oy, do we love the watch world! Ever since the 1920s, we have covered all its evolutions, changes of direction, profound upheavals and smaller adaptations. And yet this industry is giving us, as specialised journalists, an increasingly hard time. More and more, we have the impression that it’s a one-way relationship, when in fact each party should respect the role of the other.
The temptation is always higher to turn journalists into sales specialists rather than information specialists. A form of domination on the one hand, and complacency on the other, too often serves as a modus vivendi between watch brands and journalists today. The problem is that this dynamic is now failing everyone.
Watch brands, in an attempt to make up for the “lost time” of the pandemic, are releasing numerous new products. The media are falling over themselves to disseminate these novelties, while they are themselves threatened by a historic crisis that is lowering their funding to levels of existential danger. This race against the clock is dangerous for everyone. The dialogue between watchmakers and the specialised media would gain by being based on a more respectful foundation, with the role of journalists not perceived as being merely an extension of the marketing department.
The temptation is always higher to turn journalists into sales specialists rather than information specialists.
Today, the work of specialist journalists is all too often simply taken for granted. Can you imagine: they do it for free! The principle of reciprocity honours those whose work ethic extends beyond the tip of their own noses, who understand that the media cannot function without some mutual support.
But it must also be made clear, contrary to a generally accepted (and too often internalised) idea, that a media outlet must not write only about its advertisers. The more a medium is open to the entire watchmaking ecosystem, the more total added value it will offer. When Richard Mille or Max Büsser started, nobody really knew them; they could not have emerged without the support of independent media, which do not only write about their advertisers. They have created enormous added value for the whole industry. New players of this kind are certainly not among the traditional advertisers. But their work will ultimately benefit everyone.
Back to basics
How did we arrive at this state of impoverishment? Ever since the watch industry was invaded by the new codes of luxury, a controlled and technocratic language (carefully calculated to sell “emotion” and “authenticity”), often conveyed in a robotic manner by a swiftly rotating staff, has taken precedence over the freer speech of those who made watchmaking the success it is today by deconstructing and reinventing it without any of these studied airs.
Today, communication is synonymous with information, and the appearance of numerous outlets that observe no critical distance from the subjects they are reporting on has further distorted the relationship between journalists and watchmakers. Yet, words have a meaning. And we must be honest: there has not been enough resistance to this blurring of lines, as the media has become increasingly dependent on the sheer goodwill of the brands. Gradually, our raw passion has succumbed to reason, as if we were accountants frightened by each quarterly budget, instead of journalists. Under financial pressure, we have internalised the PR agencies’ marketing jargon and adopted it as our own.
The debate is not about digital vs. print but about added value: what’s the point of reaching a larger number of readers if it’s just to serve up the same banal thoughts?
Journalism, whether it’s done with a goose feather, a pen, a typewriter or a smartphone, stands on the same foundations: critical thinking, synthesis, finding links. Yes, we can switch to digital. But if the content offers no added value, the result will be the same. What’s the point of reaching a larger number of readers if it’s just to serve up the same banal thoughts?
It is not about being negative or positive, but of following what is happening, when what is happening is a game-changer. Unfortunately, the coverage of this crisis shows how much damage has been done to any remnant of critical thinking, when it should be a daily sacrament for specialist media facing the constant threat of proximity curdling into collusion. It is in times of crisis that journalists bring their greatest added value, through their ability to decode and to offer perspective.
Where is the frontline?
Brands take the place of the media, when the media do not offer enough real added value. This is what is happening all too often and is further blurring the line between information and communication. This ultimately harms the entire watchmaking ecosystem.
An analogy: by becoming retailers themselves, brands have weakened established representatives, while assuming all the risks associated with the fixed costs of a boutique. Today, as stores around the world are closed due to the pandemic, the retail brands are suffering more than if they had just done what they really know how to do: watches. And the resilience of the historical representatives has been weakened by the emergence of boutiques of the very brands they represented. As a result, the entire ecosystem is weakened.
A formidable quest for sense and purpose
What can the specialist media do? The strength of a media is its readers. These readers are customers. So let’s sell them watches rather than information. Specialised media are moving from being extensions of watch marketing departments, to being extensions of their sales divisions. Today, too many “PR specialists” no longer understand that the role of the media is not to sell watches. It is also a problem of the digital age, with an irrepressible urge for immediate ROI. And without enough funding, the media do what they can to get through.
Just as too many watch retailers have lost their value as curators, by becoming mere delivery companies today (something Amazon can do just as well), too many journalists are abandoning their role as curators of information. The watchdogs have become toothless lapdogs. And this comes precisely at the very moment when watchmaking has lost its utilitarian value and faces a Herculean quest for meaning and purpose. The independent media must accompany the industry through this historic transition, which, to succeed, must be based on a deep and transparent questioning of its fundamental assumptions.
This situation is damaging for the entire watch world, as customers are losing confidence both in the credibility of what brands tell them and what the specialist media write. If the intention was to convince, it has failed. An industry that no longer respects alternative visions is an industry in a state of weakness and insecurity.
Without a clear distinction between communication and information, both the brands and the specialist media lose credibility with end customers.
The task of keeping this unique treasure – watchmaking – alive, and helping it to thrive, is one we all share. What if we could restore a little of the respect we have lost for each other? This should begin with respect for everyone’s role: the watchmaker, the journalist and the retailer. It is high time to re-evaluate the mission and role of the specialist media within the global watchmaking ecosystem. A healthier, more transparent and more balanced relationship must be established. The watch industry will be all the better for it, in the new world that is taking shape around the regenerated values emerging from the coronavirus crisis.
Because we love this industry and all the characters who make it what it is, we will continue to probe the wounds every once in a while, and it might sting a little. Not out of malice, but because we care.
Our next edition will be devoted to the theme of resilience.