In Conversation with Sean Pillot de Chenecey

20th anniversary
type - in conversation
In Conversation
The Future Laboratory’s co-founders chew the fat with old-time compatriot Sean Pillot de Chenecey, co-founder of Brand Positive and author of The Post-Truth Business, and discuss the changing nature of trend prediction and the downfall of adland

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video.

Martin Raymond: We’re joined by Sean Pillot de Chenecey, who at one point could have been one of the co-founders of The Future Laboratory.

Chris Sanderson: He was a co-founder!

MR: Yes, he was a co-founder.

CS: He was the third leg.

MR: You went on to write The Post-Truth Business, and Influencers & Revolutionaries. You also ran Captain Crikey, famously. I remember trying to explain what you did and the person I was talking to said: ‘Okay, so he works in covert operations – military emphasis’. And now you’ve gone on to do Brand Positive, which is really about looking at how brands could behave after Covid – so the ‘new normal’ and what happens next. Is that a good summary or not, or am I missing something?

Sean Pillot de Chenecey: Done. There we are. Where do I sign?

Published by:

22 February 2021

Author: The Future Laboratory

Image: Hey UK, The Real 5G Future is Here by Three and Wieden + Kennedy London


MR: As you said, in the early years for everybody involved in forecasting, futurism or looking at foresight – which is the new word to replace the old word of forecasting – in some ways it was lonely persuading businesses that you could do this job correctly and properly… Interestingly, everybody forged a collective pathway and almost a conviction route for businesses to understand that, actually, this is quite legitimate and quite a powerful way and also, I think, increasingly, a good way to plan options for the future. You’re not really predicting, you’re saying: ‘Here are the numerous pathways you could have; which one do you think is going to work best and which one is more favourable to other people around you?’ So, I think that’s probably quite a good thing to learn. Do you think there’s been a negative side to the proliferation of forecasters and futurists and scenario planners?

SPC: Yeah, sure. I think very clearly, there’s been a real negative side to the world of forecasting and all of its many vagaries, should we say. I think that’s the key point. It’s the vagaries of it. I mean, way back in the mid- to late 1990s when you guys used to talk about this in great detail, quite frankly, there was no one else out there. There was no agency, certainly in the tragic world of advertising. There wasn’t a futures department and there was no one with a trend title that was very much in the world of academia, the more interesting, forward-looking universities. And then also, no one in the world of think tanks, which tended to be more obviously about the political sort of forecasting or the tourist variety. Meanwhile, what have we seen since then? Straight after 2001 when you set up, what we saw fairly soon after that was combat-clad web designer Nathan Barley zooming around Hoxton and, of course, at that point, all bets were off. So, I think Mr Barley really coincided with the explosion of trend analysts and all the rest of it, as so superbly pastiched in comedies like 2012/W1A, which really took the entire thing apart…

MR: The term cool hunting – do you remember that? I was re-reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and I was thinking, at the time you had people selling cool hunting services, which always sounded, even as you said the word, spurious and made up in the way that Nathan Barley’s world was both concocted and became weirdly believable. I’m also thinking of the agency that created normcore; how it was done purely as a recreational joke with a nod towards live art installation. Actually, normcore became quite a legitimate fashion trend for brands like Gap, which was desperate to get anything that it could stick its rather beige and no-hope fashions against. I just think there is a bit of the industry that is still very much about having a stab at pulling two words together randomly and hoping that wow, okay; for example, they might come up with Medsperience: experience medicine, which we coined yesterday as a joke. And then I heard somebody else using it as a serious term to present to a client with a new proposition about wellness and medicine sitting together…

MF: Around that time, we wrote a story about the rise of the trend forecaster and we had an illustration of somebody holding up a digital camera [to take a picture, rather than looking through the lens] and at that time such a gesture was unusual…

SPC: I think this has also been one of the issues of the approaches and the business models put together by the trend agencies and the trend consultancies. The number of people who have taken the approach to think of some spurious hashtag and then bolt some quasi-facts onto it; it’s completely obvious, it’s been done anywhere and everywhere by everyone in the sector. Those who are actually doing it properly with a sense of depth, with rigour, with something to back it up, with the ability to stand their ground and explain why this scenario, this viewpoint, this angle is going to happen, are increasingly rare. It’s very, very problematic, to put it mildly.

CS: Unpacking the relationship between brand and the support industries that surround the brand relationship in a little bit more detail, how do you think some of those relationships have changed over the past 20 years, in terms of the way that brands engage with services or agencies?

SPC: Probably the biggest thing that springs to mind in terms of what’s altered over the past 20 years has been the absolute lack of confidence in adland. Twenty years ago, the ad industry and the advertising sector were, without doubt the kings and queens of the marketing services area. Everyone just laughed at PR agencies and design agencies were the last ones to be considered for anything. Haven’t they had the last laugh! PR is more vital than ever; and the role of the designer, thankfully, has finally been viewed with the respect the world of design and design thinking has always said it required. Meanwhile, there seems to be a real lack of confidence in adland. This really became apparent nearly a decade ago when the number of ad agencies that were quickly scraping the word advertising off the plinth or whatever above the door and describing themselves as comms agencies, or anything but advertising…

CS: It’s funny because, in essence, what’s happened is that previously we would back-load the spend – which means an ad agency would get all of the cash in order to solve the problem and just push the product that final few yards in front of the nose of the consumer. But I don’t think that spend has yet got to the point where it’s being front-loaded, which most of us would argue it should be, where you invest the money to best understand your customer before you even start thinking about designing the product. This means you can anticipate need and design according to that and then research, innovate and then deliver; maybe it has become a little more evenly spread across the process.

SPC: Sure. And I think the other massive thing is there is the world of short-termism, in many ways linked to social media, which again 20 years ago was obviously nothing like it is now. So, I think that’s one of the things that has obviously supercharged the point of view from the marketing departments, which have tended to become more nervous and short-termist. And you’ll see people like, you know, the mighty Mark Ritson will talk about this a lot – there’s obviously a need to hit your quarterly targets, but the lack of genuine long-term brand-building and brand strategy going on is a real concern…

To hear more of Sean's thoughts on the future of brand marketing and advertising, please watch the full Zoomcast below.