In ancient times, prophets were often disparaged as madmen; but these days, companies frequently turn to Madison Avenue's own Mad Men–and women–to find out what the future holds. As the new year gets under way, Ann Mack, the director of trendspotting for New York-based JWT, the fourth-largest ad agency in the world, is watching to see which of the 10 trends she's predicting for 2013 are gaining traction.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was a journalist before this, and what I do is very journalistic in nature. We're a very curious bunch, we ask a lot of questions, we're very keen listeners. The only difference is that we take intelligent leaps forward. In journalism, I found quite frequently I could only report on what was versus on what will be.
As a trendspotter, are you saying you foresaw journalism dying and you figured you should get out?
No, I still love journalism. I think it's evolving, not dying.
How do you put together your annual 10 Trends list?
We did quantitative surveys in the U.S. and the U.K., and also reached out to researchers and planners within the JWT network – 70-plus this year. They keep us honest, they tell us whether a trend is translating in their market. In addition, we interview experts across sectors: retail, technology, health and wellness, academia, psychology and the media.
What's the difference between a trend and a fad?
We're covering much larger movements that will be with us for a while; they have real weight and momentum. We're not operating in the business of what's in, what's out, what's hot, what's not. So, I'm not necessarily interested in the colours or the fashions that are going to be on the runway next year, but I am interested in the fact that fashion will get more techified – which speaks to one of the trends we spotlighted this year, this idea of Intelligent Objects.
Another trend you highlight is Play as a Competitive Advantage. What does that mean?
I think both consumers and business are getting wise to the fact that unstructured time and the ability to play allow you more freedom for imagination, innovation and creativity. So companies like Zappos and Facebook encourage their employees to doodle, because they find that to doodle or sketch out things helps uncomplicate the complicated. You're also seeing organizations advocate for adult recess: getting out, getting some fresh air, and doing something silly – Twister and pie-throwing contests.
Malcolm Gladwell's famous 1997 New Yorker article "Cool Hunters" basically suggested that the job of trendspotters was to see what the cool kids in the Bronx or L.A. were up to. How has it changed?
The pace of change has accelerated – due to warp-speed advances in technology. So, too, has the rate of adoption. Also, the origin of trends has changed: Cities like New York and London used to be the arbiters of what was in and what was out, but now that we live in this flat, globalized world, influences can come from everywhere and trends can start anywhere.
Do trendspotters look back, like football writers do every week, and grade how their predictions performed?
We continue to track them to see how they're playing out – if at all. Looking at last year's list, we saw Objectifying Objects: As objects get replaced by digital or virtual counterparts, we're seeing more people fetishize the physical and the tactile. So in 2012, you saw a lot of tools that enabled people to get to grips with their social media output – turning them into real items: business cards created from people's Timeline image. Or a Twitter profile that was made into a poster. Or a service that crafts handmade pillows using fabric printed with Instagram photos.
Back in 2008, one of our contributors suggested Instant Gratification as a trend. My gut said, "Well, that's obvious, it's not a trend, it's a fact: instant downloads, instant groceries, instant whatever I want whenever I want wherever I want." I said, "Let's turn this on its head," and we turned it into Rethinking Instant Gratification, and talked about how there would be a growing appreciation for things that would take more than the click of a mouse to obtain. I forecast a growth in bespoke items – and while that has happened, it's still relatively niche compared to instant gratification.
When you get something wrong like that, do you feel there's egg on your face?
Nah, in my line of business, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable sometimes.