Rohit Bhargava is the co-author of The Future Normal, a new book featuring 30 non-obvious ideas and consumer trends that will shape the next decade. Rohit joins us on the day of the book’s publication to discuss how he identifies and curates non-obvious ideas, and how his background in ad agency strategy influences his approach to writing. Rohit also explains what motivated him to establish his own publishing company, IdeaPress, and why he’s positive about the future of humanity.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS,
Rohit Bhargava: The future that we’re going to have is the future that we can imagine. And if what we’re imagining is the Black Mirror version of the future, then that’s what someone will figure out a way to make happen.
Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. “Making outlandish predictions about the future is easy. Predicting the future normal is far harder.” Those are not my words, but those of Rohit Bhargava and Henry Courtino-Mason, who have both been on the front lines of the future leading successful trend consultancies, but on different sides of the Atlantic. Henry runs TrendWatching‘s global activity from his base in London, while Rohit is the founder of the Non-Obvious Company based here in the US. On a mission to inspire more non-obvious thinking in the world, Rohit is the three-time Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author of nine books on marketing, innovation, diversity, and trends, including his number one bestseller, Non-Obvious Megatrends. Rohit also curates the Non-Obvious Insights Newsletter, which brings the most exciting consumer stories of the week to my inbox and thousands of others every Thursday. More fun facts about Rohit: he’s been invited to keynote events in 32 countries worldwide, he’s an adjunct professor of marketing and storytelling at Georgetown University, and an entrepreneur, founding three successful companies. To discuss his latest book, The Future Normal, Rohit is joining us today from Washington, DC. Rohit, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Rohit Bhargava: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
Adrian Tennant: Well, Rohit, I’ve been following your work as an author since the publication of Personality Not Included in 2009, but before becoming an entrepreneur, you spent 15 years as a strategist in leadership roles at Leo Burnett and Ogilvy. I’m curious, what led you from a career in advertising agency strategy to writing full-time?
Rohit Bhargava: I’d say I have always been a writer and it was always a part of the role that I had in advertising. But for me, what ended up happening was I worked in a group that was starting to do social media as a part of the offering, and I remember there was a moment in 2004 actually where I thought, “Well if we’re going to do this social media stuff, I should probably be doing it myself, just so I understand it.” And so I started writing a blog. And the blog really just took off, and it’s what led me to the first book deal – blast from the past – Personality Not Included back in 2008. And it was after four years of writing the blog and building the audience, I got the book deal with McGraw-Hill. And so for me, the journey to writing and becoming an entrepreneur now and writing books and doing all of these other things, like speaking at conferences and things, kind of started there because of my passion for writing.
Adrian Tennant: You are the founder and Chief Trend Curator of the Non-Obvious Company. So before we discuss your newest book, could you share a little about how you find, collect, and curate information about the business, marketing, and non-obvious consumer trends you identify and write about?
Rohit Bhargava: Absolutely, yeah. So my weekly discipline is to constantly be searching for stories, and I write about them in a weekly newsletter, which is really kind of the mental equivalent of constantly working out, for me, because I’m always looking for new stories. I’m always looking for new ideas. And when it comes to doing trend analysis, what I look at is over a larger span of time, what were the themes and patterns in all of those stories? So because I’m constantly looking at stories every week, by the end of any given year or some period of time, I can start to see patterns that have emerged in the long-term that maybe you wouldn’t notice on a daily, or even a weekly basis.
Adrian Tennant: Rohit, your latest book is entitled The Future Normal, which is described as “a handbook for visionaries featuring the 30 biggest non-obvious ideas and instigators that will shape humanity’s next decade.” Now, you co-authored this book with Henry Coutinho-Mason, who leads TrendWatching, and in the book, you describe yourselves as reluctant futurists. What’s the story behind your collaboration with Henry?
Rohit Bhargava: Henry and I have known each other for a long time, but the collaboration kind of came to us because of a moment when we were at a conference together, and we happened to both be speaking there. And we’d known each other kind of virtually, but we had not really met that many times until that moment. And we both sort of talked about how when we do our futurist work, it’s on a shorter time scale than a lot of futurists. So the whole, “What’s the world going to be like in 2050?” was not typically a question that we spent a lot of time thinking about. Instead, we really spent a lot of time saying, “What’s happening right now that’s going to impact business or people’s careers or the way that we live in the next year, two years, three years?” And for me, at that point, I had been writing an annual trend book, which is a crazy thing to do if you think about it from a futurist perspective. Because I would literally put the year of the book on the cover and you can imagine how many people today want to buy Non-Obvious 2017. Literally no one, right? So it was a limiting thing from a sales point of view, but it was a reinforcement of the philosophy, which is that we’re looking at this over the period of time when it really has an impact on what you do. And if you could anticipate what’s going to happen in the next six months or 12 months, you can do a lot of things with that versus anticipating what might happen in 2050. Is really fun and interesting to read, and I love reading things like that, but it’s not immediately applicable to what you would do with that today.
Adrian Tennant: The Future Normal is organized into three thematic sections that each include 10 chapters. In the first section, you explore innovations in health, learning, media, and entertainment. Rohit, could you give us a couple of examples from this section that you think have the potential to impact brand and marketing strategy?
Rohit Bhargava: Well, one that is really top of mind right now is the psychedelic wellness, which has been a huge topic in the media. There’s been a show on Netflix about it. At the moment when we’re recording this, we’re just doing our prep for the big South by Southwest, show. And I was looking at the program, and there’s, I think eight different sessions about something related to psychedelics. And so this is exploding right now because there’s a new wave of interest in it. There’s new research behind it, and there’s this idea that it’s really unlike a lot of other drugs or pharmaceuticals in the sense that it’s not addictive. It has the capability and the capacity to – in some cases – permanently rewire how your brain works and provide a solution to these long-standing issues that many people have struggled with from a mental health perspective, like PTSD or depression. And so, when you have something like this that can be that transformative that’s really being studied and being applied in so many different sectors, it’s tempting to think, “Oh, this is going to impact healthcare.” But your question was like, “What should brands be aware of?” And I think that what’s fascinating about this one is that the applications of it in terms of how people think and what their mindset is towards something that seemed like it was off limits or even illegal, that now is becoming mainstream and desirable is hugely valuable for any brand in any situation because now you’re starting to think, “Well, what is the mindset of someone who shifts and thinks about things in this different way?” And that’s what’s fascinating to me about doing this trend work. It’s not that you can look at it and say, “Well, here’s your healthcare trend, and here’s your financial services trend, and here’s your retail trend.” We’ve never thought about it like that. Every single one of these has applications widely beyond a certain industry, and what we’re really trying to do is bring that human element to how we think about and define and write about trends.
Adrian Tennant: The second section of The Future Normal focuses on how people will live, work, and consume. Now, the first chapter in this section poses the question: What if artificial intelligence could make humans more creative? Rohit, it’s a topic we’ve been tracking on this podcast all season, so how will AI change how we approach creative tasks?
Rohit Bhargava: Well, I think the first thing we have to say about AI is that it could do these things if we use it in a certain way. And, and that’s one of the fundamental things that I think a lot of people and a lot of stories sometimes miss about the power of AI – that it really is driven by how we choose to use it. And as we started using it, which, you know, we’ll definitely get into, one of the things that was quickly apparent is that when you put garbage into it, you get garbage out of it! And when you become good at putting information into it, you actually get something pretty good out of it. And what that meant to me, pretty apparently, is that it’s going to become a skillset to learn how to use AI, for creative tasks or for mundane tasks. I have examples of both of those things that I could share with you. So it’s not only looking at what AI was able to do in terms of generating a painting or generating art or generating images or generating faces of people who don’t exist based on extrapolating facial features from pictures of people who do exist. It’s also [about] how can it make these tasks that we all need to do that sometimes we maybe don’t want to do, like writing a letter to get out of a parking ticket … How, how does it make those sorts of things easier for any one of us to do as well? I would consider those to be low-stakes moments versus kind of high-stakes or something that you put out there that has your name on it, right? Like ghostwriting a blog post, for example, that has your name on it, that just uses AI. And when you put it out there, people are like, it doesn’t really make sense.
Adrian Tennant: You used AI tools in the design of the book. Can you tell us about that?
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah. Not just the design, but the writing too. What we didn’t use it for was to write the book or to write any parts of the book. But what was interesting about it is we used it in a couple of use cases. So if you do get the physical copy of the book, you’ll see that we have 30 trends in the book, and each one of them has an icon attached to it. And so as we were sourcing icons and finding them and deciding what icons to use, there were some chapters where we kind of hit this mental roadblock. “What should the icon be?” Brainstorming roadblock, we’ve all had those. And AI was really interesting to use as an idea generation tool, in that case, to say, “Here’s the text of the chapter. Can you suggest what some icons for this chapter might be?” And it would write some of the suggestions, and we would go in and say, “Oh, that suggestion’s actually kind of interesting.” And then we’d start going and looking for it. And in some cases, for some icons, what AI had suggested inspired what the icon actually was. So AI didn’t design the icon, but it helped us to find it. That was one example. Another example that’s more on the writing side was we’d written a chapter and we put the chapter into ChatGPT, and we asked it to write a negative one-star review of that chapter and identify why the chapter wasn’t good. And what it came up with in terms of spotting gaps in our arguments was actually useful for us editorially, to be able to say, “Oh, this point that we were trying to make wasn’t entirely clear. We need to go back and revise the writing.” So in this case, we used it as a critique of the writing, but then we did the writing ourselves, and we used it as a layer to say, “What would AI spot as a gap in our argument that we now need to go and fix?” So that was another example where it was quite interesting what it came up with.
Adrian Tennant: Your permission to completely steal that idea right away. I think that’s brilliant!
Rohit Bhargava: You definitely should! Yeah, anybody who’s writing anything should, I mean, if we can use AI, this is a perfect example, right? We’re not using it to do the creative or to replace the writing. We’re using it to make the writing better, and I think that’s the opportunity when it’s used well.
Adrian Tennant: So we’re all going to become prompt engineers, I guess!
Rohit Bhargava: Perhaps!
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Rohit Bhargava, a serial entrepreneur and the bestselling author of nine books on marketing, innovation, diversity, and trends. Today we’re discussing Rohit’s latest book, The Future Normal. The third section looks a little further out, focusing on how humanity will survive beyond the next decade. You have chapters here that address the future of cities, the environment, agriculture, and government. Rohit, are there a couple of examples that you feel could reverse the existential threat presented by climate change?
Rohit Bhargava: There are some. And this chapter was really interesting as an exercise for both Henry and I to work on writing, because it forced us to take a perspective. We talked a little bit about this reluctant futurist tag, and part of the reluctance was for us to look too far into the future. But in a book like this where we talked about the future normal, it felt like we had to do that. It would be incomplete if we didn’t. And so some of the ideas that were presented in this third section of how humanity will survive, need to be future-ranging in terms of solar geoengineering, for example, where we’re looking at ways of cooling the earth artificially, and all the ethical issues that come with that. There’s a great entrepreneurial company called Thaely that makes shoes out of recycled bags and recycled, plastic bottles. And I just got my pair that I ordered. It took a while to to come, but now I just got my pair. And so trying out a lot of those types of technologies that have potential farther into the future was really fascinating. One of the trends that we wrote about in this section specifically was what we called inhuman delivery. And that was an interesting exercise for us, because it was basically about drone delivery, which is a topic that’s not necessarily new, although it’s not mainstream. I mean, most places don’t have drone delivery yet, but it has a lot of issues attached to it too. Do we really want all these drones flying around overhead? And you can picture the dystopian landscape of just walking down the street and having all these drones in all these places. But what was fascinating about this one is that we started to look at the test cases of it. First of all, using a platform called What Three Words, which is a platform that allows you to map the entire grid of the earth into one cubic meter squares, and give every one square meter space, a three-word address. You could allow drones, for example, to deliver things to people who are standing in the middle of a forest or standing at a place that doesn’t have a physical street address. So that’s transformative to allow drones to deliver. But the huge opportunity is really to allow drones to deliver to places that are hard to deliver to. So we tend to think of innovation as, “Oh, it’s going to happen in the city first. It’s going to be like this urban thing first, and then the people in the country, the rural customers will be left behind.” And what was interesting about this one is that it was actually the reverse. The drone delivery may take off for rural environments much more quickly because it is the best option to be able to get delivery of packages to people in far-flung areas, but also, essential medicines, vaccines, things that are difficult to transport in other ways might start happening through drone delivery. And obviously, there’s more space out there as well. So you don’t have this issue of other things flying overhead or trying to navigate buildings or things like that, that make it difficult to enable this sort of delivery. So sometimes when we started looking at these innovations, what you think about innovation, the assumptions we make, “Ooh, it’s going to happen for this group of people first, and then these other group of people,” turn out to be exactly the opposite.
Adrian Tennant: Sustainability is a theme that appears several times in the pages of The Future Normal. What are some of the most interesting or inspiring examples for you?
Rohit Bhargava: You know, I would say that, there’s a lot of talk about, Net Zero or like having zero impact. And the final chapter, that we concluded the book with actually, was titled Beyond Net Zero. And the reason we called it Beyond Net Zero is because there’s some really interesting examples of companies looking at ways of creating things that have a net positive impact on the environment. So instead of just saying, “Oh, we didn’t have a negative impact, and we’re at zero, we’re indifferent,” what some of these companies are starting to say is, “Well, we could make the world better through the process of the work that we’re doing, through the process of, taking seaweed, for example, we can remove more carbon from the air and we can make the earth a better place.” And to me, like this idea of the climate positive vision as opposed to just do no harm, which has kind of become the standard, was really an interesting evolution because what it said is we could do exactly what you said, which is reverse some of the impact that’s happened on the environment by unlocking these new methods of making things, of making products, and of making them in a way that delivers a net positive to the earth.
Adrian Tennant: After each chapter of The Future Normal, you pose three provocative questions, and at the end of the book, you provide what you’ve called Industry Playlists. Rohit, how do you arrive at these content elements and how do you foresee them being used?
Rohit Bhargava: The Industry Playlists were a really interesting example for us because typically, we have resisted the idea of saying to someone, “Oh, you work in healthcare, you should only care about this,” right? Because that’s opposite to how we want people to think. We want them to take inspiration from multiple sectors. At the same time, we knew that we had to create a more digestible version of all of these visions of the future. And so, what we did at the back of the book, what you’re mentioning, the Industry Playlists are 10 chapters for multiple industries that you should read first. So not the only ones you should read, hopefully , but the ones you should read first. So if you work in consulting and creative services, start with these. If you work in education, start with these. Financial services, food and beverage, government, healthcare, real estate, retail, transportation – I mean, all of these sectors are ones that have these playlists. And the way we arrived at them was through asking some of our early readers, some of our panel of people who do work in these industries who looked at the book and who suggested back to us, “These were the ones that really resonated for us.” So partially it was because Henry and I have built this amazing community of early readers who’ve been able to give us feedback. And part of it was just the fact that both of us have worked in many of these industries. And so we had them in mind as we were doing the writing for the book.
Adrian Tennant: You’ve described writing about the future as feeling like – quote – “Writing a step-by-step guide to falling down the stairs,” – end quote. Rohit, can you unpack this for us, please?
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah, this was a funny analogy that we landed on that just felt apt for this because I think so often when you’re writing about something that could happen, you set yourself up for a lot of criticism. If it doesn’t or if it happens in a different way than you anticipate, and that’s part of the danger of being in this category of futurism. People look to what you share, and it’s very easy and tempting to criticize you when it doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen exactly the way that you’ve described. And that’s okay. To some degree, when you write enough books, you develop that sort of thick skin. I mean, I remember I had a four-week time span where I got two one-star reviews for one of my books, and the first one said, “This book is just on the surface. It doesn’t have any detail. It’s way too short. The author did no research at all.” And the second one-star review said, “This is way too long, way too much detail. I don’t need all this stuff. They should have just simplified it.” And when you read two reviews like that in a short span of time, you realize that you can’t please everybody. You really can’t. And so you just do your best. You try and do what you can and hopefully it works out. And that’s what I tried to deliver with this. And so hopefully we achieve that balance. But the step-by-step guide to falling down the stairs was sort of a nod to the fact that you can never make everyone happy.
Adrian Tennant: Between 2009 and 2015, your books were published by McGraw-Hill. Yyou were already a bestselling author, so why did you launch your own publishing house, IdeaPress?
Rohit Bhargava: Well, my first one was published by McGraw-Hill. My second one was published by a different publisher. And as I went through those experiences, I realized that the lack of control really bothered me and the fact that I had all of these marketing ideas. I mean, I’m a marketing guy. I spent most of my career in marketing, and the things that I wanted to do were sort of impossible from a publishing perspective. And so what I had to do was, I had to go through and decide on what I wanted to be a priority. And for me, the priority was that I really needed to have the control to be able to do what I wanted. And so I went and self-published a book. And I also didn’t like that because I didn’t have widespread distribution. I couldn’t see the book in the airport. It just didn’t feel like a real book! And so for my fourth book, I decided to start a publishing company just so I could do my own books in the way that I wanted. And when that book that I did through that model hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, then I had all these friends who were authors who said, “That looks awesome. Can you do that for us too?” And that’s how we built IdeaPress Publishing, which is my publishing company now. And we’ve done over 90 books for other authors over the last eight years. but it didn’t start as intending to be a business; it started out of my frustration and just wanting to have more control back.
Adrian Tennant: So Rohit, what do you hope readers will take away from The Future Normal?
Rohit Bhargava: One of the things that we try to explain in The Future Normal is that we take a very optimistic view of the future, in particular with technologies or things that could go the opposite direction. And part of what we wanted to try and do is provide a balance to what we often see in entertainment because I love dystopian drama. I love dystopian science fiction. I think it’s great – like the whole idea that the earth has a nuclear holocaust, nobody can live there, and then you have to go up into space, and then you come back and see if the earth is survivable. Like I love watching that stuff. But to some degree, the future that we’re going to have is the future that we can imagine. And if what we’re imagining is the Black Mirror version of the future, then that’s what someone will figure out a way to make happen. And instead, what we wanted to try and do is balance that with an optimistic version of what could happen if these things do go right. So we know that this is an optimistic view of the future, and we know that probably it’s too optimistic in some cases. But what I hope people take away from The Future Normal is that we have the ability together to shape what becomes normal in the future. And the normal can be optimistic, and the normal can be all of these things succeeding if we choose to support them, if we choose to buy from them, if we choose to make them priorities and how we vote and how we act. And so the book tries to imagine that type of future and give people some actionable ways that they themselves can contribute to a future like that.
Adrian Tennant: You know, we spoke with Devon Powers a couple of years ago, who’s authored a book called On Trend, and she said that “Any prediction of the future is not a prediction about what’s going to happen, it’s an invitation to think about one’s agency in that future.” Rohit, sounds like you might agree with that.
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it is an exploration of how we can impact what’s going to happen in the future. And I think that that is what became apparent as we went through and looked at all of these different entrepreneurs and ideas and instigators that are shaping what’s going to happen. That they will only succeed if enough people support their idea, right? If enough people say, “This is the way we should act, and this is what we should do, and we’re going to support that instead of this.”
Adrian Tennant: Rohit, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about your latest book, The Future Normal, where can they find details?
Rohit Bhargava: So just go to TheFutureNormal.com, and you can find all the information about the book. You can download an excerpt of it, and most importantly, you can sign up for these weekly newsletters that Henry and I are doing to share the best, most interesting ideas because it’s always changing. And that’s the difficulty with a book – you put it into a book, and now it’s kind of fixed. But you have all these opportunities to see what’s new and what’s interesting. And so we’re constantly doing that, and we’d love to have people follow that journey on the future through the newsletters.
Adrian Tennant: And if anyone listening is going to be at South by Southwest, they can see you and Henry in person. Is that right?
Rohit Bhargava: That’s right. That’s actually the world premiere of the book. So we’re launching the book actually, that week, and it’s going to be the first time that Henry and I are taking the stage together, as well. So that’s going to be a first on many levels, which we’re very excited about.
Adrian Tennant: And if people are interested in receiving your Non-Obvious Insights Newsletter, how do they sign up?
Rohit Bhargava: Super easy. Just go to nonobvious.com/subscribe and you can sign up for the newsletter and also see some of the past newsletters as well.
Adrian Tennant: Perfect. Rohit, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLESAR FOCUS!
Rohit Bhargava: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Rohit Bhargava, co-author of The Future Normal. As always, you’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeye agency.com. Just select podcast from the menu. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.