bedazzled hype sign
Trend decks inspire anxiety, which in turn inspires bad decisions, which in turn benefit no one. PHOTO: Verena Yunita Yapi

Peter Drucker once famously advised business leaders to “follow effective action with quiet reflection.” Unfortunately, in the modern era of hyperconnectivity, quiet reflection has become something of a lost art.

In theory, the beginning of a new year is a perfect time for reflection. With the breakneck pace of business slowing down just a little, it makes it easier for us to find a moment to step off the treadmill and reflect on the big picture.

But in the marketing world, we’ve got a different tradition that gets in the way of our ability to calmly ruminate on things. 

I call it Trend Deck Season — a competitive game in which every organization vying for the attention of marketers attempts to demonstrate its prowess by issuing a bundle of bold, beautifully packaged predictions listing out all the ways the year ahead will be new, different and exciting. 

It may seem harmless, but it isn’t. 

In fact, the dozens of trend decks that land in our feeds and inboxes this time of year do more harm than good.

Trend Decks Add to Anxiety

What’s the harm in a little frothy future-hype?

Well, let’s remember — these are anxious times. People everywhere are stressed out. And Americans are especially susceptible. The World Health Organization famously called stress the "health epidemic of the 21st century." 

Research published in the “Journal of Neuroscience” in 2016 makes the consequences clear: Anxiety leads to bad decision-making. Specifically, it interrupts the brain’s capacity to ignore distractions.

That’s exactly what trend decks are — distractions. And instead of providing solutions, most of them just create more anxiety: What am I going do about blockchain this year? What if my team finds out that I don’t even know what blockchain is? Which type of reality should I focus on — virtual, augmented … or plain? Are my machines learning? Can they teach me while they’re at it?

Anxiety Leads to Bad Decisions

Trend decks create anxiety. And anxiety creates bad decisions. What do bad decisions create? Nothing good, surely.

For a sense of where bad marketing decisions can lead, witness the headlong stampede toward programmatic advertising over the past three years. Fueled in part by prediction-induced hype, digital ad spending reached $209 billion worldwide in 2017 — finally eclipsing TV. Much of that spending went toward programmatic.

It’s clear now that the results have not been entirely pretty. Ad fraud is costing brands billions. And then there’s brand safety. A recent CMO Council study found that more than one-third of consumers rethink purchasing from brands when they see them advertised next to objectionable content.

Fading Fundamentals

Trend decks pull our attention to what’s changing. Or, more accurately, what might be changing. And in doing so, they distract us from things that aren’t changing — important things. As a result, our fixation on the future undermines the marketing fundamentals. Strategy falls out of fashion as the focus shifts to agility and optimization. Our appetite for deep customer insights wanes as our faith in data grows. Instead of investing in our brands, we compromise their safety. Rather than narrowing our focus or doubling down on what works, we add needless complexity to the mix.

Pause and Reflect Instead

The bottom line: Trend decks don’t get us any closer to solving real problems. At best, they’re a mostly harmless bit of provocation. At worst, they’re a gateway to wasted millions.

So this year take my advice: Take a pass on the trend decks. Instead, follow your previous year of action by starting off the new year with some Drucker-esque quiet reflection on all of the important things that aren’t actually changing.