Trend-spotters used to be known as cool hunters. Now they go by more serious names, such as 'consumer-behavioural consultants' or 'leading- edge cultural analysts'. But if you visit their websites (there are many), you'll find they usually avoid giving themselves any definition at all. Theirs, after all, is a vague business, and not one that can easily claim to do exactly what it says on the tin.
Even in a media context, trend-spotters are regarded as waffling chancers in three-quarter-length trousers who ride around their east London offices on micro scooters shouting: 'Kumquats might be big in 2007,' before hurling in a massive invoice.
So it's fair to say that they've had a slight image problem. But that's changing: as ad agencies become frustrated by the constraints traditional research puts on creativity, and clients seek new ways to stay ahead of the game, the trend-spotter's stock is rising. Also, the top trend-spotting companies have got their houses in order, applying far more rigour to their research.
One such, Counsel, has gained such credibility that it is now enshrined within a big advertising agency, Lowe Worldwide, as part of the planning department. No more Shoreditch loft-space: it has offices in Lowe's swanky South Kensington domain. And its success could sound the death knell for focus groups. 'We don't just identify trends,' says Counsel's co-founder Richard Welch. 'We analyse how they occur and how to harness them. We provide foresights.'
Conventional trend-spotters will scout every cultural hot-spot looking for what consumers are wearing, buying or listening to. They identify themes in consumer behaviour and report back to clients. The idea is that what cool kids in Tokyo are doing now, the less- cool kids in Croydon will be doing the year after next. And when the cash-rich mainstream gets hold of something, there's big money to be made.
It's a simple process, but one that presents a gamble to clients. Why should they base their strategies on the advice of people whose research is described as 'chatting on the phone to a pal who's DJing in Hamburg'?
Counsel has tried to find a more robust approach. A research presentation is less like watching Nathan Barley and more like walking into the sinister lab of a Bond baddie. There are graphs, charts and reams of text explaining the precise hopes, desires, thoughts and deeds of the world's 'leading edge' consumers. The information is garnered from a global network of 500 very cool people.
To big business, the information is invaluable. 'I think most international marketing innovations over the last few years have come from this kind of understanding,' says Tony Wright, Lowe's chief executive and the man who hired Counsel for his old agency, Ogilvy and Mather, then poached them when he switched companies.
'Traditional research offers a client comfort because of the cold hard numbers it provides,' Wright says. 'But it's a long and expensive process, and by the time a focus group report is finished the consumer trends it outlines no longer exist. …