Untethered: How People Will Shape, And Be Shaped By, The #FutureOfRetail

Back in October of 2013 I was asked by PSFK to write an accompanying piece for the 2014 Future of Retail report. My essay, republished below, originally appeared here.


Perhaps more than anything else, the 21st century has been marked by its ability to disconnect long-held paradigms from what were previously perceived to be sturdy moorings. Many of the things we’ve long held as truths, be they in relation to work, family, religion, media or technology have been blown apart by cultural upheaval and scientific advancement. The result has been that people – let’s do away with terms like ‘consumers’ for now – have been thrown into a new reality (or emancipated from the old one, depending upon your viewpoint).  This sort of disruption inevitably benefits some and hurts others, especially in the short term. But as an equilibrium is achieved, people learn how to maneuver in the system.

PSFK’s Future of Retail report, not unlike a William Gibson novel, provides a provocative peek into the very near future. As Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York, it’s my job to observe, and ideally directly experience, these trends and help our agency, and by extension our clients, make sense of them.  Having digested an executive summary of the FoR report, I’d like to propose a sort of macro-macro trend. One that speaks to the larger societal evolution we are experiencing, manifested within the retail category. I call it untethered.

As retailers slough off the physical back end of manufacturing via off-shoring, and outsource other, ‘soft-cost’ functions such as tech support, we’ve seen the retail industry ‘untether’ from local communities in many ways.  I think we’ll see this continue and, combined with other advances in technology, the ‘untethering’ will also appear ‘at the front of the store’ as the very notion of the “store” itself changes.

We’ve seen the dramatic affects on retail as the way people buy products has changed, first from home computers and more recently from their mobile devices, or the ‘showrooming’ trend.  Now as content becomes a sales channel via mobile and 2nd screen technology – the report provides interesting examples of this – the very nature of the ‘storefront’ changes.  Is a shoppable music video a piece of content, an advertisement or a digital shop? The answer is “yes.” Omni-Point-Of-Purchase as the report refers to it blurs lines and removes friction from previously discreet interactions.

An intriguing knock-on effect of this could be how this alters the roles of employee, customer and ‘brand advocate,’ that elusive yet highly sought after super fan that has been the Holy Grail of corporate social media efforts. You could also easily throw in ‘producer’ to the salesperson/customer/advocate mix. Sites such as Etsy now allow virtually anyone to become their own retail brand, further ‘untethering’ the individual from the systems of the last century.

Can a retail brand exist purely in the digital world? If so, what does it mean to be a ‘salesperson’ of such a venture? Does that role cease to exist? Or does that person become ‘untethered?’ Could there be a new role, in the vein of an Avon representative, where you become affiliated with a number of brands, earning money for selling and promoting products? Now a person can use the entire arsenal of social networks and tools to act as a salesperson, customer service rep and brand advocate, and it could be done anytime, from anywhere.

Retail brands have long courted influencers with large networks, but the efforts usually lacked real strategy and it was difficult to track success. Now however the tools exist, from real-time big data dashboards to personalized customer profiles that remember purchasing histories, to allow a new type of employee to really drive the bottom line for retailers, and provide retail value to people.

We’ve seen the rise of the curator in recent years. Those clever and resourceful folks with impeccable Pinterest boards and finely appointed email newsletters. In an ‘untethered’ world these people will become ‘retail consultants’ perhaps getting paid a commission from an company, but perhaps also benefitting from a customer subscription service. The purchase funnel is now a purchase network and those savvy enough to understand the game – from all sides – will surely figure out how to benefit from it.

The ‘untethered’ retail environment opens new interpretations and opportunities for loyalty programs as well, another trend noted in the report. We’ve come a long way from the ribbon cutting ceremonies of old. Gamified, social experiences disconnected from a retailer’s physical space (if they even have one), will encourage new and novel partnerships.  There will be an opportunity to re-imagine the loyalty program from the individual to the community – especially in an ‘untethered’ world where people will have a greater need than ever to connect.

In an untethered world the role of advertising, and the advertising agency, will – must – evolve. The same pressures being brought to bear on retail will also be evident in the world of marketing. Communications will need to be further customized, personalized, relevant and delivered in real-time. But the nature of the message will need to change as well. Instead of a brand sponsoring a movie, perhaps a movie will sponsor a brand? Young directors will offer to make films about a retailer or their product, imbed sales opportunities directly within the film and receive a percentage of the sales.

All futures are possible at this time, but this we know for sure – those that don’t embrace the future, be they retailer or person, will find themselves in a world in which they will struggle to succeed.

#PSFKhome take-away – Connected, Mobile, Customizable & Multi-functional is the Future

Now thru August 16.

Now thru August 16.

Recently I was able to get a sneak peek at the home of the future, thanks to PSFK and their The Future of Home Living exhibit.  Of course these sorts of glimpses into tomorrow are nothing new. But this was more than a Tex Avery cartoon or Disney’s peer into a Monsanto-sponsored crystal ball. The PSFK vision is based on some strong cultural anthropology and features products that are already in production.

PSFK Labs’ Director of Consulting Scott Lachut, intros the The Future of Home Living report by noting that it:

“[f]inds that life at home has become incredibly dynamic and interactive thanks to a host of interconnected technologies and systems, versatile and space-saving designs, and platforms that connect to nearly anyone or anything at the click of button. Imagine a home that controls the environment to ensure your personal equilibrium, a suite of services that accommodate an on-demand lifestyle, and furnishings that can adapt throughout the day to meet virtually any need from sleep and work to socializing and play.”

PSFK has broken down their findings into three uber-trends: Adaptive, On-Demand and Equilibrium. These three concepts focus on customization, speed and balance respectively, and often intriguingly cross-pollinate.  These trends bring to life several underlying behaviors that have been developing over the last several years – mobility, DIY and of course connectivity among them.

Above it all other trends, chiefly the Quantified Self and the Internet of Things, can be seen as real technology drivers that are pushing the development of new products that will see not only in homes, but in retail spaces and certainly places like hotel properties.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK founder, adds:

“The home of the future will look less like some robotic, sci-fi vision replete with hovercrafts and much more similar to what we

PSFK's Future of Home Living exhibit.

PSFK’s Future of Home Living exhibit.

see now with a few key exceptions. New dwellings will no longer have rooms that act as static zones where only one activity can take place and single items of furniture, appliances and technology will no longer serve a only one purpose. Everything in the home of the future has multiple functions, many configurations and offers a variety of options to the user.”

From my perspective the key take-away for brands is the need to creative products and services that are multi-functional, connected, customizable and mobile. It sounds obvious, but it’s not always easy for brands to align what they do with emerging consumer behavior.

If you want to attend the Future of Home Living exhibit, it will be in NYC now through August 16. Register (for free) here.

For an a quick rundown of PSFK’s efforts, check out this post. For a little more, check out this slideshare deck. If you want the full report, you can get that as well.

Crowdsourcing a Discussion on Crowdsourcing: Agency Nil, Anomaly and Victors & Spoils

Occasionally a topic comes up that inspires a longer post with commentary and viewpoints beyond my own. With so much talk recently about crowdsourcing it seemed like a good time to really tackle the issue. I’m positively thrilled to have input from some of the top minds in advertising and marketing communications contribute to this post. I want to thank Johnny Vulkan, Cliff Lewis, Evan Fry & Aaron Bateman who provided thoughtful commentary to this post as well as those who I have linked to for adding their insight to the discussion. I encourage you to print it out, bookmark, and of course share it with others.



It's all his fault

It's all his fault

If it seems like you’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately, it’s because you have.  Crowdsourcing is one of those buzz words, like synergy or viral that people are throwing around now to cover just about anything.  According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in a June 2006 Wired magazine article by Jeff Howe.

My first experience with the concept came when I participated in The Beast, the Alternate Reality Game tied to the Steven Spielberg movie, A.I., back in 2001. As a member of the 6,000+ strong  Cloudmakers group, I joined fans from across the world to solve puzzles and interact within this fantastic fictional world. We worked together to create a ‘collective detective’ that competed against the puzzle makers, not against each other, and it was brilliant.

And now crowdsourcing is very much in vogue. Howe took the concept and ran with it, turning it into a book, as did James Surowiecki with his tome, The Wisdom of Crowds.


Crowdsourcing is gaining steam within the advertising agency community at the same time as another issue becomes more pressing – the broken agency business model. Shops big and small, from a variety of industries (ad, PR, digital) are all looking to do things differently. Earlier this year Agency Nil took a bold stand with their “Will work for all it’s worth” manifesto. That was followed by the recent launch of Victors & Spoils, which somewhat boldly bills itself as The world’s first creative (ad) agency built on crowdsourcing principles.

PSFK has more on Agency Nil here, and George  Parker sounds off on Victors & Spoils via PSFK here. Other great takes include Amadeo Plaza of Crayon on V&S and Contagious takes a look at V&S here. BBH Labs on Agency Nil here and here. You can read my interview with Alex Bogusky of CP+B and Hank Leber, founder of Agency Nil, here regarding agency business models. The Proffesional Artists League is taking a pretty strong stand against Work-for-Hire which can be interpreted as crowdsourcing. Take a look at their POV here.

AdAge is currently running a poll (through Nov. 6) asking if crowdsourcing is a threat to agencies.


I’m excited to see really smart people like the ones at AN and V&S make bold moves like this. Creative industries need this sort of thinking to keep them from stagnating. But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’re going to crowdsource, why does the client even need a middle man like V&S? Mountain Dew seems to have asked that question and come up with the answer: They don’t.

As part of their Dewmocracy campaign, the fizzy beverage is crowdsourcing their new TV ad. From the website:

Mountain Dew asked their biggest fans to band together and create the next DEW, from the flavors to the TV ads. Now’s your chance to get involved.

1) Create A DEW Spot
Direct, shoot and edit a 12-second DEW spot that shows off your skills.

2) Upload it
Your 12-second video must be submitted here by 11.30.09

3) Cross Your Fingers
Approved videos will be added to the gallery to be voted on by DEW fans. When voting closes, the six leading submissions will be revealed. In the end, three finalists will be selected to receive funding for a :15 TV DEW spot.

Once again the indespensible PSFK has more here. From the PSFK piece:

The brand insists this initiative will not impact its relationship with agency of record BBDO Worldwide, who has been involved with Dewmocracy from the start and will continue to play an important role in the process.

I don’t think this is a threat to BBDO, but is it a threat to V&S?

Apparently this whole crowdsource thing is a big hit with the junk food crowd as Snickers is in on the action as well. [Disclosure, my agency, Taylor, does some work with Mars, but is not involved with this project]. Another crowdsource effort comes from Genesis Today, who will award $10,000 for a good Social Media idea.

After the jump, insight from principals at Agency Nil, Victors & Spoils and Anomaly as well as agency biz model gadfly Agency Future.

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On PSFK: Sci-Fi & Urban Design, Luxury in Monocle & What’s Killing the Internet

It’s been a little while since I’ve written a love letter to PSFK, but they’ve recently knocked out several things worth taking a look at. Now, there are plenty of sites out there that aggregate good content, but PSFK always seem to find stuff I dont’ see elsewhere:

What does the future of Urban Design look like? From an i09 article.

Nicko Margolies and Christine Huang riff on the Telegraph’s article of 50 Things that are killing the Internet.

And finally, PSFK impresario Piers Fawkes was asked by (must read) Monocle magazine to give his thoughts on luxury and fashion in NYC. Make sure you grab Monocle too read the full article.