Laurel Cutler on How to Win in a Future With No Mass Market

Advertising Hall of Fame Inductee and Futurist on why Marketers Need to Be 'Intensely Pleasing' the Few

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

Laurel Cutler is a futurist, and she doesn't like what she sees on the horizon and further out.

I was talking with Laurel at her Park Avenue apartment for a video interview on the occasion of her induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame , and I brought up something she said some years ago about consumers searching for "the deep that unites us." But, she said back then, "we're too occupied with what divides us and the differences that separate us."

I said to Laurel that her words describe the current political landscape. She replied that they're more true now than when she said them.

"I think we are so divided we are absolutely paralyzed now. I don't know how to get out of it. I'm terribly discouraged. We all should be. Division ain't gonna get us anywhere.

"You know, it took me a long time to understand that a group of medium intelligent people could outthink one genius. But it's true. If you do it together and you collaborate, you can do extraordinary things. But we're not together and we don't collaborate, and we're not getting anything done."

Laurel contended that the most serious problem in the country "is the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is so enormous, and the middle class has lost its footing. I think that is horrifying and tragic."

Laurel has said that if the '80s were the Me Decade, the '90s were the Re Decade, as consumers renewed, restructured, reengineered and reprioritized "to regain a sense of control and simplify their lives." So, I asked her, where are we now? She paused a moment and answered: "The No Decade."

Laurel got into the futurist business by way of marketing planning. She was working for the ad agency Leber Katz Partners (which later merged with Foote, Cone & Belding), and she was the first person to bring marketing planning to the U.S. "I didn't invent marketing planning. It was being done all over the U.K., and being done particularly well by JWT in the U.K. I stole it. I absolutely stole it. I said, 'Why aren't we doing that in the United States? It's a very good way to do advertising, and it would be new and revolutionary in the United States.'" The name, she said was Stanley Katz's. "I hated the name. I would have called it planning. Marketing planning has always struck me as a terrible name. But Stan was usually right, and he was my boss."

Stan Katz also played a big role in making Laurel one of the most prominent futurists in the industry. "He said to me one day, 'Sit down and tell me what's going to happen to the tobacco market in five years' time.' I said 'How in the hell do I know?' He said, 'Figure it out.' So he locked me in an office for 20 days, and I figured it out."

Laurel said she has never been very popular with the research crowd "because I think research is after the fact, and what we did was before the fact. And I don't think there is any available research on the future. You have to use your head and your thinking and history and guesswork. It's really elaborate guesswork."

Laurel also believes that now and in the future there is no mass market. "Delight the few, attract the many" is her mantra.

"You are a lot better off intensely pleasing a niche that can grow than you are boring most people. And if they're not ... intensely involved, they're not going to buy it anyway. And we worry too much about offending the people who don't care about the proposition to begin with." Laurel has worked for General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, and she says the car companies "didn't even think about the market they were dealing with. They didn't acknowledge consumers. ... When I was in Detroit they thought their customer was the dealer."

Laurel maintains that the car guy's job is to develop products that consumers either love or hate, rather than vehicles that everybody likes a little.

"That's where mass businesses are. Nobody cares a hell of a lot, but nobody dislikes it enough to kill it. That's the wrong proposition. The right proposition is marvelous. Only two people think so. [Then] there will be 10. There will be 40. There will be 100. There will be 1,000. There will be a business."

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