Boffins beware. There is a new breed of market researchers, and they wouldn't be seen dead with a leaky biro in their top pockets.
Many of them were recruited fresh from university, but increasing numbers come with a broader range of life and work experience that is helping to dispel the stereotype of the market researcher as a narrow academic with little respect for creativity.
Between them, they are bringing new qualities to the marketplace inspired by a range of different influences, from nursing to nightclubs.
"We need to open our minds as to where potential stars come from," Kevin McLean, a partner at Wardle McLean, says. "Researchers have to be analytical and eternally curious as well as imaginative and creative. It's an unusual set of qualities."
THE TEAM PLAYER
Greg Rowland (35), Greg Rowland Ltd
"People in jobs like ours need to not be doing it the whole time," Rowland says. He accordingly puts in time as a contributing editor to The Idler and plays keyboards for jazz artists including Neneh Cherry.
When he is being a semiotician, Rowland works on brands including Pot Noodle, Lynx, Tango, Ford and PG Tips, on tasks such as new product development, script analysis and brand audits.
Patrick Cairns, the global brand director at Lux, says: "Greg is a vital member of the team. He brings unique insight and inspiration."
Rowland admits that he "loafed around" for a few years after Oxford University, pursuing his music and writing interests. He then trained for two years at Semiotic Solutions before setting up his own semiotics company in 1999.
He describes semiotics as "the analysis of brands within their popular cultural context to generate insights" but admits he plays "fast and loose" with the theory.
Jem Fucus & Alison Sydler (both 35), Firefish
For an ex-nurse and a former globetrotter-come-gravedigger, Sydler and Fucus have had a formidable impact on the market research industry.
They set up Firefish in 2000 and quickly established a reputation for innovative research methods and an affinity with contemporary culture.
For Richard Butterworth, the joint planning director at BMP DDB: "They are sensitive enough to understand what brands are about."
This year, Firefish has set up two new divisions: Firefilms, which aims to bring research to life by filming youth around the world, and Fisheye, a separate unit that assesses sponsorship and below-the-line activity.
Favourite projects include following up Budweiser's sponsorship of Glastonbury, which necessitated attending the entire event and talking to anyone that looked interesting.
Other Firefish clients include Lucozade, Ribena, Durex, Volkswagen and Reebok. They are currently doing a lot of work with the BBC, gauging reaction to on-air promotions and attitudes to the new free-to-air digital package.
Sarah Castell (27), project director, Flamingo International
Castell is already contributing original thinking to the industry, particularly in the field of socio-linguistics, and has attracted attention for her enthusiasm and dynamism.
Since joining the Flamingo team in 1996, Castell has worked extensively on Levi's across Europe, and has recently been running brand clinics for Eurostar. "I am moving towards working in partnership with clients, doing brand consultancy," she says.
She also wants to develop her interest in ethical fields. "I worked on the NSPCC recently and I would like to do more work with charities. I also enjoy looking at corporate social responsibility - people are buying into brands in a new way," she adds.
Castell is currently finishing a paper about the decline in influence of US culture on young Europeans.
Helen Weavers, the joint planning director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says: "Sarah is a talented and far-reaching thinker with an individual intelligence and insight."
THE FAST WORKER
Justin Clouder (33), independent
Clouder has made a name for himself in the past year by taking on urgent, challenging briefs.
He started as a planner at Saatchi & Saatchi, then moved to Ogilvy, M&C Saatchi, BBC Worldwide and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, but his restless nature means he is happier working for himself.
"I didn't realise I would be a researcher when I set up on my own," he says, "but I love thinking about things in a different way and injecting ideas into the process. I have no formal training, so I'm pretty freeform and I do things really fast: all I need is a ten-minute phone brief, then I'll do a group the same night and write up my findings at 3am, so that they are ready to be used the next day."
Katy Lancaster, a planning partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/ Y&R, says: "Justin has the ability to look beyond the obvious and takes an original, intellectual approach to problem solving." THE INTELLECTUAL
Karen Elstein (34), researcher, Sadek Wynberg Research
Elstein, a maths and philosophy graduate, originally went into qualitative research because she was told it was a good backdoor route to becoming a planner.
Now, however, she would not swap her job for life in an agency. "I like the outsider position you have as a researcher," she says, "and the variety of projects you get to work on."
Elstein already has a reputation as a rigorous intellect who is not afraid to express her opinions, and enjoys tackling the big international logistical problems of clients such as Unilever.
One of Elstein's greatest challenges was an audit of the Great Ormond Street brand, for which she had to get her head round the complexity of the entire NHS system and gain credibility with everyone from doctors to bureaucrats. "It felt good to do something worthy," she reflects.
THE IDEAS MAN
Richard Atkinson (29), research director, 2CV
While researching his PhD in youth culture, Atkinson spent so much time hanging around with 2CV and taking notes at focus groups that in the end they had to start paying him.
He is now a real star. Neil Hourston, the head of planning at TBWA/London, says: "Richard comes up with ideas that continue to be inspirational long after a project is finished."
Atkinson has done a lot of work with PlayStation and with ROAR, the ongoing youth research project run by Channel 4, The Guardian, Emap and OMD.
"2CV's ethos is to do things we're interested in. I love understanding how companies work while being at liberty to do things like going into people's homes and clubbing abroad," Atkinson says.