Tracey Follows, founder of London-based futures consultancy AnyDayNow, doesn’t use a crystal ball to advise her clients on matters of trendspotting and foresight ― she is their crystal ball.
As a professional member of the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Future Society, Follows specializes in foresight, an analytical methodology that goes beyond insight to help brands and organizations envision the future and plan for its opportunities and risks.
From Mad Men to Math Men
Above all, Follows is a communicator who shares her insights and forecasts as a columnist for the Guardian, Marketing Magazine and WIRED, as well as at conferences on both sides of the pond.
As a global trendspotter for Trendwatching and a member of the Faith Popcorn BrainReserve Talent Bank, Follows has been called “a future-stalker” and a “pattern breaker” by her colleagues.
CMSWire connected with Tracey Follows recently to talk about foresight as a discipline and what she sees on the horizon for advertising as digital algorithms play an ever greater role.
Sobel: You hold a BA in Philosophy and a Master’s in Science and Technology Strategy from The University of Manchester. After graduating, you spent the next two decades working in advertising. Then you returned to school, this time to the University of Houston, where you earned a Professional Certificate in Foresight. Looking back on your career journey, would you call it linear or more like coming full circle?
Follows: I've always enjoyed the study and debate of ideas but at university, I was also pretty sure that I wanted to pursue a commercial career rather than an academic one.
Throughout my career in advertising, I always seemed to be ahead of my time in my strategic thinking. In the course of setting up a new department at J. Walter Thompson called Planning Foresight, I realized that it was the foresight rather than the insight side of strategy that really interested me.
I decided to concentrate my career specifically on foresight, which helps organizations anticipate changes and influence those changes to achieve their strategic goals. I started to make contacts in the futures community and here I am.
Sobel: In June, you reviewed the Google Brand Re:Imagined conference, writing that Google wanted to challenge brands to “see their communications through the eyes of their consumers.” Can you tell us more?
FOLLOWS: I think the point of that Google conference was to inspire the industry to understand the ways technology can help us go beyond better targeting to gain deeper consumer understanding.
We tend to think that the sole purpose of profiling and analytics is to enable more and more accurate performance in targeting and re-targeting. Actually, the insights available through digital data can drive the strategic planning process toward producing more insight-driven, relevant campaigns.
To reap the best of both worlds, I’d say that the reimagining that needs to be done by brands is to figure out ways to blend advertising and ad tech techniques and talents.
Ad tech companies have been trying to figure out how to build relationships from single transactions. They measure communication in terms of eyeballs when what we’re really talking about is people.
Meanwhile, traditional ad agencies are great at connecting with people. So ad agencies can learn from the precision of digital marketing and ad tech platforms can learn how to evoke human emotions and create human connections with consumers.
Sobel: In an article entitled "The Future of Brands in a Post-Human World," you identify “the clash of the old and the new; the traditional and the modern; the digital and the analogue” as sources of tension in the world. Can you expand on that?
Follows: Brands have always helped us connect to other human beings, but these days, more and more of our communication is computerized.
In the heyday of advertising in the mid-to-late 20th century, we thought of and spoke about brands in anthropomorphic ways. The closest we come to that now is on social media when we refer to brands as warm or friendly or confident or carefree.
Now messages are served to us via algorithm. By 2020 the Internet of Things (IoT) will include nearly 30 billion devices and we’ll communicate more machine-to-machine than human-to-machine.
I’m not sure how that makes me feel but I can tell you that verbal and textual languages have already started to cross-pollinate each other. Whenever you say LOL out loud in real life or start emails with “um” or “tbh,” you have adopted linguistic tics that are derived more from click bait than actual lived language.
Sobel: As a futurist, what do you make of these trends?
Follows: They mean that we’re in transition; that we are mutating. We are on the cusp of a mutation of humanity as we transition from being biologically natural to becoming a multi-species, multi-gender, multi –skilled, multi-purpose hybrid of organism and computerization.
This won’t happen overnight, of course, but as Peter Schwarz noted at the World Future Society Conference recently, “The biggest change to come is that humans will take control of their own evolution.”
Yet philosopher Rosi Braidotti suggests that we won’t abandon our prejudices and cultural biases but will instead bring them over into the post-human world.
What does any of this mean for brands in general and specifically our Post-Human Brand? Must we reflect those prejudices or can we find ways to compensate for the lack of human nature in a digital, algorithmically intelligent and disembodied world? Can we find ways to address inequalities and unfairness with greater empathy?
Those are the kinds of questions that futurists think about.