Predicting the birth of the cool

Forget Nathan Barley: trend-spotters are respectable now. Sam Delaney meets the people at Lowe Counsel, plugged in to a global network of 500 very hip pioneers

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. Things move so much quicker these days."

Counsel can provide information far quicker from its élite band of trend-leaders. Most of them carry an arsenal of hi-tech communication devices, so they're always available to answer questions about, say, hats.

Certainly, the clients believe Counsel is consulting the right people. "The thing about Counsel is that they recruit so well," says Lisa Harris, the head of research for Yahoo!. "They speak to what we call the 'i-Generation'. They're the sort of people who tend to lead the way we live. In the past, I've worked with similar companies whose network has just been too cutting-edge. They're the people who invent new technologies and are so advanced that their habits won't hit the mainstream for four years. That's just scary."

Counsel knows that it lives or dies by the quality of the people in its network. "We have 500 people we consult," says co-founder Zoe Lazarus. "They're paid well because the people who know they're good know the information they give us is valuable."

Counsel also serves as Lowe's in-house "inspiration department", keeping creatives abreast of trends. Reactions have been mixed, says Lazarus. "Attitudes vary. Within an agency, some people are going to be more leading-edge than others. We acknowledge that the average creative is going to know a lot of stuff anyway, but they might not have the time to stay in touch constantly. In that sense, we provide a useful service."

A leading creative at a rival agency is sceptical about the need for such interference. "I'd hate it if someone in the office called me up once a week and said, 'Let's meet and talk about cool things.'" But Lazarus counters: "If you say to someone, 'Do you want to hear about some new ideas?' who is going to say no?"

How Counsel's hard work actually manifests itself is a grey area. "There are so many people involved in the process of creating an ad that we could never point to something and say we completely owned the idea," says Lazarus. "But the biggest satisfaction in this job is to come up with ideas that then get claimed by other people. And to provide people with information that helps their ideas evolve."

What does that actually mean? At O&M, Counsel's research tipped off Kodak that people would lose interest in printing photos, and the company altered its entire strategy. The marketing approach of American Express was changed by the discovery that consumers "now associate luxury with experiences rather than material goods".

It's rare, Counsel says, that it'll give a client a "bum steer" on trends. Friends are another matter: "We'll make stuff up to confuse mates all the time," Welch says. "Medieval Chic is always good. But Return of the Pube is true. That's happening right now." There's some baggage the trend-spotter will never shed.

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