Thursday, 21 October 2010

M/M Interview with Trevor Butterworth

Image of Trevor Butterworth provided by Trevor Butterworth. All rights reserved.


This exclusive interview with acclaimed Irish journalist and writer Trevor Butterworth was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in New York, New York October 2010


What do you think of the current wave of over-hyped mass blogging? And the impact, if any, particularly to world news organisations, financial industries and the retail luxury goods sector?

Actually, I think blogging has lost its “we’re taking over the media” vibe: It’s hard to keep doing unless there’s a tangible benefit, either in terms of audience feedback or business exposure. In fact, according to Technorati, some 95 percent of blogs launched are quickly abandoned, while blogging, as an activity among 18-24 year olds has halved.

For the traditional media, blogging has settled down into a form of column writing, a little bit looser than the formal newspaper op-ed or column, and more of a conversation that has the potential to evolve through reader interaction – unless your readers are knuckleheads who simply show up to rant. Blogging, at least in the U.S., was, I think, also a stylistic rebellion against the form and content of the mainstream media – and the formulas by which they produced news and opinion. It was overdue. The U.S. media were (and still are, in many respects) ferocious fuddy-duddies when it comes to creativity. They had their way of doing things – and there was no other way. This was compounded by an utter lack of historical understanding of journalism, media, and how they evolved over time. The American press thought they had reached the “end of history,” and that form and content were fixed. Wrong. Silly.

Similarly, the idea of blogging as something instantaneous became redundant when it became possible to microblog. Just as blogging forced a rethink of traditional forms of content in the news media, Twitter and Tumblr forced a rethink of the point of the blogging form. The mobile web and tablets will play with the form content takes in ways that won’t be immediately obvious until tested for several years too.

For the luxury goods market, I think the sponsored forum is more useful than blogging. For example, various watch manufacturers sponsor dedicated forums for their brands on collector/enthusiast sites such as www.timezone.com and www.watchuseek.com. This is a great way for any company to create a conversation about their product among their most fervid fans. There seem to be two models for how this works: in the first, the company steps back and doesn’t directly engage in the conversation; in the second, they actively participate. For example, when the charismatic Jean Claude Biver took over Hublot and relaunched the brand around the Big Bang watch, he aggressively reached out online to fans of his previous work at Blancpain – and even solicited ideas for the name of the watch from the Timezone.com community. He organized small dinners with collectors all around the world, in part, through starting with watch geeks online. It was a strategy that seems to have really propelled the revamped Hublot toward success.

What I think this shows is that social media is at its most powerful when it’s parochial – when it attends to the passions and interests of communities. They certainly care about “craft.” Otherwise, get your product onto a celebrity – as Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, told me once, whenever a high-end luxury item gets taken up by a celebrity, the store is mobbed. They’re less concerned with “craft.”

The key, I think, is to remember the wisdom of the Enlightenment: “Style is the image of character.” The American news media was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of a writer’s voice – and had been ideologically committed to impersonality in writing. The result, at its worst, was prose so bland it made reading an unpleasant experience; even in better examples, it pretended to a god’s eye view of the world which often sounded false; people were ready to read other people, not robo-prose. The technology started a revolution in content. All revolutions settle down after a while and adapt.

The key problem with the idea of blogging, as I noted in the Financial Times, was that it was the closest literary culture had come to instant obsolescence. If you really wanted to write well and create something of lasting value, it meant you needed to labor over your work, to ruminate and revise, which the blog form discouraged. But now, say with True/Slant’s reincarnation on Forbes, we’re seeing blogging serve the goal of writing more than writing serving the goal of blogging, which, to me, is a positive development.

With brands that blog, the phrase style is character still applies. If you aren’t passionate about what you do in a way that sounds human and exciting, don’t blog.


Do you perceive any tangible benefits internationally from social media translating to actual business numbers?

One very early example of social media serves as a template for possibility. The son of the Platinum Pen Company in Japan wanted to save the skills of two retiring employees that had spent their lives at Platinum. So he started a small fountain pen company, Nakaya. The unique selling point is that they would be entirely made by hand, using Urushi (Japanese lacquer techniques), and each pen would be adjusted to the hand pressure and writing style of the customer, based on an extensive list of questions. Nakaya attended the pen fares at major Japanese retail stores, but sold little. But then an American fountain pen collector, who was in Japan as a missionary and puppeteer, bought one of their pens, and wrote a glowing review on an obscure pen web site. The collector’s market was intrigued; the enthusiast’s excited by the idea of a nib customized to the way the individual wrote; the prices were affordable and the customer service was superlative. Within a few years, the retirees were working seven days a week to meet demand. And Nakaya still hadn’t spent a dollar in advertising.


The financial markets have shown there has clearly been a drop in ethical operating standards, business model quality and production standards in retail across the board at even the highest levels of American business. What do you think has been the basis of this short of greed?

Actually, there are many complicated factors involved in outsourcing or reducing quality – and while shareholder expectations is one, you need to examine other things. One of the changes that has bothered me in the U.S. is the disappearance of the traditional lambswool sweater in the $50 to $100 dollar range and its replacement with poor-quality cotton at the $60 price point and “cashmere” at the $200 plus price point. I would have thought greed on the part of the chain stores as the explanation until, that is, I mentioned this peeve on a date with a textile designer. She said tariffs on imports of raw wool had killed the market (and her job): it was cheaper to import the finished product from overseas rather than the raw material and make it here. Now maybe that’s not the only reason, but before you blame the free market, check and see whether it’s truly free.

While there is a diminution in quality (and the explosion in “vintage” is a market response in large part because the quality/cost ratio is excellent), I do think that the Internet has facilitated the resurgence of craft by lowering the marketing costs. Plus, the Internet has made the concept of authenticity highly prized. But I could talk about this for hours.


As for high-end business embracing social media in an attempt to draw clientele especially in the luxury goods sector, and their concurrent expansion of high-end retail businesses in Asia proof positive that it has succeeded or all but failed as a business model?

It’s clear that the expansion of markets in Asia has offset the recession’s effects in the U.S. and Europe, especially for watches. But also look at the speciality publication market in, say, Japan: they are super enthusiasts! The use of the mobile web is also highly developed in Japan.


On the issue of mass bloggers, where any gun for hire can blog for another (and such people tend to band together in groups,) it appears that many advertisers and PR firms for the media including high-end businesses have attempted to embrace this genre, and the resultant level of available free advertising most so-called bloggers are willing to supply. What impact does this have to the end game?


What is the value of any form of social media in terms of advertising of goods and services to the consumer if such an endorsement is directly tied to a firm or client?

I’m going to answer both of these questions together…

This is an interesting question. I’m not sure I have a complete answer, or that a complete answer is available. What I think it comes back to is the principle of Style equaling character. Everyone in the media over here has focused on Tavi Gevinson as the face of fashion blogging, but – and no disrespect to her creativity (or her preternatural sophistication) – I think she is limited by her age in terms of influence. Simply put, her character hasn’t had time to age, evolve, and this will leave visitors who aren’t in her age bracket with the feeling that her style is inherently tentative. Time will tell if she’s going to be a new Daphne Guinness or Isabella Blow; but, in the meantime, I think what’s happening with the older fashion bloggers – on sites like Blooming Leopold, The Coveted and The Clothes Horse (all of which I found through browsing communities on Flickr) – more interesting from a marketing standpoint. Yes, some of the gals who run these kinds of sites clearly accept small gifts from advertisers; but they’ve just as clearly established their passion for fashion in a way that disarms the charge that they’re just flacks or on the make. They use the Internet and blogging to create community; they trade in identity (their style); and they do so in a way where overt marketing wouldn’t work as well as consensus building. There’s an authentic, organic feel to what they’re doing, which is why, I think, they are a potentially powerful constituency, especially for smaller brands that mightn’t have the budgets for getting into the big fashion mags. Plus, it’s the kind of media where a few freebies are tolerated – are recognized as rewards for being such an energetic blogger of fashion. If a freebie formed the basis of every single post, credibility would disappear; everyone gets that, I think. Just as everyone “gets” that the “real” fashion press is swimming in such favors.

What I find fascinating about fashion blogging is the implicit or explicit creation of a lifestyle bigger and deeper than the clothes. It’s the personality of the blogger, and that while they may blog alone, they live in a community. Sometimes they’re alone; sometimes they confess their unhappiness; sometimes they are filled with the joy of friendship and family. They have all the authentic narratives that fashion spreads in magazines can only pay homage to. They are living stories.

One of the most extraordinary lifestyle blogs is Niotillfem, by the 27-year old Swedish copywriter Sandra Beijer. She has made her life – the food she cooks, the places she goes, the friends she has, and the clothes she wears a brilliant, cohesive work of curation that is accessible, organic, authentic and yet, absurdly glamorous. It’s like the Swedish version of the “Bright Young People” (the British social network of the 1920s) but more wholesome (if you ignore their smoking). You can’t confect this sort of style; you just want to be a part of it – even if you know that the camera lies a little bit, and life is never really that beautiful. But it should be - shouldn’t it? Seeing is a form of believing.

Again, how important is authenticity to your brand versus mass sales? If the former, you’ll be pretty thrilled that Ms Beijer is very excited to be wearing your brand – and has chosen to do so independently. Can you influence her – and the people that follow her without robbing her of her authenticity? That may be a marketing problem that’s too subtle to solve. It may simply be the icing on the cake, the endorsement of those with vibrant, confident style that convince you what you’re producing and marketing is right.

If you just need eyeballs and mass sales, you’ll prefer the flashier gossip bloggers as places to advertize or endow with free product. You’ll also risk the downside of being associated with sleaze.

While there doesn’t appear to be a freebie culture on Timezone, the fact that several brands allow one of the moderators – Michael Sandler – to photograph their watches is a powerful consensus building tool – because the results give collectors a far better sense of what the watches look like than, bizarrely, the promo literature. Several brands – Sinn (recently profiled by Monocle magazine), Bremont, and Bell and Ross have done this. Given that dealers for the two first brands are few in the U.S., this sort of outreach helps to give people the confidence to buy online from an approved retailer or the company themselves. Twenty people each buying a $5,000 dollar watch on the strength of a fanboy’s photo is not to be sniffed at if you’re a small, boutique company.


About Trevor Butterworth
 
Trevor Butterworth is an Irish journalist and writer who has lived in the United States since 1993 and presently resides in Brooklyn. Currently, he writes a weekly column for Forbes.com called "Medialand," which covers all aspects of our mediated environment from style to technology; he also contributes to the Financial Times, for which he has profiled writers such as Tom Wolfe and the late Louis Auchincloss; he has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications on a wide variety of cultural and scientific topics; and he has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR and the BBC. He edits STATS.org, a non-partisan, non-profit project affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia that examines the way statistics and science are used in public policy and the media.


He received his BA and M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin, attended Georgetown University on a graduate scholarship, and received an MS from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he also received the school's Sevellon Brown Award for outstanding knowledge of the history of American press.


The above interview with Trevor Butterworth 2010 © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. -