Tom Savigar on When the Future Is No Longer Far Away for Brands

As a futurist, Tom Savigar spent decades helping companies like L’oreal, Sony, Ikea, Dyson, Lego, and UBS see around corners and shape their path forward. Now, from his new Norwegian-based boutique consultancy, Avansere, Tom is now focused on helping enterprises navigate the planet’s changing climate in a meaningful way.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Tom and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about going beyond sustainability, change management and helping organizations get beyond just saying the right thing and actually doing the right thing.

SG: Given the pandemic and our rapidly changing climate, what’s it like as a futurist, when the future actually catches up to you?

TS: The last decade we’ve been seeing the emergence of where we are now. The mathematics were making sense, the experts were speaking sense, the case studies were coming. There was this bigger conversation around what is the point of business, because it’s just not working. What is the point of governments, because they’re not working. There were multiple systemic challenges. I didn’t think that sustainability was really the thing that was coming. It was more the questions that never get answered in a workshop or in a boardroom quickly — the big why questions.

In the second half of the last decade, obviously not knowing a pandemic was coming, we were seeing a lot of systemic breaking points — the environment, the nature of diversity, the nature of community — lots of things just weren’t working. When the pandemic hit, there were conversations around the great pause. And it was a pause, it was a moment to take stock. And the reason why I moved from essentially pitching the future, whatever that might be, to pitching a very particular future, is because I wanted to make sure that I was getting to the real heart of why all this stuff was happening. Clients were saying, “This isn’t a brief, Tom, but you’re right. This is where we should be going.” But it wasn’t an official brief. It wasn’t a, “Therefore, would you do our strategy or our innovation plan?”

When I looked at the point of enterprise, and then the nature of what was happening in the world, it was a very revealing moment. The honest truth is that the conversations I had last year were very human.

SG: Let’s talk about the work that you did before. What does a futurist do? It sounds cool, but what is that job? What are you helping companies with?

TS: We used to be called a coolhunter or trendspotter. But I started working out what the professional word was, which was foresight. Strategic foresight is the right term, if you want to get paid. The discipline is a combination of using intuition, speaking to experts who know a thing or two and a lot of research. Then weaving those all together into scenarios and visions of where things are going. That’s one part of the job.

When I started my career, and what I kind of grew at The Future Laboratory, was the ability to communicate that. How do you articulate that with words, pictures and other things that make an audience go, “A, I understand it. And B, I’m really intrigued to know what that means to me.” That’s where the strategy work and the innovation work would kick in.

I was at a point where other things started happening, for example, behavioral change and mindset change. I went from, “Here’s the future, isn’t it interesting? Thank you very much for the check.” To, “Oh, you want me to tell you how to get there? Well, that’s strategy, so let’s do that.” Then, “Oh, you want me to hold your hand? Okay, let’s keep going.”

SG: Over the last couple of years, you having these conversations with experts and doing the future casting and thinking, “Oh, shit. This future is pretty scary. This is serious.” This is not a brand campaign, this is actually something that’s more substantial. It’s not, kids love urban culture and they’re going to share this kind of urban culture all over the world from Seoul to South Africa. That’s a cute 2012 version of this. But the 2022 version is more like, “Well, we’re at this point of existential crisis, how do we deal with this?”

TS: I had to change the frame of reference very quickly in order to be invited to talk about that. Being the “trends guy” comes with a lot of baggage. You get applause, but you’re asked to leave. When you’ve identified and opened up the chest of futures, and then the client says, “This is a complete reroute of the business. We’re going to call McKinsey now.” I used to say, “That’s not the best thing.” Now I say, “I’m not going anywhere, because we’ve been talking about this terrain ahead and this vision. Shall we try and actually go on that journey now?” That shifted my reason for being. Because the future looks scary, but also incredibly opportunistic, because it’s a complete re-canvas of what we’re doing.

I had to put a different suit on, a different shell, and also change the methodologies. I’m still in the process of working out how to do that. Inspiring and innovating is one thing, but moving people through it is a very different thing. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

SG: What does moving organizations through this mean? Where can we be optimistic about some of the biggest companies on the planet actually providing some substantial solutions that are real and not branded? You’re balancing people asking, can you make this sound good? Versus people asking, can we actually do good? That’s a very different ask. That’s where people are struggling. The truth is that most employees of these companies know what is good and that’s what’s causing this self-reflection internally. But what does this add up to? The way we’ve done marketing, communications and brand work in the past is not sufficient for the future. But what is? If you’re a future casting your own industry, what does it look like?

TS: In terms of future casting the industry, it’s about a shift from strategic foresight, as a discipline — it’s the future of enterprise. Strategic foresight is usually about locking foresight into the strategy process. We have to move to systemic foresight, which is knowing the root cause of why the stuff is happening. And that sounds very academic, but imagine the top job is communicating and branding and trying to articulate what a company is doing. And then, underneath that is the business itself. Systemic foresight is tackling the changes that are going to happen underneath so that the story can be told.

Whether you’re upstream or downstream, the joining up of those worlds, the communication between those worlds (so that the whole value chain is in sync with a very big brief) should have a positive effect on people in planning. You can’t be disconnected from your impact on the world. You can’t. Therefore, operations and communications working in harmony means that any time a company has something to say, it’s backed up with what we’re actually doing about it.

I think that’s a very big job for someone who’s in the communications world. Because the first thing they’re going to say is, I need to see the factory floor. I need to actually see the tooling in order to backup the press release. Therefore, the speed of communications might become different. It might be less knee-jerk, less reactionary. It could be a lot more foresightful in its discipline. The day job right now is balancing those two worlds, of operational rerouting and re-branching, so that the comms job can be done. But at the same time using the power of communications to inspire that change.

SG: As you’ve articulated on the sustainability side, there’s this element of proof, “Are we doing the basics?” But to your point, the basics aren’t good enough. This is where you’ve talked about moving from sustainability to regenerative. At the same time, you lose credibility if you don’t communicate about the basic things that you’re doing. The real opportunity is to lift people’s heads up to see the bigger picture, but there’s this hard balance there.

And then, in-between kind of that the basic stuff you’re doing on the factory floor and trying to get to that future, there’s like lots of screwing up. There’s lots of mistakes. There’s lots of trying to figure it out — it’s never going to be a clean straight line. It’s going to be two steps forward, three steps back, one step forward, two steps back and so on. It’s messy.

You have organizations who want you to be perfect all the time when you’re doing it. It all seems scary to a big company, “Well, there’s a lot of risk here if we start talking about this stuff. Maybe we should just do the bare bones basics and we’ll be okay.” How do you coach them to get out of their comfort zone?

TS: First, you’ve got to get beyond completely ignoring the inevitable and not even seeing this terrain coming. Once we get a corporation to lift their head up, at least say, okay, we see the risks of not doing this. We acknowledge that if we don’t do anything about this, we’re not going to be able to raise capital, have a strong brand, attract employees, all that stuff.

That first step of just being a responsible business, doesn’t mean doing good. It just means that you need to set that as the new bar. Being responsible means learning about this terrain and actively saying, “We don’t know everything. We’re learning, and exploring and finding ways of participating in this new space.” As long as you stay at that minimum level and be vocal and vulnerable as a corporation to say, “It’s okay. We don’t know everything, but we’re trying.” Then, I think you can then extend your business lifespan by 20 years straight away.

What comes after just being responsible, in terms of being sustainable, net zero, net positive, and all that stuff, is going to be a process. Because no one has re-engineered value chains to do this yet. But as long as you don’t go back to being in denial, that’s the crucial bedrock.

Breaking into that boardroom or that ownership circle and saying, “Do you see what’s coming?” The conscious shocks required to get corporations to say, “We’re listening now and we’re just going to talk about the fact that we’re listening.” That’s the most important job, and that’s what’s happening in a lot of places now. While I can see the summit, to use an analogy, I think the big job of the moment is the work of just lifting people’s heads.

SG: As we look at this next decade and people start having to make harder and harder choices all the time. I’m trying to figure it out myself, but when do employees start saying, “I’m not going to work in this company anymore because we invest in fossil fuel businesses. Our carbon offsets program is bullshit.” It feels like things are still relatively polite, right? When do things stop getting polite and this becomes a much deeper conversation?

Are you coaching people that we haven’t even seen the beginning of this? That your employees are going to be demanding this in the future, that you should really be thinking about not working at or partnering with these companies? Beyond the happy messaging stuff, where do we get to the real serious shit?

TS: The pandemic has removed one layer of veneer, which is, “We’re all kind of the same in this moment.” It has put us all on eye-level. So when it comes to the subject of sustainability in regenerative business, there’s more acknowledgement to say, “We will give it half an hour today. We will have a conversation about it, at least.” It’s not seen as fluffy, it’s not seen as alternative. It’s now on the business agenda.

Today I saw a big insurance company and pension provider say they would move away from fossil fuels in three years. The pressure to move away from value chains that do certain things is happening, but it’s still, “If we don’t do that, we’re not going to look good so we have to do it.” So the speed at which it happens will be very interesting. We’ll move away from very comfortable, polite dates like 2050, 2030 to 2027, 2026 — the weird dates. There’s not a zero or a five at the end. The scientists have told us what the real scientific target is. It’s not PR friendly, but it’s real. People are really pragmatic about this stuff, but they get very emotional when they don’t understand it. People don’t like change happening to them, but they’re happy to change. The concept of change management is a very interesting industry right now.

SG: Let’s talk about the word sustainable and the word regenerative for a second. Sustainability feels like a dated term, it’s where we’ve been, but not where we’re going. Regenerative has this energy of renewal and building on itself, at the same time the word is clunky. I wish there was a better word. I guess the point of regenerative is less about the word and more about inspiring people to go beyond sustainable. So what is that? How should companies think about that? And if they’re using the terminology sustainable, are they already walking into a trap?

TS: Well, it’s funny. I just updated my website and a good friend of mine who works in impact investing emailed me straight away saying, “Hey, hang on a minute. You’ve just changed what you call it.” I call it NextGen Enterprise, as in next generation. And he said, “Aren’t you losing all that hard work of trying to get people to explain the word?” I said, “No. That’s the problem.”

I find that the language and the misunderstanding around sustainable and regenerative is causing lots of barriers to movement. And my whole thing is movement. Worryingly, many think that they don’t need help, but in reality they’re green wishing and they’re green washing. Many don’t understand what it means and how it relates to their day-to-day business, so therefore, they don’t pick up the phone. There’s either A, we’re sustainable, or B we don’t even understand the word so we’re not even going to worry about it because we’ve got a business to run. So I changed it to Next Generation Enterprise, which I think is more about, “I want to be next gen. That sounds cool.” And then, I could come in with, “Okay, so the difference is… sustainable is stopping and doing no harm fundamentally at all, across the whole spectrum of things. And regenerative is starting and creating a positive impact.” That’s it.

If you say you’re sustainable, you can categorically say that you do not touch the sides of society and the environment in any negative way. And if you are regenerative, you are touching society and the environment in an actual positive way. The challenge I have is there’s a lot of scientific and academic definitions of it and they get very complex. But the difference between stopping and starting is probably the easiest way of thinking about it.

SG: What is the responsibility of the comms, brands, marketing world in this? What is our job here? And there’s obviously good things we can do, but there’s also bad things we can stop doing.

TS: Everything needs communicating, right? All humans communicate. The internal communications job is as important as the external. The articulation of everything we’re talking about in a way that’s easy to understand and immediately usable, internally, is a very important starting place. If I was a CMO or head of comms or marketing, I would be working directly with the HR directors, the ops directors, the sustainability directors to say, “Hey, we’re really good at getting coverage at outside, hits and likes and all that stuff, but we need to do our work inside.” That’s a very important job.

When it comes to helping a brand move through this, you have to figure out how to help the communications team get the organization, especially the leadership, to be okay with imperfection and vulnerability. To say, we’re going to talk about this in a way that is educational, but also humble and not superfluous. We’re going to be real about what we’re doing so that the leadership doesn’t worry about the repercussions.

SG: What kind of pressure should we be putting on people who have our jobs, who work for companies that are net negative? Should we just focus on people doing good? Or should we do something about those who are not doing positive work?

TS: There is a conversation coming very quickly, that we’ve all had, which is we have to stop the retainer with that type of client. Mainly because the sustainability of that industry is finite. It might be 30 years from now, but it’s shortening because of its impact. Those decisions will come very quickly when a new generation of leaders start running the big ad agencies and comms agencies and they say, “Not on my watch. Hey, I’m 45, not 65, and I’ve grown up in a world whereby I’ve been waiting to get my keys to the kingdom and I’m not working with that company anymore.”

We’ve seen it with cigarettes in previous generations, I think it’s going to come. If you are dealing with a client that has no wiggle room — there’s no way of diversifying or divesting or innovating out of not being sustainable — that’s probably a very conclusive conversation. If you’re a comms individual, and you’re looking at the job of communications and you know that in the factory or in the engine there’s possibilities, then, I think it’s the comms person’s responsibility or the agency to say, “Look, we want to talk about what you’re actually doing. We can’t communicate this version of your company. Can we at least have license to talk about what it is you’re planning to do? Maybe fast track that, and then communicate that?”

SG: What is more valuable use of your time? You probably could theoretically only work with climate tech businesses that are being built just to solve for these bigger systemic issues. At the same time there’s these big, huge companies that already exist in these big established industries, they also have to move closer to where these climate tech businesses are. How do you choose when you only have so much time?

TS: It’s like finding an amazing mountain range. You find it and think, “It’s really cool. There’s an amazing scenery, beautiful seasons, great produce. This is going to be popular in the future.” You might say, “Let’s not tell anyone about it because it’s so cool.” But, we’re now actually saying, “We need to build hotels and a whole city getting ready for everyone who’s going to come on holiday here, and hopefully, stay forever.” And I feel like that’s the feeling is there’s this early bird kind of feeling, which is exciting. And of course, all the climate tech companies have said, “Hey, we’re already here. We’re already down the road.”

But along come the big companies, the incumbent saying, “We used to go to this place to ski, and now we want to come here.” And it feels a bit like a gated community right now, because it’s quite hard to get into. You gotta go up the hard trek to get in, but once you’re in there, it could be interesting.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

Mixing Board’s community of comms and marketing experts are helping organizations with their 2022 planning. For more, see this post.

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