Opinion

18 November 2019

Why Didcot holds the key to the future of advertising 

One thing about the future is certain, believes Contagious’ editorial director, Alex Jenkins: everyone is suddenly about to have strong opinions about it.

Here we are at the end of 2019; the end of a year and the end of a decade. Ten years on from General Motors filing for bankruptcy, Uber launching and the first ever Bitcoin transaction. And a decade on from your company’s last 10-year corporate plan that’s no doubt safe and unread in a drawer somewhere. All in all, a perfect time for everyone to start thinking about how the next ten years are going to play out and start making some predictions about the future.

At Contagious, we’re not bad at making predictions. It’s not really what we do, but we’ve definitely been right in the past. For example, two years before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, we interviewed its CEO, Alexander Nix, and described him as being like ‘a James Bond villain’. So that’s our future-gazing credentials right there.

But I have to admit, I have a healthy scepticism, bordering on unhealthy cynicism, about people who claim to predict the future, and especially the abundance of trend prediction reports about to be unleashed on the world. Part of that is because most of them don’t pass the Didcot Test.

The issue is that most people making advertising live in major cities that are often totally unrepresentative of the average towns where the majority of their consumers live.

Alex Jenkins, Contagious

The town of Didcot in the UK is perfectly nice, but it’s not exactly a concrete jungle where dreams are made of. Of the best things to do in Didcot, according to TripAdvisor, the most popular is a railway museum. The cinema and local swimming pool also comfortably make it into the top ten. 

But Didcot has the distinction of being statistically the most average town in the UK, based on factors such as income, employment, ethnicity, house prices, etc. Because of that, I often use it as a mental benchmark to test the likelihood of an idea being pitched to me.

For example, if one of the Contagious writers starts babbling on about the future of retail being VR-powered pop-up shops, asking them, ‘You seeing a lot of that happening in Didcot?’ tends to give them pause. Or when a clicker-in-hand thought leader starts prophesying from the stage at a conference about how the future of advertising will be personalised digital ads served up on a biometrically authenticated blockchain, I find it useful to think ‘Mmm, yes… but for people in Didcot?’

The issue is that most people making advertising live in major cities that are often totally unrepresentative of the average towns where the majority of their consumers live. New York City may be a hive of marketing creativity, but it doesn’t share much common ground with the most statistically average place in the US: Lynchburg, Virginia (where TripAdvisor highly recommends a visit to the cemetery).

The Didcot/Lynchburg Test is a simple but effective way of reminding yourself of the gap between your life and the lives of the people you’re trying to connect with. And when this year’s glut of future-gazing trend reports wash like a floating trash island of plastic waste onto the shores of the internet, it’s a handy way to test the validity of the predictions they’ll make too.

Of course, it’s easy to see the attraction of future gazers. By definition, the future is uncertain and people hate uncertainty. So when someone comes along and claims to predict the future, that certainty is very attractive. But it’s also unlikely to be reliable. You want easy answers and you want something you can rely on when you’re making decisions, but unfortunately there isn’t anything. 

Professor Philip Tetlock is an expert on forecasting, having conducted research into the area for decades. In his book Superforecasting he concludes that ‘In my research, the accuracy of expert predictions declined towards chance five years out.’

Now bear in mind that he’s talking about experts –  the best people in the world at making predictions. I guarantee that the people about to start making 10-year predictions about the future of retail or marketing aren’t the best in the world. And even if they were, they’d still be making coin tosses four to five years out.

There’s a lovely bit in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is talking to the Scarecrow, who famously wanted a brain. Dorothy says ‘How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?’ and the Scarecrow replies ‘I don’t know. But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?’

As we teeter on the brink of entering a new decade, they’ll all come out of the woodwork. The future gazers, the prophets, the predictors, and those blessed with the ability to extrapolate a line on a graph beyond the point of reliability. My advice to you is simple: beware of scarecrows.

Want more advice (but not predictions) on the future of advertising? Come to Most Contagious in London on 5 December. Click this link for more information about the line-up and for tickets, or check out the video below for a taste of Most Contagious.