It was another enthralling Friday night in the middle of April and I was having one of my (correct me if I'm wrong Stephan...) a 3 hour phone call talking about everything that we "weren't" achieving during lockdown. There were mentions of overindulgence in our culinary creations, late night media indulgences and how we see our beauty and perfume industry changing under the new world that we were experiencing.
So I suggested to my dear friend Stephan Matthews, let us do something a little bit different. Why don't we simply for fun, change our roles. I have been interviewed a lot in my career and Stephan has interviewed multiple times over. So, let's switch ! And we did. I asked the questions and Stephan answered. Want to read ?
Stephan, how strange is this! A brand is asking the questions, does it feel strange to be on the flip-side of the industry microscope?
It does feel very strange. I spend most of my time asking companies that I work with endless questions, so it does feel a little daunting to be on the other side.
So, before we start, it’s probably quite important to state that while we’ve become friends, your reviews of Jonathan Ward products remain legitimately impartial, unsolicited and never prompted or paid for. Is this a typical industry standard for genuine product reviews?
There are three types of reviewers and influencers. The first is the one that writes about what they like and won’t be beholden to anyone. The second lives for the free product dropping through the door and will always praise it so that they get another one. The third is paid to write whatever is asked of them for a mutually agreed fee. Everyone is free to make their own decision about which route to take, and will have their own reasons, but I just wish they would be honest about it.
You and I often talk about the blurred line between advertising and social media product promotion. I just wanted to ask you, do you think consumers are fully briefed on the differences between the two worlds? And are industry guidelines upheld?
I think that consumers are switched on enough to realise that a casually placed product in the back of a celebrity photograph has probably been put there deliberately, for a generous fee. The issue comes with the smaller influencers, bloggers, and reviewers. There isn’t always a lot of transparency about where their product came from, which would lead on to the question of why they’re reviewing it, and this is when consumers can be fooled into thinking that they’re reading an impartial opinion. It’s very easy to say that a product or a sample was provided by a company, and this doesn’t negate the review, but it’s still the case that not everyone does it.
With genuine respect to our current reality, distraction and busyness have been replaced with a shrewder lens on our shortcomings. Do you feel that your lens has shifted towards a different vision?
It’s made me question the way the beauty industry responds in times of crisis. Many brands decided to capitalise on the situation with, in my opinion, exploitative campaigns that were based around and built upon the public’s continuing fear. Only after some of these had been questioned, and they realised the negative impact they would have, did they try and back-pedal with generous donations. How this will affect them long term is still to be seen, because customers often choose which parts of a company’s history and behaviour to remember and which to forget.
Do you feel that expressing yourself in an entirely truthful way throughout your social content has yielded positive results? Have industry fellows rebuked or embraced a non-wallflower voice.
I never try and be anything other than myself. I’ve never been paid for a review and I’ve never gone down the route of affiliate links, because generating income off the backs of readers feels a little grubby to me. It’s for this reason that I’d like to think I’ve got a reputation for being an honest reviewer. I always say when a product has been sent to me for free, and I’m always clear to companies that it doesn’t guarantee a review, but I’ll always feedback privately if it isn’t featured.
Times are most definitely changing. If you could only choose one thing to change about our industry over others, what would you plump for?
I would love to see more perfumers getting the recognition for the work that they do. Many brands now list them in their marketing material, from Jo Malone London right through to Fragonard, but others prefer to take the credit themselves. There’s no shame in being a creative director, but share the spotlight with the perfumer rather than taking their limelight.
You seem to have a penchant for pinpointing strong brands in their formative stages, how do you navigate your search and choices?
I don’t wait for them to come to me, I go out and find them, but I also take recommendations from readers. If you remember, that’s how we were first introduced. If you simply rely on companies to approach you then you’re just one of a long list of people that they are contacting. This is still a wonderful way to hear about new brands, but it should run alongside your own investigation as well. I also always try to speak with owners as soon as possible because it often tells you whether their ideals align with your own.
What would be the most singularly defining piece of advice that you would give to emerging brands, wide eyed, excited and fresh out of the gate?
Take a breath, and then take another one. It’s human nature to be anxious to start a new project but you have to make sure that all of your groundwork is in place from the beginning. How much does everything cost? Can you afford to take a salary? What is unique about your product? And, most important, check that the company name you want to use is available. Having to rebrand further down the line is a nightmare, and I’ve had to do it for clients too many times, so make sure that you own your name.
With all your industry knowledge, passion and know how, were you ever enticed over the journalistic lines into creating a product or brand of your own?
The closest that I’ve ever got, and want to get, was having to make the final decision on which fragrance a company should release from four submissions. It had gone around in circles for weeks, and we liked them all, but I ended up with the casting vote. The fragrance did very well, thankfully, but it was a huge responsibility. I do have my own fragrance that was made for me in Grasse, but it’s just for me. So no, you won’t be seeing Eau de Stephan any time soon.
You advise brands at varying levels of the beauty industry. Is it frustrating when brands ignore your advice?
It’s not that it’s frustrating, but more that you can see the derailment coming before the train has even left the station. The amount of work that goes into taking a single product to market is huge, and so for them to almost sabotage their own plans with an ill thought out decision is a real shame. You wouldn’t believe how many times entire launches have changed off the back of an owner saying “my friend thinks...”
Tell me. Look back through the avalanche of mistakes that brands have made, what would be the most cringeworthy moment (putting your hand to your mouth and shouting “NO, don’t do that!”) that a brand has made?
Oh there are too many to choose from, and I’d probably get a serious rap over the knuckles if I wrote any of them down, but let’s just say that part of my job does tend to include periods of damage limitation.
Ending on a positive note. What is your personal message of positivity when you’re having a gloomy day or battling self-doubt?
I have a very good friend who lives on an olive farm in the South of France and she once said to me, “Stay true to your own voice and trust in what you do.” It’s the most important piece of advice that I’ve ever been given, and one that I still follow to this day.