Crystal ball gazers go corporate

`Futurologists' who claim to predict how technology will shape our lives are playing a bigger role in the boardroom.
Welcome to your future. A place where alcohol doesn't give you a hangover, wristwatches have phones, cars drive themselves, fridges warn you when the milk is about to go off and the household pet is a jellyfish.

Far-fetched? Possibly, but a host of "futurologists" are making a very good living out of predicting how our lives could be in the next century. These corporate Mystic Megs are employed by major companies including Levi's, Benetton, BT and Sony to identify potential consumer trends for the years to come.

Ian Pearson is BT's own in-house futurologist. He has generated streams of media coverage for his predictions, which include the launch of a folding watch computer by 2007 and the introduction of "smart" clothes which can alter their thermal properties according to the weather.

"We are living in a time of increasingly rapid change where the progress of technology is perhaps the most important driver. It is vital for BT to watch for new and exciting technologies which will change the way we live, otherwise we will run blindfold into the future," he says, adding that while some of his predictions may prove optimistic "it's better to have a future vision of this type than none at all".

Electronics firm Philips also has a team working on designs for future consumer goods which include "hot badges". These can be programmed with your interests and bleep when someone with similar tastes is nearby - making it easier to break the ice at parties.

But while some companies employ futurologists in-house, many others rely on their advertising agencies to draw up a blueprint for where their brands should be heading.

Marian Salzman is the doyen of advertising futurologists and makes regular appearances on American TV to talk about her vision of the future. Described by one colleague as "an octane-fuelled, 100-ideas-a-minute bunny", she was until recently head of the Department of the Future for TBWA in Amsterdam before moving to Young & Rubicam's Brand Futures Group based in New York.

Ms Salzman tracks trends by talking to academics, scientists and consumers who are at the cutting edge of fashion, mostly via the Internet. She suggests consumers will soon see products that are launched to make life easier for an ageing population, such as "nutraceutical" foods stuffed with all the vitamins and nutrients needed to keep a generation of nimble 80-year- olds fit and active. She also predicts a range of new jobs appearing as time becomes an ever more valuable commodity.

"On-line moms will be hot. These will do everything from sending e-mail reminders about anniversaries and birthdays to scheduling dental appointments for time-pressed executives. Babyproofers - specialists who come into your home and make it safe for babies and toddlers - and home cooks who will deliver home-cooked meals to meet individual needs such as allergies or diets, will also be in."

Ms Salzman says that part of her job is to distinguish between fads and trends. "For marketers it's a serious business, and time will tell which will be as ephemeral as pet rocks and which will have the staying power of the mountain bike."

She is currently keeping an eye on growing European interest in minicars such as the Ford Ka, trendy Japanese women who keep jellyfish as pets and a restaurant in Tel Aviv which serves "conceptual food" - ie nothing at all. Diners order but get nothing to eat because it's about the ritual of eating rather than the reality (yes, really).

A spokesman for Young & Rubicam in London says that the Brand Futures Group provides invaluable information for clients: "The more we know about consumer behaviour and how they are likely to behave in the future then the more help we can give to clients because it's not the sort of thing that they do themselves."

Crawford Hollingworth, a founder of futures consultancy Headlight Vision, says he is offering a similar service to his clients. "We are doing a lot of work in areas such as the future of sport and the future of leisure. The companies which come to us, such as Nike, tend to be pretty forward thinking and take a long-term view."

It's a gap in the market that a growing number of ad agencies have spotted. BBH, Ammirati Puris Lintas, Leo Burnett and, most recently, Ogilvy & Mather have all established departments to identify possible future trends but some are at pains to disassociate themselves from the more fanciful realms of futurology.

Mike Ainsworth, head of Future Focus at Leo Burnett, says: "There is a futures epidemic out there. We don't rule out trends but we are dealing with reality."

And Mike Wallis, managing director of BBH Futures, adds: "I'm not Mystic Mike with his crystal ball. What we do is help clients come to a decision about how to make the future work for them and their brands."

While some ad agencies are investing in future departments others are less convinced. One chairman of an agency which no longer employs a futurologist says: "At the end of the day it is very expensive and I'm not sure how helpful it really is to clients because it's so full of ifs and maybes and intangibles."

HHCL & Partners, which attracted plenty of industry derision in 1989 when it first appointed a futurologist, says it was an experiment that failed. "Maybe it was ahead of its time, but it was all very vague and clients weren't convinced," said a spokesman.

Meanwhile, the futurologists remain confident as some of their predictions have already been proved correct. Ms Salzman says she alerted clients to the Seventies' revival years before it happened, and BT's Ian Pearson said that a wristwatch phone was inevitable - Swatch recently unveiled just such a product which should be in the shops early next year.