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Saturday, 30 August 2014

No fate but what we make

The future is unpredictable, says The Economist’s Daniel Franklin – but that doesn’t mean marketers should just give in to events. They need to plot their own course to a future of their own design.

2008 was a humbling year for Daniel Franklin, executive editor of The Economist. It culminated in the paper publishing an apology in the form of an article saying sorry for having failed to predict that year’s financial collapse.

Many people would find it easy to forgive Franklin. Hardly anyone saw the crisis coming – and yet it was his job to, as editor of The Economist’s ‘The World In…’ series of annual forecasts.

The future is unknowable but that shouldn’t stop us trying to catch a glimpse of it. It’s what marketers want from their agencies. “We need to get to the future first,” said Unilever CMO Keith Weed at a recent conference

But Franklin is a realist, as befits a member of The Economist editorial team, and he knows that “you can’t predict the future”. So why bother trying? Because it’s necessary, he says. We’re bound to get things wrong but in our business and personal lives it is pragmatic to plan for what the future may bring. If our predictions are just that bit better than others we could be well placed to profit from them.

“But perspective is what interest me the most,” says Franklin. In the 20th edition of The World In…, the historian Niall Ferguson wrote that predictions are actually a commentary on the world as it is today. “If you take the time and space to look at life a little differently, and think about what life might be like around the corner, you get a different perspective and a different insight into the present,” Franklin says.

Most predictions begin with the present, taking current trends and extrapolating out from there. This is useful but flawed, says Franklin: the world doesn’t progress in a linear way. Take obesity. American waistlines are getting steadily bigger year on year but it would be wrong to assume they will keep expanding until they pop. There will be a point where government intervenes, where policy changes start to have an effect, and eventually waistlines will stabilise and perhaps contract.

Simple extrapolations probably account for the majority of doom-mongering, of which there is a lot. The final chapter of MegaChange 2050, a book of predictions recently edited by Franklin, compiles a list of gloomy long-term forecasts made over the past several decades and finds that almost all of them proved to be wrong. Franklin suggests that we consistently underestimate mankind’s capacity to respond to dire threats, though he admits that we need the doom-pedlars to prompt us into action.

First to the future
The future is unknowable, says Franklin, but that shouldn’t stop us trying to catch a glimpse of it. It’s what marketers want from their agencies. “We need to get to the future first,” said Unilever CMO Keith Weed in a recent conference presentation.

Researchers already have the tools to get brands some of the way there, through things like data mining and modelling, expert opinion panels, brainstorming sessions, crowdsourcing and opinion polls. And yet Flamingo director Josephine Shaw questions whether our business culture today is ready to go where Weed wants it to.

“We have identified a serious danger,” says Shaw. “Spectatorship – the giving away of the power over our own destiny to some other power.” This is perhaps best seen in the way in which brand owners are repeatedly urged by social media experts to give up direct control of their brand and to give in to the culture of co-creation - to accept that consumers own brands and mould them into what they want them to be. “But co-creation doesn’t remove the responsibility on an organisation to be what it wants and to stand for what it wants,” says Shaw.

“Brands are the principal tools for creating the future we want, to drive the values we want to see, and to make a difference to the world.” Shaw says the question marketers should be asking themselves is, “What change does my business want to see and how can my brand make it happen?”

Shaw’s colleague Adam Chmielowski says marketers need to challenge the “unquestioning acceptance of the ‘next two hours era’” – the idea that change is happening so rapidly nowadays that being agile is the only skill businesses need.

This belief goes right to the top of the industry. Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Robers recently told the annual convention of the Institute of Directors that: “We don’t just live in a VUCA world – a volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex world – we live in a super-VUCA world… Strategy is dead. Who really knows that is going to happen anymore in this super-VUCA world? The more time and money you spend devising strategies the more time you are giving your rivals to start eating your lunch.”

But short-termism risks making us feel like victims of events, says Chmielowski. “We let the river take us where it wants to go.” The message to marketers is: plot your own course to a future of your own design.

For more on predictions and market research, see Whatever next? by Robert Bain. Franklin, Shaw and Chmielowski were speaking at the Flamingo Big Ideas Breakfast, 1 May.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I like this idea that brands are being too quick to give up control to consumers – one only has to look at the likes of Apple to see where a strong vision can take you.

    Kevin Roberts quote surprises me, though. We've never been able to accurately predict what's going to happen. The idea that this is now more true than ever seems to be commonplace, but why does that render the need to have a clear strategy for your business redundant?

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