Even a data evangelist like Gutsche admits his clients are looking for more than numbers. Until last year, what Trend Hunter sold was access to its analytics platform, providing users with a personal dashboard that allowed them to explore patterns and see how individual ideas were faring. But clients were requesting someone to tell them what the data and patterns meant.

Back then, the massive number of website hits Trend Hunter logged translated into significant advertising revenues, but the bottom fell out of the banner ad market in the fourth quarter of 2013. “We had an ad agency that once paid us $1 million a year, and we’ll make $50,000 from them this year,” Gutsche explains. “Trend Hunter was looking at its first loss, which would have been $700,000.” Facing questions about the sustainability of its business model, Trend Hunter added an advisory arm, helmed by president Shelby Walsh. Named one of Marketing magazine’s 2013 Top 30 Under 30, Walsh had joined the company in 2009 fresh from university; she was previously a scriptwriter and editor for the website. Just 26 years old, Walsh is the person clients call when they have research questions they want Trend Hunter to answer.

After a period without any new sales, Trend Hunter signed up two brands in one month, five the following month and a dozen the next. As of October of this year, the company had about a hundred clients. If the platform identifies what consumers are searching for, then Walsh’s team of advisers tries to answer the question at the heart of all market research: Why? That’s where things get less scientific.

Soberman believes real-world smarts are a vital skill for anyone trying to explain and interpret customer behaviour. “The number one thing you need is experience in the actual universe,” he notes. “And you also need to have some understanding of how business works.” Gutsche certainly has experience in the corporate world, having spent time as a management consultant at Monitor Group after completing his MBA at Queen’s University and having built a billion-dollar portfolio for Capital One Canada. (“Which sounds great on your resumé, but if I was talking to my 12-year-old self, I’d have to say, ‘Hey, you grew up to be a banker,’” he jokes.) He says Trend Hunter’s client advisers are company veterans, editors who have published thousands of articles and, perhaps most important, are young enough to identify with the audiences that brands are hoping to reach.

“When we write our reports, we try to think about why,” Gutsche explains. “We use our patterns to think about the social influence causing them.” But Trend Hunter’s advisers are not trained data scientists or psychologists, so while their conclusions might be based on a sound data foundation, they’re ultimately the product of deduction and intuition. That sounds awfully like the kind of “gut instinct” Gutsche is fond of railing against.

‘The guru, that’s our competition,’ says Gutsche. ‘We believe in the power of the crowd’

The Globe and Mail once called Gutsche an “oracle,” and he has all the hallmarks of a public intellectual. But Gutsche waves aside suggestions that he’s become something of a guru himself. “The guru, that’s our competition, and we believe in the power of the crowd,” he says.

Who the crowd consists of may present another problem for data believers. The cool hunters of the 1990s focused on the increasingly individualistic generations X and Y, and the audience from which Internet-based research dredges its data skews young as well. “When you start looking at the people who are active online, they tend to be demographically younger, much more electronically active than the average in the population, more educated,” notes Soberman. Companies may be keen to target those kinds of customers, but the concern remains that consumer insights are being based on a self-selecting audience of young people. It’s not quite the know-everything-about-everyone promise of big data.

In this way, we might not have come all that far from those late-century cool hunters after all. “There’s definitely an art to it—you need to have an eye for recognizing what’s different and popping,” says Jones, whose firm, unlike Trend Hunter, still does the kind of street interviews Gladwell was writing about. “You’ve got to know how to spot the cool kids.”

Trendera and Trend Hunter share some corporate clients, including Target. That’s par for the course in the market research industry, because every firm offers something slightly different. At $24,000 a year, Trend Hunter absorbs a miniscule fraction of the marketing and product-development budget at most major corporations. “For a company like Samsung, this is a no-brainer,” says Soberman. “This is definitely something you’d buy, because the price point is pretty low. If I’m a small entrepreneur, a two-person startup in Toronto, it may be a somewhat different question.”

Read: How Small Businesses can Afford Big Data

Perhaps companies are motivated by a trend that is just as rooted in the Internet age as big data: fear of missing out. No brand wants to be the one that failed to ride a consumer wave because it wasn’t willing to spend the equivalent of a rounding error in research costs. “If your approach is to just buy a bunch of reports to see what’s going on in the marketplace, that’s not as likely to get you a return on your market research dollars as a specific need,” says Robert Rubenstein, who spent three decades in the market research business at Canadian corporate heavyweights Molson Breweries and TD Canada Trust before recently founding his own startup, Horizn. “There has to be a concrete project or objective that leads you to at least the hope of profitability, as opposed to jumping on a bandwagon.”

Gutsche believes Trend Hunter’s offerings stand out in a crowded field. “Most of these companies will subscribe to all sorts of different trend services that have been feeding them trends for decades,” he notes. “The word ‘trend’ is almost ruined in a way, because they’re just overwhelmed by information.

“Everybody is telling them everything, so we’re kind of like a chaos filter.”

This feature is from the December 2014 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

Read: 5 Consumer Trends to Watch

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