial services companies will be in the forefront of this movement,

harnessing internet technology to provide the personal advice that

consumers will be seeking.

The growth of the global telecommunications industry, together with a

new generation of mobile phones, will allow advertising to take a more

intrusive course, with consumers being offered free call time if they

agree to listen to selected advertising messages. However, nobody has

yet cracked the problem of overcoming strong consumer resistance to

taking part in such dialogues.

Above-the-line advertising will still have an important role to play

because brands will still want to build their reputations in attractive

and compelling ways.

The big idea will always be necessary to cut through the clutter and

grab people’s attention.


A failing education system and growing interest in home schooling by

middle-class parents will widen the chasm between the ’haves’ and

’have-nots’. The mass market will become exclusively downmarket as the

disadvantaged become more isolated from the mainstream. They will not

travel far from their homes and a new generation of corner shops will

emerge to serve them.

As cradle-to-grave state welfare declines along with workers’ corporate

loyalty, people will acknowledge that their future well-being is in

their own hands. They will expect financial services to be advertised in

the most straightforward way.

This will be coupled with a demand for corporate morality. Consumers

will expect advertisers to be honest about themselves and will not buy

from those judged not to match their moral standards.

Further headaches for advertisers will result from increasing consumer

concern about the way high-tech communications systems infiltrate their

lives. People will become more sceptical about what they see and


That goes for advertising messages too.

In business, size will no longer be a pre-requisite for success. Small

but well-capitalised agencies like Bartle Bogle Hegarty, St Luke’s and

Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe in the UK will set a style that the rest of

industry will follow.


A new generation gap will open up in 2005 when millions of children born

in 1990 turn 15. Its members will challenge the world in a way that

their so-called Generation X parents never did. Those twentysomethings

have tried to avoid the work-obsessed lifestyles of the post-war Baby

Boomers and are already trying to protect their offspring from the evils

of alcohol, tobacco, rap music lyrics and the internet.

The generation that emerges post-2005 will eschew such protectiveness,

preferring to make its own mistakes. The internet will will give it a

global collective consciousness, enabling it to exchange ideas and

formulate plans within minutes. Its rebelliousness may result in the

death of youth mega-brands as tomorrow’s children demand products which

better reflect their national cultures.

As the separation between life and work disappears and stress is

alleviated, convenience will no longer be the overriding demand of

consumers. They will expect advertisers to move away from sponsorship of

entertainment and into areas that will ease their everyday lives.

That could mean financing child-care centres or providing car-parking

facilities in urban areas. Consumers will want to hear bullshit-free

messages and will reward advertisers who tell it like it is.


The backlash in the US against out-of-town superstores - which are seen

as charmless and without character - will spread to the UK. Mail order

will grow in popularity among time-pressed consumers and high streets

will regain their popularity with retailers as local authorities rigidly

enforce planning regulations to restrict the growth of out-of-town


The re-emergence of the high street will be popular with consumers whose

shared sense of community spirit rises as the millennium approaches. The

high street will become a symbol of the prevailing mood.

Differences of performance between rival products will become ever


As they do, consumers will look to patronise companies which promote

themselves as good environmentalists with high ethical standards and

caring attitudes towards their workforces.

Consumers will no longer have the time to make choices, whether among a

plethora of TV channels or the huge range of bread on supermarket


They will need help to make informed choices. The retailers and brands

which help consumers by editing those choices will be the most


Huge advances in drug technology will not only enable people to live

longer but fundamentally change the character of many brands.

Harley-Davidsons will be bought by men pushing 60 who have the money to

live out the fantasies of their youth.


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