Marian Salzman of Havas PR: what can the past really tell us about 2017?

Twenty years ago, trendspotting was a cutting-edge craft, practiced by just a few thought leaders. Ten years later, it had become decidedly mainstream, with trendspotting part of business as usual and baked into every marketer’s job description. Today, businesses’ expertise and “creativity” are determined, at least in part, by their trendspotting talent.

But now that everyone is a trendspotter, marketers also need to know that reviewing past sightings and predictions is an important part of the job. It’s not just to pat ourselves on the trends we called right or to cringe at sightings that failed to materialize. With that in mind, I reviewed my sightings from 2006, how they compared to the landscape in 1996, and what I saw for the future. Many of them have since evolved beyond what anyone could have predicted.

In the ’90s brands were labels for excellent products, whether luxury handbags or chicken soup. By the ’00s, everything was branded — except those products that were unbranded to save money (and therefore commodities). What I saw for the future was brand sluts taking back control from brands. Look at the clamor of user reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor and all the apps that make comparison shopping a piece of cake. No wonder thinks have been talking in recent years about the “slow and painful death” of brand loyalty.

Americans have also given up on ideas about being respectful. We’re now an opinionated nation, and we’re making sure that everyone knows those opinions— especially in our hate-and fear-fueled politics. A Civility in America study released earlier this year found that 95 per cent of Americans say lack of civility is a problem, and three-quarters say they’ve seen it decline in the past few years. And 70 per-cent say that American incivility has risen to “crisis” levels, up from 65 per cent in 2014.

However we’re rather conflicted about what to do about it. Early this year, nearly all likely voters said a candidate’s level of civility would be an important factor in deciding how to vote. But that was going to be hard when 73 per cent said that politicians are purposefully uncivil to attract attention. (And it wasn’t just the presidential candidates.) They also blamed the media — kind of. Two-thirds said the nonstop media coverage of the 24-hour news cycle and shouting-match-style TV commentary makes incivility appear worse than it actually is. But by a two-to-one margin, people believed the media should report on candidates’ uncivil behavior rather than ignore it.

For every yin there is a yang and one refreshing break from the uncivil clamor was the high-road approach of Michelle Obama, whom almost everyone seems to like these days. Following her speech at the Democratic National Convention, the line of the summer became “we go high.” The DNC printed pro-Mobama bumper stickers.

Another sighting from 10 years ago that came to pass in a major way is the question of America’s place in the world. “Who’s in charge?” I asked in 2006. Although not everyone knew it at the time, the 1990s were the closing years of the American Century. There was great enthusiasm for fluid modern times and new freedoms. By 2006, the country had suffered a major attack, was mired in two wars and piling up debts at home. Massive upheaval and uncertainty ensued, and fundamentalism began its scary rise. Those wars didn’t fully end, the debt bubble burst and America is trying to hang on to its waning popularity and power. The next president might end up starting more military action or take America in an isolationist direction. The question now is “Will it be control or chaos?”

America has become a country in search of itself. The country now has both more wealth and greater inequality than any other major developed country, and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the 1920s. That became a major theme of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. But Uncle Bernie did a lot of things right. He created optimism for change, making us believe that we might be able to find a new American dream. He authentically hijacked nostalgia and futurism, which nearly always works.

That wasn’t enough, however, as the new American dream wasn’t one of merely optimism, but rather settling the anger. Stemming from our 2010 flagging that people were “mad as hell—and only getting madder,” 2016 rings true with the surprising yet not-so-surprising triumph of President-Elect Donald Trump and his unsubtle approach to reining in the crowd.

So where do we go from here? These eight current sightings point to future shifts in marketing, business, politics and more.

*Then: Brands were solo. Now: Brands are in bed with like-minded companies. Next: Megabrands form and exploit the power of (more than) one.

*Then: Work in an office. Now: Work in a cloud. Next: Work less, live more.

*Then: The medium is the message. Now: The medium is in service to brands. Next: The message is the medium.

*Then: Cash in hand. Now: Online banking. Next: The end of cash.

*Then: I want my privacy. Now: I want to tell you everything. Next: You already know everything so leave me alone.

*Then: Fear over Communists and nukes. Now: Fear over anything and everything. Next: Fearless takes over to innovate and survive.

*Then: Earthquakes, tsunamis and Katrina. Now: Extreme weather. Next: Overheated planet.

*Then: Dull angst over savings. Now: Financial insecurity, rising costs of healthcare; where did my pension, life savings and retirement plans go? Next: Work until we die.

And one last sighting that has picked up massive momentum in the decade: the rise of BS and the way that bold claims by people and brands are threatening the truth. It’s been 11 years since Stephen Colbert coined the notion of “truthiness,” as “What you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are.” Since then, fact-checking has become a quaint relic of another time. The Internet is driving the truthiness trend with content that is so emotional or eye-catching, its accuracy is almost beside the point. Bold and febrile claims (birtherism or a wall along the Mexican border, anyone?) that don’t stand up to scrutiny but still become popular movements. Makes you wonder that it’s not so much what you say anymore, as long as you say it in a confident and strong tone.

That’s not just in politics. Brands that make the biggest, boldest claims, rather than scrupulously sticking to the truth and deploying measured language, get the most attention. Bullshit drowns out integrity. Brands that have spent years and millions establishing their reputations based on trust and an intimate relationship with consumers could therefore find themselves at the mercy of the bullshitters who are telling consumers what they want to hear rather than what’s good for them — or the truth.

There’s a reason why disclaimers are still printed like this at the bottom of “healthy” products and the like. For many consumers, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The next challenge for all of us is figuring out how to balance honesty and bold, attention-grabbing images.

Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and chairman of the Havas PR Global Collective. Her latest book, Agile PR, will be published by AMACOM in January 2017. You can download her annual trends report here.

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One comment

  1. Marian,
    Thank you for this insightful look at changing attitudes over the past decade. There’s certainly no comfort in the direction we’re moving; it almost makes one nostalgic for 2006.
    On a somewhat related subject, I’ve looked at “pricing” for agency creative services (where price = fees divided by workload) from 1992 to 2016, and there’s no comfort in the most recent decade from 2006 to 2016. This analysis was for creative agencies, from traditional to digital / social. It did not include PR agencies.
    In 1992, if the price for agency creative services was indexed to 100, then 2006’s price was about 50 and 2016’s was 35. This was the net result of declining fees and growing workloads.
    Looking ahead, workloads will continue to grow and fees will continue to decline. Creative agencies will be squeezed so badly by declining prices that they will be hardly capable of offering what their clients most need.
    So….I predict continued inroads by the management consultants and in-house agencies to the detriment of creative agencies.
    This certainly won’t help brands to be more authentic in the future!

    Michael Farmer
    Author, Madison Avenue Manslaughter