Valerie Jacobs, LPK's Chief Insight & Innovation Officer
By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Valerie Jacobs, a trend forecaster, is baffled.
She has just been asked what she thinks it was that led her fashion-design professor fifteen years ago at the University of Cincinnati College of Design Architecture Art and Planning to invite her to Paris to talk with the leading trend forecasters about her own ideas on that subject that were largely self-taught.
“Oh,” says Ms. Jacobs haltingly, shaking her head.
Simultaneously, one could see her scouring her brain for any residue of what her professor had seen in her – and coming up empty. One of Cincinnati’s brightest lights seemed startled by all this, as though she was accustomed to always finding something there.
“That’s something I maybe never thought about!”
Moments later, she would come back to it.
What startled me—a journalist of 40 years’ standing in Cincinnati—is that every day, hundreds of people walk along the south side Garfield Place just west of Vine Street in downtown Cincinnati and have no idea (myself included) that the following is occurring eight floors above them in the Presidential Plaza building.
At 19 Garfield Place, that lovely space—at a distance shorter than the length of a catwalk from the center of Piatt Park and within a lob-wedge of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County—is the home office of the largest employee-owned, brand-design agency in the world.
The original firm was an art studio by Cliff Schaten who, upon his return from World War I, opened his studio in Cincinnati the same year that the infamously fixed 1919 World Series between the Reds and the Chicago Black Sox opened in Cincinnati and forever put a stain on the national pastime that still lingers.
Today, Ms. Jacobs is one of a dozen trend forecasters in the worldwide operation of LPK, formerly known as Libby, Perszyk, Kathman Inc., a global brand design agency headquartered in downtown Cincinnati with offices here, and in London, Geneva, Singapore and Guangzhou, the third-largest Chinese city behind Beijing and Shanghai.
Last July, Ms. Jacobs became the company’s first chief insight and innovation officer.
Cincinnati is a long way from Birmingham, Alabama, where Ms. Jacobs was born and raised. Paris is even farther.
Jacobs remembers sitting in her tiny studio apartment near UC in 2000-2001 with a personal computer/printer setup that would print only three pages every half hour. She was producing little trend-forecasting books, and binding them by hand.
“I started realizing that was the field in which I wanted to work,” she recalls. “It was this idea that you could understand a movement that was yet to come, by sensing the signals that were out in the landscape.”
Her professor took the mini-books home to France for the holidays. When she returned, she quizzed Ms. Jacobs, a graduate student at DAAP. Before any interviews back in Paris would be arranged, the professor needed to see what Ms. Jacobs knew, and what she needed to know.
“Do you know what trend forecasting is?” the professor asked Ms. Jacobs.
The student began to regurgitate the principles she had learned about fashion forecasting from her studies of fashion design.
“No, Valerie, that’s not what trends are.”
Ms. Jacobs will never forget that conversation.
“She schooled me in a breakthrough kind of way,” Ms. Jacobs remembers.
And in recalling this, Ms. Jacobs has her “aha moment” of what it was the professor had seen in her.
“I don’t know—somehow I just flooded out these ideas of interconnectedness we would have in the future, almost like a web, and that it would be at all levels – physical, metaphysical and digital,” she remembers. “And that we’d have to build a life around recycling and revival; care for our resources.
“Then I started talking about biomimicry; that we’d be able to unlock solutions through looking at science. I talked about individualism. And that we were coming into a time where—no matter what or when—all these things would have to give us a better sense of protection and safety. And that by unlocking these things that we would be able to make sure that we could live on a healthy planet and sustain ourselves.
“I don’t know why, but that all come out of me. And it’s still inside of my brain—even though I wrote that little book in 2001. I look back on those things and I stand by every single one of those things.”
The interviews in Paris would change Ms. Jacobs’ life.
Why? Because until Ms. Jacobs went to Paris, she hadn’t yet experienced the external stimuli necessary to either confirm her suspicions that she was on the right track, or that there might be an employable future in it.
To the young graduate student, the names of Li Edelkoort (“the rock star of trend forecasting” in Ms. Jacobs’ words) and Nelly Rodi were bright lights in a sky of which she had no part. They were there to be admired.
Remember, this was in the early 2000s, a year or two before Time magazine named the Dutch-born Edelkoort one of its “Twenty Five Most Influential People in Fashion.”
Many trend forecasters, like Edelkoort and Rodi, emanate from the fashion world, forecasting having such a necessary place in fashion. But not all trend forecasters have their roots there. Another of Jacobs’ favorites dating back in her college days, Faith Popcorn, the New York City-based futurist, got her start in advertising.
Jacobs didn’t describe to me her feelings the day she walked into “Trend Union,” the trend-forecasting consultancy firm founded by Ms. Edelkoort in Paris in the late 1970s. But one can easily imagine it was an out-of-body experience, a combination of walking on air but with jangled nerves.
“I was sitting in an interview with a person at Trend Union,” Ms. Jacobs recalls, “and she asked me what I working on and I said, ‘Here’s my (mini-) book; it’s called ‘Sustenance and Continuance’—it’s about the sustainability issue… And she said, ‘Oh, our next issue is on sustainability.’
”And right then and there I said to myself, ‘I think I might know what I’m doing!’ That was a breakthrough for me. Here I was in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I just didn’t know if I knew what I was doing. Was I just making things up? Those interviews (in Paris) really gave me confidence. ‘If I’m doing this, and someone else in the world is thinking the same thing I’m thinking, and that someone is someone who I think is amazing, then maybe, just maybe, I should keep going with this.’ That’s what I thought.”
But it was still an act of faith for Ms. Jacobs to pursue it, because even though she now knew what she was doing, she didn’t know how she was doing it. All she was able to confirm in Paris was that she had the intuition for it. She already knew she had the passion for it; she didn’t need any confirmation of that. She was seeking a “process” in Paris, and never found it, not once.
“I asked every one (of those trend forecasters) I met in Paris, ‘How are you doing this? What’s your process?’ I mean, I was in design. And that’s what design school is, the creative process. How you get from here to there. And no would tell me! But it wasn’t like anybody said, ‘I won’t tell you.’ They’d just say, ‘There is no process.’ So just imagine the deepest French accent you possibly can: ‘There ees no pro-cess.’
“So it was a combination of me thinking I might know what I’m doing, but wait a minute, these people won’t tell me what they’re doing. But I just had the sense, ‘They’re doing something. Even if they won’t tell me. Even if they haven’t written it down as a ‘process,’ they’re doing something. Even if it’s just the way they live their lives, and the way they think about what’s happening to them. That’s something; they’re doing something.”
Basically, what was happening was that Ms. Jacobs was teaching herself—which is, says the great history writer David McCullough, the best way to learn, because it so hands-on; one feels one owns it.
And teaching trend forecasting at UC was also helpful, Ms. Jacobs says, because she was able to give voice to the process, interact with the students, and see what blossomed.
“I think that’s how I basically discovered,” Ms. Jacobs says, “that one could apply ‘the process’ to other areas and industries: beauty, family, moms and what they’re thinking, how they want to parent their children, the transportation industry. Trends are everywhere. You study the way things were and are, and how we believe they’ll be in the future."
LPK’s company history is easily accessible with a quick Google search, if a bit mind-blowing:
“In 1959, seven of its employees purchased the company, renaming it Studio Art Associates. During the 1960s and 1970s, the company, which had been renamed Cato Johnson Associates, opened offices in London, Brussels, Geneva, Paris, New York and Toronto. In 1975, Cato Johnson was acquired by advertising firm, Young & Rubicam, which continued to expand with eight global locations. In 1983, five Y&R employees (based in Cincinnati)—Mort Libby, Ray Perszyk, Jerry Kathman, Howard McIlvain and Jim Gabel—organized a leveraged buyout of the Cincinnati office and renamed the firm Libby, Perszyk, Kathman.”
The watershed moment, well-chronicled by Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Lance Lanbert back in 2013, went down like this: The men had been inspired to organize the buyout “when the New York marketing firm severed ties with client Procter & Gamble to do business with competitor Colgate instead.”
Among the major clients of LPK are P&G, Nestle, Kellogg’s, Coleman, Bayer, Beam Suntory and US Bank.
You won’t read in this profile about what it is exactly that LPK does for its clients. A fine piece on “Quartz” online (qz.com) in February 2015 comes as close one is going to get: “The exact projects they work on are confidential,” and “your relationships have to be tight—client service is a huge component of any agency.” Also: “The trend analysts regularly create five- and ten-year forecasts for clients, identifying large cultural movements and influences that will affect consumers’ lives.”
Until last July, LPK’s executive leadership was comprised of chief executive officer Kathman, chief creative officer Nathan Hendricks, global development officer John Recker, chief organizational officer Phil Best and chief financial officer Dennis Geiger. Hendricks is still CCO, but the new global officers, are: Sarah Tomes, CEO; Brent McCoy CFO, and Jacobs, in her newly created position of chief insight and innovation officer.
Kathman, who had been CEO since 1997 when Mort Libby retired, retains his title as chairman of the board. Geiger and Best continue to serve as board members advising the company’s performance in finance and operations.
This is all heady stuff for Ms. Jacobs, a former college marketing and public relations major.
Her first job out of college was in art, marketing and PR, but she later figured out the field in which she was actually working was “branding… even though it wasn’t called that back in the 1990s.” (Think “push” when you think “marketing”; think “pull” when you think “branding.” Pull as in “pull the customers in” with the reputation of the product or service; “push” it— market it—to get sales results. Branding precedes marketing. Branding is the expression of the essential value or truth about a product or a service.)
The story of how Ms. Jacobs “came to be” is worth hearing.
So here it is in full:
“I met a lot of graphic designers in that (first) job (out of college),” recalls Ms. Jacobs, “and I thought, ‘Wait, wow, this is the thing; I’m interested in (design)!’ After a lot of soul-searching, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I had always loved fashion, so I decided on fashion-design school. Well, it didn’t take me long to decide that I didn’t want to be a fashion designer.
“But, thank goodness, at the same time I discovered fashion forecasting. Fashion forecasting to me is at the root of where trend forecasting lives. (Fashion forecasting) is more of an aesthetic-type of practice in that it’s about people understanding colors and silhouettes and looking at runway trends.
“As I started understanding that, I discovered there was an even bigger thing that (the best) fashion forecasters and trend forecasters were doing: They were able sort of glean the spirit of the times—what’s called the zeitgeist—from fashion. This really personal way of expressing yourself often has a lot to do with what is going on society and culture.
“And so, this idea that trend forecasting wasn’t about stripes or polka dots or what was in or out. It is what people are thinking and feeling and how it is a reflection of broader idea, a cultural idea.
“That is when I really got excited.”
And Cincinnati is all the better for it.