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Kevin Chesters: why do we persist with predicting?

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Kevin Chesters: why do we persist with predicting?

Why does the advertising industry insist on trying to predict the future? Why does it obsess over the technology and societal trends that are set to come, only to get things spectacularly wrong in the process? Harbour's Kevin Chesters explains his views on how the industry should think long-term in order to be less impacted by unplanned events such as the global pandemic.

The image above is from a series called 'En L’an 2000'. Published in France in 1899, it predicts what the world would be like in the year 2000. The one above confidently postulated that we’d all be commuting across the oceans towed by (I think) hypnotised, compliant blue whales. Now, I was pretty banjaxed on the evening of 31 December, 1999, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered this if it was a thing.

There were many other predictions in this series of postcards - including winged flying firemen, underwater croquet and one that featured something that looked suspiciously like a talking horse. The reason I mention them (and you should check them out) is that I don’t think we’ve got any better at making predictions since the 19th century. Especially people in our industry.

The Covid-19 lockdown, and the imminent easing of it, seems to have unleashed silly season on the predictions front. You’d have thought we’d have learnt our lessons over the decades but we don’t seem to have.

For starters, I can go back and check but I’d bet good money that not one of the 2020 prediction articles that clogged my timeline in January foresaw that by the end of Q1 we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic, locked in our houses 24/7, chained to Zoom and that Joe Wicks would be the most famous person in the UK! Now I’m not blaming any of the “gurus” for not seeing this coming but you’d think that we’d have learnt the folly of predicting the future by now. We are absolutely rubbish at it.

Starting as humans in general. We never see things coming. We consistently over-estimate the impact of some things and under-estimate the impact of others. Now, everyone already knows the famous case of that bloke at Decca Records who turned down The Beatles, or the publisher who told JK Rowling in 1996 that "children just aren't interested in witches and wizards anymore."

But these folks weren’t the only people who failed to see what might be coming down the tracks. Ronald Reagan was once turned down for an acting part because he didn’t apparently have “the look of a president”, and Darryl Zanuck, a 20th Century Fox movie producer, said in 1946 that "television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."

Humans are just as bad at predicting when it comes to what we will be doing too. Alex Lewyt, the President of the eponymously titled Lewyt Vacuum Cleaner company said in 1955 that "nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years." I’m glad James Dyson was still in Primary School.

We tend to get even worse when it comes to predicting what will (or won’t) happen around technology adoption – and this makes me even more skeptical about Covid-19 predictions to do with office practices & virtual working.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer famously said in 2007 that “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” My particular favourite is the quote from Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, when he said: "I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse." Yeah, Rob, it’ll never catch on.

So where am I going with all this?

Predictions, and Covid-19, and the plentiful column inches predicting what we can learn forever from a few weeks data in the middle of a pretty unprecedented set of circumstances. I think we should treat most of them with a pinch of salt. Every year the Trend Gurus of January miss any and every one of the big changes in the next 12 months, and this year they will miss them spectacularly. I’m not sure that right now anyone can really accurately predict anything at all about the next six-12 months, especially without a vaccine on the horizon to establish a return to some form of normality.

So, what will be the permanent impacts of Covid-19 in our homes and offices? And are those two things – offices and homes - one and the same, now and forever? I’m going to make a pretty unspectacular & not-very-brave prediction of my own. Pretty much every guru touting a cast-iron prediction for what Covid-19 will do to our future living and working practices is going to get it wrong. Particularly if they have made a binary prediction about it all changing forever or staying exactly the same.

A lot of the more outlandish predictions are part of a growing (unhelpful) trend of binary arguments. I think emotive topics like Brexit and Trump, fanned by the filter bubbles of social media, have helped to amplify this trend further in recent years. My view is that binary thinking – it’s got be all this, or all that – is increasingly annoying and certainly unhelpful. It is also almost always wrong. Like the outlandish extreme predictions that it tends to spawn.

The truth about the impacts of Covid-19 on our industry (and all industries) is going to be a bit Goldilocks. It won’t all change this way, or all stay the same as before. Most things will change a bit.

Behavioural science and evolutionary psychology will tell you that we are creatures of habit and therefore we will go back to doing a lot of things that we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done them. We can’t help ourselves. But three months of lockdown have certainly shone a helpful and interesting light on a lot of the ways we have been working. And a lot of the ways we have been treating ourselves and the people who work for us. And that can only be a good thing.

The key to acting and reacting to the impacts of Covid-19 will be to be flexible. To keep an eye on what is happening and react accordingly.

The smaller, more agile companies that are set up to do that will be the ones who will recover, revive and thrive quickest. This probably means in our industry that it’ll be the smaller companies without massive legacy systems and practices that will do best. It probably means that independent agencies free of massive management structures and expensive offices will be better placed to adapt and pivot. It means that collectives like ours, Harbour, will be in a better place to react to client needs because we can adapt & scale (up and down) with changing needs. That certainly seems to be the case if the last two months are anything to go by.

But I’m not going to make any predictions about it. That would just be stupid.

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