MEDIA: BEHIND THE HYPE - Outlook seems rosy for ad industry's futurologists

Agencies are finding that a futurologist helps to attract clients. Jeremy Lee reports.

In the past, only the specialist research companies, such as WPP's Henley Centre, were entrusted with the honour of keeping the communications industry's crystal balls.

But the promotion of Marian Salzman, one of the most well-known futurologists, to the position of executive vice-president and chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide indicates that mainstream agencies, both media and creative, are pushing futurology higher up the agenda.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for this is that they can provide an agency with an edge over its rivals - predictions on future events give it something interesting and different to talk about, and therefore can provide a way in to build a relationship with a client.

And, with income diminished from conventional advertising and media services, agencies have also found that it gives them an alternative source of revenue as clients cross their palms with silver in order to gain insights that they would probably not be able to afford themselves.

David Fletcher, the head of Mediaedge:cia UK's research division, MediaLab, concedes that part of the reason that agencies are investing increasing resources in this is to differentiate them from their rivals, particularly useful when it comes to pitches.

"It is more interesting for a client to be told a prediction of lifestyle trends in the next decade than it is to be told about what is likely to happen to five's impacts over the same period," he says.

In her new and expanded roles, Salzman, 44, will oversee Euro RSCG's global planning council and STAR (its strategic trend spotting and research activity), and has been asked to "drive creative insights and business strategies into client companies".

Fletcher says that while crystal-ball gazing may provide an initial icebreaker, Euro RSCG is right to limit Salzman's remit to issues that impact directly on its clients' businesses as the application of some of the broader futurology projects can be limited.

Nigel Foote, the group strategy director at Starcom UK, agrees and says that the best way forward is consumer-centric research projects that show the impact of social, cultural and technological changes on consumer behaviour. This can then be directly translated on to a client's business.

An example of this is WPP's recent appointment to assist with the Bank of England's monetary policy committee in predicting the future performance of the economy based on its clients' plans and its agencies' predictions on the advertising market.

Representatives from MindShare, Mediaedge:cia, the Henley Centre and other WPP companies meet with Bank of England officials on a regular basis, and the bank uses this information, along with that gathered from other companies in other sectors, to set interest rates.

But when it comes to futurology for his agency's own clients, Simeon Duckworth, the futures director at MindShare, says that this generally extends no further than budget planning for adspends based on predictions of what is likely to happen in the market.

However, Duckworth says that MindShare's futures division is becoming increasingly involved with deciding which brands should be supported and which should be dropped.

It seems that while advertising and media agencies like to talk about futurology, they are no better or worse placed to make broader lifestyle predictions than any other sector of the economy, and that the real value lies in the insights they can provide that directly impact on advertising.