The beginning of the year is always a time for trends, but knowing how to think about trends can be more useful than the trends themselves; Faris Yakob proposes three critical questions to ask.

Are you feeling ’22? 2021 was another tough and confusing year for many, wonderfully captured in the cover headline of The Week Junior’s end of year edition: “What a Year!” 

Well, indeed, well put. As an aside that I assure you will become relevant and insightful in the next paragraph, The Week Junior is arguably the most successful new magazine launch of the last decade. It was the fastest growing print magazine in the UK before launching in the USA and the US Editor praised it as “a renaissance in print”, going on to say that “it stands for helping children navigate the fast-moving and sometimes confusing world around them.” Crucially, it found success by finding a new market, one that wasn’t being served, providing news to children.

A new year means trend report season for the advertising industry. Agencies, research companies and consultancies market their knowledge by cataloging signals of change in the world. Trends are patterns of gradual change. The hope is that by catching them early we can make better decisions, have more innovative and effective ideas, start better businesses and better serve clients. So trend reports help us navigate the fast-moving and often confusing world around us in service of finding new markets. (See? Told you.)

There are challenges, of course. First, being too far ahead of your time is functionally the same thing as being wrong in business. Pet e-commerce website is hugely successful, having been acquired for more than $3bn by Petsmart, it dominates in its category, whereas was a very expensive disaster.

Second, how to separate the signals, which indicate longer term shifts, from the cacophony of shiny new things that will ultimately go nowhere.

Third, everyone is reading the same reports, which diminishes the competitive advantage they might provide. Reading a number this year, having been doing this for a couple of decades, you see familiar tropes and hopes manifest; new technology platforms, media ideas, business innovations, and an endless longing for a conscious consumer.

So it’s worth thinking about how you think about the trend reports you read. As Schopenhauer wrote, “the task is, not so much to see what no one has seen yet; but to think what nobody has thought yet, about what everybody sees.”

If the last two years were characterized by uncertainty – and remarkable resilience – this year’s reports continue that theme with several mentions of entropy, used metaphorically, as an ongoing state of disorder, chaos or super-linear change. Change creates opportunity, or threat, but things don’t all change at the same rate and not all changes solidify.

In 1999 Stewart Brand, best known as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue, published a model for considering changes in society. In The Clock of the Long Now he coined the idea of ‘pace layers’. Imagine a layered diagram showing a slice of concentric circles with the caption "The order of civilization. The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize. The whole combines learning with continuity." Brand explains “I propose six significant levels of pace and size in the working structure of a robust and adaptable civilization. 

From fast to slow the levels are: Fashion/art> Commerce> Infrastructure> Governance> Culture> Nature.

The slower layers stabilize the system while the faster layers experiment with, and mostly discard, new things. The differing speeds create shearing between the layers, disruptions that are either assimilated or rejected by the slower layers of commerce, governance and so on.

One obviously salient example is crypto, which operates at the fastest layer and is changing rapidly, extremely volatile, generates a lot of news…but crypto is held by less than 10% of consumers, with the vast majority being held by the 1% people who work inside the crypto system. In fact, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the top 0.01% of bitcoin holders control 27% of the currency in circulation, which suggests it perhaps isn’t as democratic and decentralized a system as is suggested.

Regardless, thanks to the endless news and hype most people are now aware of the concept, and thus people can use that knowledge as a marketing tool. For example, the new Mayor of New York City just announced he is going to receive his initial salary in Bitcoin and Ether because he believes this is a powerful positioning statement for his stated ambition for New York to remain the financial hub at technology’s cutting edge. Now that enough money has bubbled into blockchains, brands are trying to rise, with hiring Matt Damon for an expensive-looking brand commercial and dropping US$700M for the naming rights to the arena formerly known as the Staples Centre in LA. The deal for twenty years is the most expensive arena sponsorship in history, which suggests movement towards a lower, slower Pace Layer.

So, when considering trends and if and how they apply to your brand or clients, consider a few things:

  • Speed: How fast is this trend moving?
  • Scale: How big an impact could it have?
  • Scarcity: Has it begun to appear in lower layers and where is the scarcity in the system?

Scarcity is the foundation of value. That’s why NFTs seem like such an interesting concept, creating digital scarcity, but also what leads to irrational consumer behavior bubbles, panicked by a sense of urgency and exclusivity.

Of course marketers have been manufacturing scarcity for as long as there has been marketing – ‘limited time only’, ‘going fast’, ‘call now’ – and in our hybrid world nowhere is that more obvious in the now ubiquitous marketing ‘drop’. Drops are generally assumed to have been pioneered in sneaker culture and especially by fashion brand Supreme, who created limited editions for everything. (How that will scale now Supreme has been acquired by VF Corporation, parent company of Vans, The North Face and Timberland, will be interesting to keep an eye on.)

This tactic now appears across fashion, beauty, food, software and beyond and we will continue to see more. One of our favorites to keep an eye on comes weekly from New York art collective MSCHF, who drop modern art via their app. Each idea is different, spanning concepts from a series of Nike trainers with a drop of blood in the sole/soul, (that led to legal action and a settlement, which is often what shearing between layers looks like), an original Warhol piece sold without identification among 250 replicas, a set of unique jigsaw puzzles that, when solved created a QR code, one of which led to a $1M prize, and so on.

Modern art is the R&D of humanity, and often for agencies too, so don’t be surprised if we see a lot more drops, but keep the speed, scale, and scarcity in mind before suggesting one to your client.

The new year is culturally typified by energy and momentum but we should also consider our consumers, clients and colleagues with compassion, because it’s year three and we are all moving at different speeds, dealing with big things, and there’s never enough compassion.