The future isn’t here yet – and it never will be

As WARC shows again today, to no one’s particular surprise, tv advertising gives a better return on investment than advertising in any other medium. Link: WARC on tv advertising. It’s another reminder of why we researchers need to be giving insights first and foremost into the whole picture of how people are behaving today. And this means not getting so dazzled by the new that we underplay the role of continuity in people’s patterns of behaviour.

It may be a rubbish ad, but it's on the telly

Now, don’t get me wrong, getting our heads around the ever-morphing role of social media in people’s lives – and thus in media planning – is both important and interesting. And of course it’s important to look at emerging trends. I was at one stage involved in “future scanning” work myself*. But I wonder if we as an industry confuse our clients sometimes, by talking so much about what is new that they end up thinking that it’s the most important thing to know. Reading the marketing and research media, one could be forgiven for getting the impression that tv advertising was the least interesting part of the brand communications mix. The quality of creativity in tv advertising in the UK is not what it was in its 90s heyday – or am I showing my age here – but its continuing potential to communicate powerfully is not to be under-estimated.

Even in hindsight we sometimes overplay change and under-estimate continuity. One fairly striking example: we regard English people as mainly of “Anglo-Saxon” descent, when the Anglo-Saxon invasions actually only left a 5 per cent element in our gene pool. The English are mainly descended from peoples who had inhabited the land for thousands of years before that. Continuity was ignored in the development of this national myth: change was more of a story.

As it turns out, focusing too much on the future is a perennial human failing, as an article on the Freakonomics site explains (see link further below). We’ve been doing it since well before an astute Roman scrawled humanum est errare on a tablet and threw up his lunch over an Illyrian slave. And we do err. It turns out our “experts” are terrible at predictions, as anyone familiar with the Match of the Day sofa will know. Freakonomics did a piece which was also broadcast on Radio 4 during the summer, about some academic work by Christina Fang and Jerker Denrell on the reliability of expert predictions: Freakonomics: the Folly of Prediction. Fang, a professor of management at NYU’s Stern business school, took a hard look at the history of economic forecasting and found that “the big voices you hear making bold predictions are less trustworthy than average.” And if we think this frailty is confined to economists, we are deluding ourselves.

For me, the most interesting aspect of doing innovation research (which I’ve done quite a lot of) is seeing what ordinary people make of the new ideas or products we ask them to help us develop. But you can only interpret what you’re hearing and seeing by being grounded, as qualitative researchers are, in the reality of people’s lives. It’s by spending time in people’s homes and taking time to listen, watch and think that we help innovators. Innovation isn’t about creating a clean, perfect future; it’s about growing something organically out of the messy present.

* The future scanning work I was involved in with the Horizons unit at Ipsos MORI – under the guidance of the fantastic Julian Thompson, now at the RSA – avoided the folly of making predictions. Our approach was basically horizon-scanning. We gathered in the whole range of predictions and musings experts were making about long term trends and helped clients think about these in an organised way: which ones were relevant for them, what level of priority they needed to be giving to them and so on. It was really an epistemological sense-making exercise – and definitely NOT futurology.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

3 thoughts on “The future isn’t here yet – and it never will be

  1. Hi Simon

    great post – thanks for all the high quality thinking.

    I especially liked your note at the bottom regarding sense making – it resonates with me – making sense of often conflicting or diverse data (much of which is readily available from secondary sources and can be taken to a new level with judicious use of primary research) not by looking for earth shattering new theories or things that have a ‘wow’ but relevant and actionable insights that lead to ‘good’ decisions, large and small, for day to day operations as well as mid/long term strategy.



    1. Thanks! It’s that disconnect between (1) what researchers talk about and (2) what most research projects are usually about, that is striking for me. Thanks for the comment!


  2. Hi Simon

    Someone eminent (possibly Jeremy Bullmore) once opined that 90% of advertising plays an essentially defensive role – irrespective of what the Brand Manager has written in the marketing plan. This feels plausible to me – and also totally valid. After all, if every brand in a market has increasing market share as an objective (and they all did in the market that I used to work in), then holding on to what you already have can be considered an achievement. But, in relation to the WARC study findings, this makes me wonder how they have measured ROI. Because, if the contribution of advertising is (at least partly) defensive, how can anyone measure what sales and Gross Contribution would have been in its absence? But then, having spent some time in corporate planning, the whole concept of applying ROI to marketing communications has always felt a little flaky to me.

    Steve Hallam


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