Watts Wacker's mission is to get a handle on the future for some of the most powerful companies in the world. But at the moment he's simply trying to get a female bartender to tell him a joke. He's in the Gallatin Gateway Inn, a railroad-era hotel outside Bozeman, Montana — a small town that's a regular stop on his never-ending quest to look and listen for signs of change.
Wacker is a 43-year-old blond teddy bear who can talk movies and sports — not to mention particle physics and virtual reality — with the best of them. He can't get into an elevator without striking up a friendly conversation. He always has a joke at the ready, even a few for the politically correct crowd. (Hear about the new restaurant on the moon? Great food. Good service. No atmosphere.) Tonight, though, the object of his research attention is playing coy.
Then, ever so gently, Wacker's companion suggests that they're from the "Seinfeld" team, looking for material. Her eyes light up. She forgets about the martini she's shaking and immediately tells a joke (unprintable). Soon the bartender and her colleagues are making repeated trips to the table, freshening drinks and making sure the polenta is perfect.
Wacker relishes the unexpected deception. "My friend was responsible for getting the whole Steinbrenner thing on the show," he says. "He just hires me when he needs help."
The bartender's joke didn't say much about where America is heading. But the encounter spoke volumes about a trend Wacker has been watching for years. "Celebrity has become our number-one mass motive," he explains. "Everybody wants to be a celebrity or be associated with them. A few years ago I did a 'content analysis' of local TV news. I analyzed hours of tapes and made extrapolations. Over the last 20 years, something like 65 million Americans have had a meaningful experience with television — meaning they or a member of their family was on the local news, seen by their friends, adulated, in effect, as a star. Andy Warhol was right. We are all going to get our 15 minutes of fame.
"That has big implications for companies," he continues. "How do you treat your customers like celebrities? I've worked with Marriott on this question. Hotel guests don't want to stand in line when they check in; they want to feel important. That's why we created 'cocktail party' reception areas at Courtyard by Marriott. When guests arrive, they feel like they're at a party being thrown for them. They feel like celebrities."
Watts Wacker, resident futurist at SRI International, the global consulting firm based in Silicon Valley, is not yet a celebrity himself. He does make occasional TV appearances. ("Three years in a row," he boasts, "on 'Good Morning America,' I predicted Christmas sales closer than any economist.") But unlike mass-media futurists such as John Naisbitt and Faith Popcorn, Wacker does his best work behind closed doors — huddling with executive teams, consulting with new-product groups. A recent Time article on futurists never mentioned Wacker. "I'm the hardest working nobody in this business," he jokes.
In fact, Wacker is one of the most offbeat — and influential — minds in corporate America. His high-profile clients include Nike, Chrysler, MCI, and Bank of America. Wacker even played a role in creating Nickeloden's "Nick at Nite" TV lineup, featuring sitcoms like "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "I Dream of Jeannie," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
Why reruns from the sixties and seventies? Wacker sensed an opportunity based on research into changing patterns of family life. Reruns, he suggests, are a distinctly American form of oral history.
"Young people want to know everything they can about their parents," he explains. "Traditionally, they got that knowledge from their grandparents. But we're living in a time — the first time in history, really — where elders aren't around. They're off in Florida. One way to teach youngsters about their parents is to broadcast the TV shows they watched as kids."
Wacker also works closely with Avis, the rental car giant. "He's been invaluable to us," confirms Ron Masini, vice president of product and program development. "He gives us an overview of what he sees: 'These will be the influences on travelers over the next several years.' He also suggests specific services. He proposed that we use handheld computers to supply customers with information about flights and gates. We've made commercials around that service."
Most recently, Wacker's ideas have been having an impact at Gateway 2000, the young, fast-growing computer manufacturer based in South Dakota. Gateway, with annual revenues of $5 billion, is Wacker's kind of company. Its founder, 33-year-old Ted Waitt, sports cowboys boots and a ponytail. Waitt's company is as much about ideas and attitude as it is about technology — and its defining idea is to keep moving forward by shedding the past.
"Gateway happened before it could build a mythology," Wacker says, "That's what's so cool about business now. You can go from zero to $5 billion overnight; it happens before you know who you are."
There's another reason for Wacker's role at Gateway. Last March, the company named Jim Taylor, 49, its senior vice president for global marketing. Wacker and Taylor have been intellectual soul mates since 1984 — working, traveling, speaking, and writing together. Next spring, HarperBusiness will publish their first book, "The 500-Year Delta: What Comes After What Comes Next." The book is bursting with sweeping arguments and detailed predictions.
"We're at a point of absolute, positive, supreme discontinuity," Wacker proclaims. "Human beings were not built to process what we're going through now. Two generations ago people didn't move more than 50 miles away from where they were born. We were trained to have to memorize only 25 people's names in our life. Today if you live in New York City, you see 8,000 commercial messages a day. So I don't just study change. I study how change is changing — the delta of the delta. That's what I'm trying to see."
What's most notable about Wacker is not just what he sees but how he looks. Wacker tracks global economics and culture with an unnatural obsessiveness. He reads and commissions in-depth market research. He spends his free time interpreting everything from commercials to comics. He's on the road 250 days a year — and spends much of that time engaged in what he calls "observational research."
It's a dull term for a dazzling technique — part science, part detective work, part performance art. Put simply, rather than observe it at a distance, Wacker goes undercover to experience it. He buses tables at Taco Bell, drives airport shuttle buses, escorts women past right-to-life protesters and into family-planning clinics.
Wacker experiences things from as many different angles as he can. At least once a year, he works as an undercover wrangler, accompanying outfitter Tom Heintz of Medicine Lake Outfitters on treks into the Montana mountains. This summer, Wacker's well-heeled guests included the vice chairman one of Wall Street's biggest investment banks. This high-powered executive had no idea the man tying up his horse and straightening his tent stakes works with many of the same corporate clients he does.
Likewise, New Yorkers passing through the George Washington Bridge bus terminal have no idea the panhandler they're straining to avoid is actually watching them. (Wacker doesn't let his observations interfere with fund-raising. "My one-day record is $62.14," he reports.)
Why would a highly paid futurist spend so much time in such bizarre, sometimes dangerous pursuits? "What's the most powerful force in the universe?" he asks rhetorically. "Lots of people think it's love. Einstein said it was compound interest. I think it's denial. It's so easy to get locked into seeing the world from the perspective of your particular engagement with it. I'm from the suburbs, an 'Aryan from Darien.' This research generates social empathy, an openness to perspectives other than my own. It's a reality check on my personal biases."
The television division of DreamWorks SKG sits in a glassy black building 27 floors above the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Wacker has been consulting with the high-profile entertainment startup since its creation two years ago. One of his ideas, which is being tested in Phoenix, is a game show called "Majority Rules." The show has two unusual qualities, both of which are classic Wacker. First, it's participative — as part of the game, members of the studio audience vote on which contestants they think will answer correctly. Second, it's audacious — Wacker wants DreamWorks to give away $1 million on every show.
Today, though, "Majority Rules" is not on the agenda. Wacker, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, white shorts, and sandals, is in the office of Andy Fessel, an executive (DreamWorkers have no titles) who is laid back to the point of being virtually without a pulse. Fessel and his boss, Ken Solomon, both wear mandarin collar shirts and take copious notes as Watts offers his views on a late-night news show that's scheduled to debut in 1998. The show, cohosted by Maury Povich and Connie Chung, is being designed to compete head-to-head with ABC's popular "Nightline."
The way to have impact, he argues, is to build shows around the nine major forces pushing America forward: mobility, work, participation, romantic love, consensus materialism, winning, victimization, possibilization, leisure. "If you keep those nine building blocks up on a wall," he argues, "and see how specific topics relate to them, it will give you a frame for a show."
Wacker could talk for hours on any one of these, but there are other items on the agenda. So he discusses just a few of the nine forces. One aspect of the new mobility, he says, is the urbanization of rural America. "We're going to have a big fight on our hands as people like us move into places like Bozeman, Montana, Des Moines, Iowa, and Traverse City, Michigan. We're bringing our urban-dweller lifestyle to these rural communities, and there are going be conflicts."
He explains that two of the driving forces, work and leisure, are becoming harder to distinguish: "This country has a huge mythology surrounding the work ethic. Now we're creating a leisure ethic. The work ethic isn't going away, but it is adjusting itself to accommodate leisure. People take their work home and their leisure to the office. So many people are bringing their pets to work, I'm telling companies they'd better start pet ranches."
Then Wacker talks about love: "People are redefining love and asking what it represents in their lives. Love is becoming not just an internal satisfaction but an external satisfaction. The number-one status symbol in America today is a long marriage."
Moments later, Wacker is in a DreamWorks conference room pointing to a slide. Entitled "True Freedoms," the slide contains four infinitives: To Go; To Be; To Do; To Know. The slide is really a shorthand version of the argument at the center of "The 500-Year Delta." As he walks the executives through the slide, he takes them on a tour of his thinking.
The world, Wacker says, is entering a period of cultural schizophrenia. At a material level, people have never been more alike. Thirty years ago, a visitor to middle-class homes in Tokyo, Paris, and Des Moines would have been impressed by the culturally based differences in objects and artifacts. Today they'd see the same objects in all three places. People want the same things: their own home with separate bedrooms, a dining room with a table, a kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, and microwave. The planet, Wacker says, has arrived at a "uniform global definition of stuff."
This material uniformity, Wacker says, has launched a countervailing search for intellectual and spiritual diversity — a drive to stand out from the crowd based on personal interests, and to find others who share your views. Wacker says the explosion of the Web, email discussion groups, and chat rooms are all part of the same phenomenon: the rise of what he and Taylor call "communities of strangers" — people linked electronically, based on identity and aspirations rather than geography or social proximity. These communities, he says, will be the next big driver of social organization. "Your three best friends," he predicts, "will be people you've never met in person."
There's no formal training to become a futurist, but Watts Wacker seems born into the role. His early years were characterized by two dominant realities — an immersion in marketing, and a roller-coaster journey through life itself. Wacker grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, the son of an ad-agency owner who sold his business to Leo Burnett. At age nine, he traveled with his dad to meet the new owners in Chicago. It was there, he remembers, that he encountered the first ad slogan that showed him the power of the medium — that famous campaign that urged beer drinkers to "Go for the Gusto."
Wacker's parents divorced when he was eleven. His mother spent much of his childhood in and out of psychiatric hospitals. His father, an alcoholic, became addicted to prescription drugs. At one stage, Wacker seized legal control of his father's finances and helped him into recovery.
Wacker's career has always revolved around product innovation and ideas. He started in new-product development at Schering-Plough, the pharmaceuticals company, then worked for a Philip Morris think tank. He spent three years at Kenner Products, where he negotiated the licensing of Star Wars toys, and eventually became vice president of marketing. He spent a formative decade at Yankelovich Partners — where he succeeded superstar futurist John Naisbitt and first met up with Jim Taylor.
Wacker and Taylor began working together shortly after Taylor joined scandal-plagued E.F. Hutton. His job was to rehabilitate the firm, and he adopted a high-risk strategy. "We said the way to dig ourselves out of this whole was to become the first company that really understood how people felt socially, as opposed to materially, about money," Taylor recalls. Hutton hired Yankelovich to study "the meaning of money," and Taylor and Wacker started collaborating. "Watts was the key guy on that study, and it was a great study," he says.
Taylor left Hutton for Ernst & Young but kept working with Wacker. Then Taylor agreed to run Yankelovich itself. One of his first priorities was to turn Wacker loose. "I loved the social forecasting stuff that Yankelovich did," Taylor says. "But the pure empiricists at the firm never wanted to go beyond the data — they didn't want to interpret it. I liberated Watts to conclude whatever he wanted to. We started going on the road together, giving speeches, getting noticed. We got pretty well known in a hurry."
Taylor tired of the managerial grind associated with Yankelovich and embarked on a path that eventually landed him at Gateway. Wacker left shortly thereafter, because he felt support for his methodologies was diminishing : "I was considered too 'avante garde.'" But he found a warm reception at SRI, which set him up in an office near his suburban Connecticut home.
As a futurist, Wacker knows well the trend toward media compression — the tendency of "sound bites" to shrink from 12 seconds to 8 seconds to 5 seconds. He has a vast store of sound bites to illustrate every aspect of his life. On private school: "I was number 59 in a class of 61." College: "For six years, I don't think there was a day that went by I didn't smoke dope. But I never missed one class." His guiding force: "My personal mantra is to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way."
Bill Cummins wants a "freeflow." A senior vice president and director of account planning at Rubin Postaer & Associates, the ad agency based in Santa Monica, he leads Wacker into a conference room with a killer view of the Pacific Ocean and introduces him to a group of agency mangers. These folks are involved in the agency's upcoming pitch for the Acura account. Rubin Postaer already has the Honda account, and is competing against five other agencies for the Acura business — the biggest piece of business up for grabs west of Chicago, worth at least $125 million in billings. Ketchum Advertising, the incumbent, is doing everything it can to retain the account.
"We're at the thought-spawning stage," Cummins explains to Wacker. "To pitch new business, we get in rooms with tackable walls, get butcher paper up, and go to town. We already have Yankelovich; we're working with anthropologists who send us boxes of artifacts. Today's session would be most valuable if we could think and talk extemporaneously."
Wacker nods and leans back in his chair.
Cummins says that Ketchum, which has had the account for a decade, never established a "true brand" for Acura: "Precision crafted performance? What does that mean?" Everybody laughs. He says the current campaign, which recites the "ingredients" that go into an Acura, provides too much information for busy, upscale people.
Wacker has had enough of the "freeflow" and wants to speak. He introduces the team to a trend he thinks is relevant. More and more people, he says, are becoming "aficionados" of something in which they have an intense personal interest. It's a way of focusing themselves in a period of change and chaos. Aficionados will dramatically overspend in one category — wine, audio equipment, computer games — and underspend in most other categories.
In less than a minute, a member of the Rubin Postaer team states the obvious — the Acura just isn't a car that appeals to car aficionados. Wacker gently explains that the car could be pitched as a brand for aficionados in general. Ads could feature collectors of jazz records or high-priced baseball memorabilia. These folks understand real value; they buy or lease an Acura so they can afford to pursue their true passions.
Wacker's discussion of aficionados is really a spin on his broader argument about cultural schizophrenia. In an age of material abundance and uniformity, he says, scarcity becomes more and more valuable. And what's most scare is difference itself.
"Do you know what's growing in scarcity?" he asks. "Creativity, being disconnected, patience, face-to-face contact, personalities, heroes." It's what helps explain the frenzy over the Jackie O. auction — people are eager to buy anything with limited availability. "Pretty soon Mars is going to stop making regular M&Ms," he predicts. "They'll be making Valentine M&Ms, Spring M&Ms, Summer M&Ms, Christmas M&Ms ... "
Everybody is taking notes. The executives at Rubin Postaer look at Wacker the same way the DreamWorks executives looked at Wacker. As if he has the answers.
Back in Montana, in the same hotel where he bantered with the reluctant bartender, Wacker is conversing with a dour-looking man. The "observational researcher" is back at work. He asks the fellow a few uncomplicated questions — What do you do? Do you like your job? that unleash a torrent of stories and opinions. Within minutes, Wacker learns that this man is from Reno, on vacation with his wife and sons, and can't have sex with his wife because the hotel has booked his entire family into one room. Wacker isn't surprised by his new friend's openness — we live in a society, he says, that's experienced radical changes in what we feel comfortable talking about.
Which is what Wacker is banking on as he hops in a car, heads to a plane, and begins another long journey to observe the present and forecast future. He says goodbye by telling a story:
"A traveler encounters the Buddha on the road and asks him. 'Are you a deity?' Buddha says no. 'Are you a saint?' Buddha says no. 'Are you a prophet?' Buddha says no. Exasperated, the traveler says: 'Then what are you?' Buddha answers: 'I'm awake.'"
Says Wacker: "I get paid to be awake."
David Diamond (email@example.com) writes on business and social issues from Sausalito, California.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.