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The Trend Spotter

Even on the lecture circuit, which helps fill Watts Wacker’s busy schedule, he dons his signature look: a Hawiian-print shirt.

Photo by: Kit Noble

We live in the age of numbers. Any hired gun with a PC can call up a spreadsheet and finesse the margins. Success in business depends on the man who crunches the numbers, right? Not always. Sometimes there is a place for the dreamy provocateur who views the cosmos from some other position, preferably off the wall. The recent deluge of tributes for Steve Jobs brought this undeniable need to the foreground and reminded everyone how much we need those leaping intellects—the ones who, unfortunately, often do not survive in severe corporate climates. Watts Wacker has survived, despite having daydreams the size of the Milky Way. For thirty years he has been the honored guest of hulking outfits like British Petroleum, the U.S. Navy, British Airways and Disney, who call on him for his spacey prognostications and divinations. Anybody who wants to brainstorm calls on Wacker and he gives them a Force 9 gale’s worth.

From his office on Imperial Avenue in Westport, Wacker and his research team canvas the world for new facts, new idea streams, sudden occurrences, shifts in intellectual patterns and changes in the emotional weather. Then it all gets processed in the humming factory of Wacker’s brain, which is sort of a Waring blender set on “purée.” What emerges from Wacker’s business, called First Impact, is a stream of information in the shape of books, articles, corporate position papers and speeches ghostwritten for CEOs who want to appear to be Jobs-like visionaries. Call him a “futurologist.”

When he greets you at the door, Watts strikes an instant note of familiarity. No discernible accent is left over from his Midwestern childhood, but the back-porch calmness and sunny disposition is there, and he’s both intense and soothing at the same time. A mop of blond hair tumbles over his collar and, combined with the piercing, steady gaze and the impressive manner, it’s apparent right away that he is someone. In airports he is accosted all the time, and he cheerfully signs autographs as “Jimmy Buffett” or “Sammy Hagar” or any other sun-bleached road warrior he might resemble. Morning denizens of the Westport Starbucks know him as the guy who fetches his morning coffee on a Vespa. Or as the barrel-chested guy walking his dog. For either mission he is always, always, wearing shorts. “I’ve known people here twenty-five years who’ve never seen me in long pants,” he grins. "Dead of winter, I’m wearing shorts. There are people in town who think I’m the homeless man with the dog. I walk my dog forty-some miles a week.” He knows the actual homeless people who drift along his daily road course, and he talks to them. Listening is his hobby, his obsession.

“I sit in airport lounges and listen to conversations all around me,” he says. “I’ve worked as a cowboy in Montana. I made tacos in a Taco Bell. This was a tool I brought to mix as a futurist. There are a lot of tools and I’ve invented some of my own. And one of them is observational research.”The “office” takes up the downstairs of the vast old gingerbread house. In the corners are piles of toys and things, some of them Star Wars toys that go back to one of his earliest jobs, doing research at Kenner Toys. The era in which his career began, the seventies, was a hot time for futurism. There was Marshall McLuhan’s arch riffing on the media, Charles Reich’s hosannas to the new counterculture in The Greening of America, and Alvin Toffler’s seismic work, Future Shock, which provided a handy road map for a 1970 America riven by new dislocation. After stints in Cincinnati and California, Wacker was brought to this area by Daniel Yankelovich’s Norwalk-based research company. A public-opinion analyst and social scientist, Yankelovich ran a national polling operation, which gave Wacker a deep education as to what Americans wanted. The firm was also the breeding ground for futurist John Naisbitt, whose Megatrends, published in 1982, was an enormous hit, eventually selling 14 million copies

“John left to write that book,” Wacker recalls. “Dan used to say, ‘Only Dan Yankelovich writes books here.’ They wanted to hire his replacement, and twenty-six years ago it’s not like you could call Central Casting and say, ‘Send me twenty futurists to look at.’ Today, you probably could. “They thought someone in the toy industry could be iconoclastic enough to do it.” Wacker takes a seat in a big comfy chair, but even relaxed he looks imposingly alert. “We ran the Time magazine poll for ten years. We principally studied the social agenda and policy areas. I was there eleven years and then became a futurist for Stanford University. I just never moved to the coast. I set up my math laboratory here in this building.

Then. Now & Next
“Aspiration and perception—those are the keys things I look at. What do we aspire to? Joseph Campbell said all of life is aspiration. Perception is the hardest thing to change. It’s a belief system based on your senses. Those are the areas I try to envision unfolding. Futurology, as it’s called in Europe, and it’s influence on society, is what we do today.” He smiles understandingly. “It’s not really about predicting, it’s more about good science-fiction writing. If you found yourself in my story, what would you do differently? “When George Orwell wrote 1984 and put forth the concept of Big Brother, people in the Western democracies read that and said there was no way we’re going to let that happen. But since 1994 when the Internet became public…”

At this point, Wacker veers off on a tangent about the elder George Bush being the one to enact Internet legislation, not Al Gore. Tangents are his lifeblood. Wacker doesn’t actually call the Internet “Big Brother,” but it should be noted that he has no page on Wikipedia, no Facebook page, no LinkedIn entry. He knows how computers work, and understands that they will go on gaining in strength until any old laptop will one day have the strength of today’s supercomputers. “Data mining” will be, he thinks, a core competency of the future, and literacy will be defined by your ability to write computer code. So, don’t try to Tweet him. The cultural divide that has the nation in a grip does interest him greatly but he has his own take on it all. “It’s not how we feel about Washington; it’s how we feel about laws. It looks like we have a period of time now where you can get out in front of the law—the law can’t get you fast enough. I can’t figure out what Google is but it’s unregulated even though it’s in the financial-services industry, it’s in health care, it’s in telecommunications. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how to deal with them

“But as it relates to this divide, I think we’re headed towards what I call participatory democracy. And whether it’s Moveon.org or the Tea Party, these people have reengaged the process.” Also joining the process—and the workforce—are the totally wired young, a group he calls the Digital Natives. “They’ve spent the entirety of their lives in the ether. You, me, or someone who’s thirty, we can only be Fast Followers. I think you’ll see some potential fast shifts. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if a generation from now you’ll be able to vote against somebody as opposed to voting for them. You can take one of their votes away. "One of the things we’re seeing from the Digital Native,” he continues with that soothing-arresting tone of his, “is the concept of collaborative gaming. When you and I played games it was Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Battleship. The job for me was to beat you. And kids today get together to beat the game. Collaborative gaming. This is already being used to teach introductory physics at MIT.” A quick look around the house shows no games open, but, in a way, the office looks as if it were laid out for playful thinking. "Emerson once said there’s only two parties: the party of the past and the party of the future. The establishment and the movement. But neither of them can live without the other. If someone comes at me with an establishment view, I try to remind them of the movement. And if I talk to someone with a movement view, I get them to remember what’s important in the establishment view.”

Son of a Mad Man
Wacker can’t watch the hit TV series Mad Men because his own father was just that sort of character—a driven Detroit advertising executive who promoted Oldsmobiles when he wasn’t drinking hard and getting married five times, once to the receptionist. Watt’s mother was a manic-depressive, paranoid schizophrenic who spent thirty-five years of her life in institutions. A stern Scottish nanny helped him navigate his early years and at fourteen he was sent off to prep schools. His education was actually a rather rigorous classics education, coat and tie every day, with Chaucer, Keats, Shaw and four years of Latin all part of it. “Stuff they don’t do anymore,” he says, smiling faintly. At Tulane, he majored in economics and history, then at the University of Texas did grad work in sociology and business, all of which makes him, he cracks, a “gestalt social scientist.”The die may have been cast, however, one day when he was eight and his father took him to a lecture by Joseph Plummer, an ad executive who pioneered a market-research tool called psychographics. “It was a study of lifestyle,” Wacker says of the market-analysis trend that would lead to clarifying such groups as Yuppies, DINKs and so on. Plummer helped conceive the legendary Schlitz beer campaign, which showed a hearty bunch of guys celebrating under the headline “Go for the gusto!,” a campaign that sent it straight to the top of the market. “I looked at that and looked at my dad and he looked at me, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’”Although he’s never actually worked at an advertising agency, he has been hired by agencies a hundred times for insights in behavioral economics. His First Matter business grew quickly. (Go to firstmatter.com for a taste.) “I did have forty employees, but I found that I wasn’t doing what I loved. I was just humping the next project. And I chose to become smaller and smaller over time. I became like Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, the out-of-work wizard, [played by] Billy Crystal.” 

He’s made a major study of great stories. He says there are really just seventeen stories altogether. The title of his latest book is What’s Your Story: Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People and Brands. “A good storyteller tells a great story. But a great storyteller helps you find yourself in the story,” he says. The part of his job he treasures the most is getting out and performing his magic on a crowd. “I have morphed,” he says with a glint, “into becoming a professional wizard. And ‘The Wizard’ is one of the seventeen stories—the wizard who affects transformation. Everybody does it—coaches, teachers. Somebody walks up to you and says, ‘You don’t remember this but you once said something that changed my life.’“People hire me to speak because I’m not an expert in their field, not because I am. I won’t tell you how to think, but I guarantee after an hour, you’ll never think the same again. And I can do that.”

The Pendulum
What do people respond to these days? “The first thing they respond to is that we’re not going back to anything. Times are different and it’s all about trying to live in the kinds of times we’ve been living in the last four years. “The pendulum doesn’t move from conservative to liberal; it moves towards consensus or it moves toward the end points. And the end points keep moving further and further out because we didn’t have any institutional guidance.” At the end points of this swinging pendulum, he sees the freaks on one side and fundamentalists on the other, and a long, long way to go before consensus returns. His own domestic life is beautifully normal, very much unlike his own childhood. He and his wife, Betsy, married these thirty-one years, are involved in all the civic stuff. She serves on the town’s historic commission. Their son, Cal, was a letterman in football at Staples, and though he’s now twenty-eight and an archaeologist, his dad keeps going to the Staples games as the noisy booster, happy to be voted the team’s twelfth man. Daughter, Lee, twenty-one, was influenced by visiting more than a hundred art museums with her dad and is now an art history major at Bryn Mawr.

“We like to think we preserved the Midwestern philosophy of life,” he says as we walk out on to the broad-beamed porch. A light frown creases his face. “It has been bothersome to live in a place that, despite all the awareness of itself, doesn’t have any vision. I’ve been saying this since 1998. “We have this unbelievable appreciation of the arts here,” he says, rattling off all the high points, the Levitt, the Staples Players, the library down the street—“the single-most-used library between New York and Boston!” He grows sober. “But we don’t have any real vision. If we had any real vision, we wouldn’t have the most beautiful real estate in downtown being a parking lot overlooking the river.” As his cream-colored dog, Max, a large bichon frise, circles him enthusiastically and yaps it up, Watts Wacker prepares to take his vision along the river for another daily walk. It is almost certain that he will see a lot.