The oracle workers

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No longer restricted to psychic hot lines and sidewalk palmists, predicting the future is now a legitimate business. The most forward-thinking employees at ad agencies these days aren't creatives but futurists.

"Agencies have come to recognize there's a value in futurists," said Ryan Mathews, futurist with consultancy First Matter, Westport, Conn. "They're not just pitching a campaign to clients, they're pitching out-of-the-box thinking. Clients are saying to agencies, `Tell me something I don't already know.' "

As clients clamor for new ideas and the next hot trend, agencies turn to futurists for support.


Y&R Advertising last week relaunched its Brand Futures Group as the Intelligence Factory, and expanded its array of horizon-gazing services. GSD&M, Austin, Texas, this month established its Futures Lab to help clients with "brand visioneering, repositioning and future mapping."

"We'll take into account all the changes in the landscape, new [competitive] players, changes in the economy as well as social and political changes," said Derek Woodgate, Futures Lab director

OgilvyOne utilizes Steve Barnett, director of scenario planning, as its internal forecaster. Saatchi & Saatchi's director of knowledge management, Myra Stark, is its in-house visionary. DDB Worldwide employs Bob Deutsch, a cultural anthropologist, as its resident prognosticator.


Those ad agencies without an internal crystal ball-gazer have aligned with free-lance futurists. Grey Worldwide works with Mr. Mathews of First Matter, while Emmerling Post taps the powers of John Krubski, a former senior executive at Yankelovich Partners.

"I can't think of an agency or agency network that doesn't have [a capability] in futuring," said Intelligence Factory CEO Ira Matathia.

Futurist departments aren't a novel idea. Y&R launched the Brand Futures Group in October 1997 and since then the unit has worked with clients such as Conde Nast Publications, Heineken USA and Sony Electronics Corp. Prior to joining Y&R, Mr. Matathia co-founded TBWA/Chiat/Day's Department of the Future with Marian Salzman, now Intelligence Factory president.

Clients also have their equivalent of in-house Magic Eightballs. Ford, Kraft Foods and Motorola are a few of the high-profile companies that have internal future departments.

It's a bit tricky to pin down when futuring first began as a business. Although think-tank pioneer Herman Kahn and "Future Shock" author Alvin Toffler are two of the 20th century's more notable forecasters, soothsaying could be described as the world's second-oldest profession.

"Depending on how you want to define them, there's been futurists since Nostradamus and Ptolemy," Mr. Mathews said.

The boom in forecasting has several antecedents, but experts agree that one overriding force has been today's fast-paced consumer environment.

"The only certainty for the future is the accelerating rate of change," Mr. Matathia said.

With "Internet time" and fast-paced globalization, marketers have to be up on trends and social change faster than ever before.

"More and more people want to figure out what comes next," Mr. Krubski said. "We've come to the end of an era that people manage by doing. We've got to manage by thinking."

And the calendar turning over to 2000 certainly helped spur the futurist field. The 20th century is now passe; the future is where it's at.

As clients strive to predict social change, case studies don't cut it anymore. Clients want global polls, focus groups of thousands and on-the-street intelligence.

Utilizing a futurist is "more important now than ever" said Y&R Advertising President-Chief Client Officer Linda Srere. "We're all living life at Internet speed. You need a futurist to be on top of the trends and subcultures that might or might not develop into larger trends and affect the brands and products we represent."


A futurist appears to be a close cousin to a strategic planner, but futurist and author Faith Popcorn, who's worked with agencies such as Fallon, Minneapolis, and Hanft Byrne Raboy Abrams & Partners, New York, noted some vital differences.

"Unfortunately, strategic planners don't do enough looking forward," she said. "Most strategic planners work in a corporate environment that's a dead thinking zone. They're worried about their boss, their mortgage or 401K plan. Strategic planning has almost become another marketing and corporate function with a fancy name."

Mr. Matathia agreed: "Strategic planning has become part of the marketing communication development process," he said. "We get to operate at a slightly further out model."


"What futurists really do is bring about new perspectives on things," Mr. Mathews said. What futurists don't do, he adds, is fortune-tell. "The value that futurists provide isn't providing answers, but how to ask more provocative questions," he said. "I'm very cautious when I hear of someone making predictions about the year 2021. [That futurist] either recently had a conversation with God, is a psychopath or a con man."

In fact, part of a futurist's job is to anticipate needs based on everyday observations.

OgilivyOne's Mr. Barnett once worked on a project for Nissan North America in which the marketer was trying to do just that. The company thought of the car in terms of technical attributes such as the engine or drive train. Consumers, instead, often size up an automobile from where they sit inside. Mr. Barnett brought up an issue the manufacturer hadn't thought of before: Where is a safe, convienient and comfortable place that a woman can store her purse while driving?

The company is now testing a Velcro strip under the front seat where a woman can tuck away her pocketbook.

"It's not so much about seeing different things, but seeing things differently," Mr. Mathews said.

Ms. Popcorn doesn't believe her job is to look too far beyond the horizon.

"The future for me starts one minute from now," she said.

It's easy to see why there are so many oracles-come-lately. Some futurists get $20,000 for a day's work; others, $1 million for a project. All the while, these fortune sellers make money off their books, newsletters, speeches and Web site content.

The job qualifications aren't hard to meet: Print up a business card with a "futurist" title. That probably doesn't bode well for the industry.

"There's no barrier to entry, no competitive hurdle," Mr. Mathews said. "We're unfortunately entering a period where it's hip, slick and cool to be a futurist or employ a futurist. It's not good for us if there are people who aren't good at it. The danger is that we'll all get tarred with the same brush. People will get burned."

Although there are futurist organizations such as the World Future Society and International Thought Leadership Council, there really is no easy way to define what the job's duties are. And as the field expands, experts caution ad agencies to be judicious when aligning with a futurist.

"The agency will be out on a limb unless they clearly know [the futurist's capabilities]," said Mr. Mathews, who has seen more than one presentation go sour due to a futurist's lack of knowledge on a subject. Once a futurist "falls flat on their face . . . the agency looks bad." But what makes a futurist succeed?


"Obviously, being right is helpful," Mr. Mathews joked, but added, "the trick is to use futurists who can provoke and substantiate so they can pique the client's interest."

As for the future of futurists, "the business is going to become more standardized," Ms. Popcorn predicted. "You'll have to pass certain tests to become a futurist, you'll have to go to school for it. The phonies will fall out and people with real vision will succeed."

Institutes of higher learning have already begun to prepare the training grounds for budding futurists. The University of Houston offers a Ph.D.-style track in "Futurology."

But are visionaries made or born?

"I really think it's a way of looking at things," Mr. Mathews said. "I don't know if you can teach someone."

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