Ian Burrell: Snake oil or precious insight? As the year gets ready to turn, what does one of America’s most celebrated trend spotters see ahead?

  • @iburrell

This is the time of the year when the media’s so-called “futurologists” emerge to tell us how we will be behaving over the next 12 months. Most of them work for the big advertising agencies and their prophecies are sold to clients as high-grade intelligence that can give competitive edge in shifting product. Much of this insight – some of it data-driven, some merely based on a trend-spotter’s instincts – relates to the public’s use of media.

Havas, the Paris-based global advertising group, has just sent me its “14 trends for 2014”. But before I consider these predictions, I want to look back at some of the previous work of its author, Marian Salzman.

Four years ago, I took a train ride with the Connecticut-based soothsayer, during which journey she attempted to decipher the shape of 2010 and beyond. At the time, she was talking about the future and I couldn’t be sure how effectively she was reading the tea leaves.

I knew she had held down jobs at big ad agencies with titles that would not have flattered Merlin: “worldwide director of the Department of the Future” at TBWA and “president of the Intelligence Factory” at Young & Rubicam, for example.

I also knew that she had coined expressions such as “wigger” (to mean white suburbanite appropriating black culture) and “metrosexual” (modern urban male in touch with his feminine side). Well, the last one was invented by Brit journalist Mark Simpson in 1994 but Salzman pushed it out there in 2002 and “made the whole world listen”, as she told me.

As she looked into her global ball at the end of 2009, it wasn’t clear to me quite how much of a science this futurology really was. Looking back now, she had mixed success.

“I think we all have to be a little afraid of Google. It has become what Bill Gates used to be, this Big Brother figure,” she told me. It now seems a prescient observation after this year’s revelations by Edward Snowden about National Security Agency snooping and the privacy concerns around Gmail. But then Google was already such a vast target in 2009, Salzman couldn’t miss.

The statement “I don’t see the Kindle replacing newspapers” was accurate – although I’d have loved to have told her that Amazon/Kindle boss Jeff Bezos would be buying up The Washington Post on the cheap, as he did this year.

Her “local is the new global” comment could also now be seen as insightful, given we’re set for a revolution in local television channels this year. But the idea that “broadcast is going to be the most irrelevant thing as we know it” proved to be way off the mark. Salzman’s claim that “what’s going to stay on the air is going to have low ratings” was offered at a time when ITV was on its knees. But television has proved more resilient and the phenomenon of second screening (watching big TV shows while simultaneously using social media on mobile) seems not to have shown up in this futurologist’s runes.

Neither do I see signs of holidays being offered in “media-free resorts”, which Salzman suggested would be a consequence of a backlash against the rise of technology. If anything, the demand for a constant and ubiquitous signal is growing as the mobile becomes an indispensable feature of everyday life.

So what of Salzman’s predictions for 2014? She says the tech backlash will see a growth in “artisanal” activities. I’d say that’s already happening, judging by the success of publishing titles such as Mollie Makes and the hysteria around BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off.

Banking will switch from credit card to mobiles, she says. But hi-tech motor cars won’t stop an increasing desire to get around on foot. On the buzzword front, “Mint” will replace “Bric” as Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey become the new emerging economies.

The success of shows such as Breaking Bad and The Killing will drive a demand for “complex long-form dramas”. Again, I’d say that trend started about six years ago with the excitement around The Wire – and the popularity of “binge viewing” series won’t stop the search by broadcasters for entertainment formats that can deliver the big Saturday night multi-generation audiences (watching with their second and third screens).

It’s hard to judge the currency value of this futurology specialism. Cynics might dismiss it as snake oil – but an astute call can give a company a head start that allows it to dominate its market.

One prediction on Salzman’s list must have been painful to make. This will be the “Year of the Everyday Trendspotter”, she says. This is the era when every mummy blogger, tweeting hipster and fashionista is itching to tell the world what’s on the horizon. So Marian’s 2014 prediction list might be her last. Just like writers, journalists, photographers and film-makers in the digital world, futurologists are under new pressure to prove their professional worth.

Revealed: sad history of press fakery

Even after another year in which dodgy journalistic ethics have been under the spotlight, I was stunned at an admission by a Fleet Street veteran in the latest edition of The Oldie.

John McEntee, whose illustrious career merits an entry in Debrett’s (in which he lists “lighting candles in churches” as a recreation) has publicly confessed.

During the papal visit to Ireland of 1979, he tricked his way into the basilica of the Marian Shrine at Knock by posing as an invalid (complete with wheelchair and rug).

After consuming four pints of Guinness, he took his position in front of Pope John Paul II, as thousands of pilgrims filled the countryside beyond.

“I felt my hand being squeezed. It was Christ’s Vicar on Earth shaking my hand as he gazed down at me. ‘Bless you my son,’ his deep voice boomed.

“Then he was gone. The heavens didn’t open to reveal a celestial choir (but my bladder nearly did).”

Apple lines up to bowl its curler

The iPhone first launched as recently as 2007 but the eighth generation of the smartphone is likely to be unveiled in May. What’s interesting about the iPhone 6 is that it’s likely to be bigger than the current version, with a screen of either 4.7in or 5.5in (11.9cm or 14cm). The original was a mere 3.5in, and the iPhone 5 was 4in.

Although this would make it smaller than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 (which has a 5.7in display), it looks as if Apple has been impressed by the Korean company’s “phablet” approach.

Only 18 months ago, Apple was accusing Samsung of copying its icon designs, if not the entire iPhone. Now it seems the great innovator is following its alleged imitator.

Apple might need to bring out the “curved display” feature it has been testing in the labs to make the iPhone 6 feel ahead of the game.

Twitter: @iburrell