Soldiers of consumer destiny
|John Fanning reports from a conference in the UK staged by proponents of futurology|
There was a time when futurology was the preserve of novelists and artists. But since Herman Kahn's 1967 best-seller, The Year 2000, the consultant guerrilla armies have conquered this lucrative little patch and anyone keen to point out that less than one in ten of Khan's predictions for the year 2000 were correct, is liable to be kneecapped.
One of the more sensible organisations involved in the futurology business is the London-based Future Foundation (FF). In spite of their suspiciously Orwellian-sounding name the Experian-owned FF is a well-established party of academics and researchers with an impressive stable of publications to their credit and are regularly consulted by blue chip businesses and quoted by the UK media.
One FF publication quotes philosopher AC Greyling: “Prophecy has a respectable and necessary cousin, which is rational forecasting based on past experience and current data – the premise of this view is the exact opposite of the one underlying belief in prophecy: it is that the future does not yet exist, but is ours to make and that we can make it best on the basis of intelligent understanding of the past and the present.”
FF holds an annual conference and this year it was 'Planning for Unpredictability'. Opening speaker Paul Omerod provided a thought-provoking demolition of the illusion of how much control managers enjoy.
Omerod made an interesting analogy with chess, a game that some people study all their lives but few end up mastering.
Yet it is a lot easier than business; the rules are simple, they are fixed during the game, the objective is clear, you know for certain what your opponent is doing at all times, but how often are you sure what's the best move to make?
Given that business is so complicated, shouldn't we accept we're in a situation over which we have limited control and that the best we can do is to make progress by experiment, innovate continuously and assume that many decisions will be wrong.
Subsequent speakers dealt with the difficulties of predicting how politics will impinge on anything because of increasing convergence between parties, the contradictory attitudes of consumers who profess to dislike the US, but still want to eat McDonald's and drink Coke and who say they care about the environment yet drive an SUV.
Following on from these observations was an underlying theme of increasingly irrational behaviour leading to more unpredictable consumers. The one definite change is more wealth which absolves more people of the need to optimise their spend in every product category, leading to what economists and accountants would decry as 'erratic' behaviour, but which people making the decisions regard as rational.
Another underlying theme was the growth in 'victim culture'; a phenomenon we are familiar with in Ireland. A corollary of this trend is the decline in stoicism, an inability to accept that death is a fact of life and that accidents happen.
Instead of an acceptance of fate our first reaction now is who to sue, followed quickly by a demand for counselling. Marketers of soft drinks, fast food and confectionery have all been hit by these trends and the advice from FF would appear to be to fight back instead of giving in to the extremes of health fascism.
An example of this line of thinking was given at the conference when one speaker revealed that Blackburn County Council had to ban the backstroke from its municipal pools because swimmers using this stroke could unwittingly clatter into others.
FF co-founder Melanie Howard said manufacturers should not to go too far ahead of people's ability to use new gadgets and business in general should not rely on them so much. There were many anonymous impersonal voices and not enough personal service; too much technology, but too little humanity.
The so-called 'comic turn' speaker in the after lunch slot was the self-styled style guru and semi-celeb Peter Wallis, who as Peter York, wrote the Slone Ranger Handbook; a kind of wealthy man's Ross O'Carroll-Kelly of London in the Seventies.
Wallis said that although data is needed for planning there is no substitute for insight, intuition and imagination. His comment on market researchers – “Good God, their clothes, their accents!” – raised a few titters in an audience comprised mainly of same.
Paul Edwards, chief strategy officer, Publicis, was self-deprecating about his title, as well he might. He showed a few commercials and delivered anecdotes like “the only thing that is certain is change – except out of a vending machine”.
Edwards said that in times of unpredictability advertising which is prepared to tackle the problem head-on can pay dividends and used the wonderful Allied Dunbar, 'There May Be Trouble Ahead' campaign, to prove his point.
The future is a bit like football. You cannot legally fix the next match but by careful viewing of videos of your opponent's last games, detailed analysis of your strengths and weaknesses compared to theirs and devising a few imaginative set-piece routines, you will have a better chance of winning. The Future Foundation is one of the superior coaches, a 'special one' in this respect.
Notwithstanding the stunning predictability of the title, the FF conference was well organised, well attended and well worth the visit.