PHOTO BY: INA ZABEL
Managing director Rupert Wild on experience and insight.
On makers and media. On the luxury of beauty and the
beauty of luxury. And on the future, which not even he can
predict. But which he does want to shape.
Mr Wild, your firm goes by the name of WHITE Communications – that’s a very wide-ranging term. How would you explain what your agency does to an outsider?
RUPERT WILD: We’re a communications agency that’s active in the high-end luxury and premium market; we look after brands from the fashion, beauty and lifestyle segments.
Look after …
R.W.: … means two things: first, we do the PR work for the luxury brands we’re entrusted with. That involves coming up with strategies, supplying editors of lifestyle publications with information, photos and videos, that sort of thing. The second area consists of media planning for campaigns and something we call “buying”. Basically, that means negotiating with business partners as to what context we’ll be placed in and what it costs.
And are print media still the top priority?
R.W.: Two years ago I would definitely have said yes, absolutely. But today the forces at play have shifted, in some cases very substantially. As far as luxury brands are concerned, print advertising certainly still leads the field, alongside digital media and influencer marketing. Fashion and lifestyle magazines have always been very popular – especially with luxury consumers. But online media have made huge gains – in our order books too. The print media themselves all publish online editions nowadays, some of which even have their own editorial team. Things have changed since the early days: the internet is no longer a dumping ground for all the topics the editors don’t want in the paper edition. Nowadays the online version is at least just as important as the printed parent magazine. The online edition often has more readers than the print issue …
… and it’s faster too.
R.W.: That’s true, but speed isn’t really all that important to us. It’s the quality of the media presence that matters most. Although having said that, it’s really incredible how quickly things go round on the internet, especially in blogs.
How important is this new blogger and influencer scene for you?
R.W.: Very important, it’s grown in leaps and bounds.
Do the dreaded style bloggers in the luxury and fashion segment really have as much power and influence as we keep hearing?
R.W.: Dreaded – that was your word, not mine! Personally, I respect what they do rather than being afraid of them. Most of these bloggers and influencers are extremely competent and have very keen instincts when it comes to their opinions and assessments. You can tell how seriously they’re taken nowadays from the fact that they’re seated in the front row at fashion shows, next to the established editors-in-chief of fashion magazines. That would have been unthinkable in the past. You could say they’re the industry’s new stars.
So the industry respects them, but do they shape buyers’ opinions as well?
R.W.: The buyers have an open-minded attitude towards them and definitely see them as a source of inspiration – in the sense that they welcome diversity of opinion. Having said that, the scene has its black sheep too, people who cheat in terms of the quality and quantity of their followers. You have to watch out for them.
Back to WHITE: are media planning and PR two separate things or are they interlinked?
R.W.: Some of our clients only use the services of our media department. And others realise the added value they stand to gain if they entrust us not just with their advertising strategy but with their PR as well.
Does being an advertising customer make your PR work with the publisher’s editorial staff easier?
R.W.: Once, when I wanted to “sell” a certain luxury theme to an editor at (German daily) FAZ, I subtly hinted that the company concerned ran ads in his publication. To which he politely replied that, as an editor, he couldn’t care less who advertised in his newspaper. Even so, editorial independence from the owner of the publication – which many publishers used to consider sacrosanct – has declined drastically. Nowadays publishers are more likely to contemplate offering companies that book advertising space a bit of “editorial content”. And that’s where the two things are interlinked, as you called it. Which is not without its practical advantages for us as an agency.
How do advertising strategies for online publications compare to those for print media? Is it the same game, just on a different playing field, or do new rules apply online?
R.W.: The first rule of good media planning is the same everywhere, regardless of the medium: we want to reach the target audience. But how? Nowadays, the online sector offers totally different possibilities as compared to classic magazine advertising, where a spread in VOGUE is the measure of all things. Five or six years ago, when we sensed that something breathtakingly new was heading our way, we rose to the challenge and set up our own, very competent online unit. The people who run it know exactly what they’re doing. There was one thing we learned pretty quickly: the old rule that the internet and luxury are mutually exclusive has ceased to apply. Especially when it comes to young people, brand consciousness is heavily influenced by online usage habits.
“Most bloggers are extremely competent and have
very keen instincts when itcomes to their opinions
and assessments. You can tell how seriously
they’re taken nowadays from the fact that they’re
seated in the front row at fashion shows, next to
the likes of Anna Wintour, editor in-chief of
So what can online do that print can’t?
R.W.: There’s a certain target-group-oriented technology that can deliver incredible benefits if you know how to use it. I’m talking about what we call ad server systems. Let me give you an example: we want to reach a certain group of people who are interested in fashion, let’s say male white-collar workers aged about 30. You can set the system up so that an advertising banner on GQ, STERN ONLINE or whatever portal you like is only ever shown when somebody who belongs to this particular group really is on the relevant website at that particular moment. You could say he’s effectively getting a personal presentation.
Do you use market research to zero in on your target groups as well?
R.W.: Of course, at least in the early stages. But there too, certain server systems from e.g. Google or Facebook do some of the work for us in terms of minimising wastage.
Does that mean classic market research has had its day?
R.W.: Absolutely not, it’s just as essential as ever. It’s vital for me to know which target group I’m actually trying to reach with my brand. We collaborate very closely with Sinus in Heidelberg. The company provides extremely reliable information – not just about the consumers’ social class or regional background, but about their milieu, as they call it. In this day and age, segmentation based only on the classic parameters (i.e. age, family status, income, lower, middle or upper class) just isn’t enough for modern media planning. Sinus defines various different target groups within the upper class, for instance: conservatives, liberals and modern consumers who like to try new things. So it makes good sense to investigate the milieus in more depth. Are there people within these groups who don’t know my brand yet? Which media channels does a certain milieu use, which publications, which websites? That’s all very valuable information. We also look at things the other way round to see which milieu the brand is trending in at a given time, so that we can then target that milieu with the right media.
Aren’t there any brands that cross the dividing lines between different milieus?
R.W.: There are some, but they tend to be rare. ROLEX is one such brand. CHANEL too. But for the most part, the challenge lies in making a certain product attractive to a certain milieu. One branch that’s mastered the art is the car industry.
You started out as an advertising agency for clients from all sorts of fields. How did you come to specialise in the luxury segment?
R.W.: That’s a development that started in the late 1990s and is inextricably linked with the name BULGARI. Working with them was a game-changer and, in all modesty, our masterpiece.
So how exactly did a family-run company from Rome hit on a young German agency that was still in its early days and consisted of five people working in an office on the edge of the Englischer Garten in Munich?
R.W.: Well, I was sitting with an Italian business partner that I’d worked on a nice project with. We’d become friends and were having a bit of a brainstorming session about the best way to approach the Italians. And credit where credit’s due: it was actually him who came up with the idea of doing a classic mailing. That might not sound very exciting from today’s perspective, I know, but even the simplest ideas have to be thought of first. We wrote to 30 companies, and BULGARI was one of them. They expressed interest, so we flew to Rome and I presented a media, PR and marketing concept for BULGARI on the German market.
But BULGARI had already had a presence in Germany before, what was new about your ideas?
R.W.: Germany had been a niche market for them up until that point. They weren’t investing more than 500,000 marks a year in marketing – but my concept was based on six times that amount: three million marks. I suggested developing the BULGARI brand totally from scratch in Germany by raising awareness, building it up and making meaningful investments so that, eventually, they’d be able to sell their products and make money. I was pretty awestruck, you can imagine. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Finally, Signore Trappani, the boss, said: “You’ve got the job and you’ve got the money, be careful with it!”
That’s quite an accolade.
R.W.: It certainly is. But we really knuckled down and worked all the hours god gave us – hours, days and nights at a time. We lived with and for BULGARI watches, BULGARI jewellery and BULGARI fragrance brands. We worked for this wonderful Roman family business right up until it was sold to luxury group LVMH in 2011. It was a time that had a profound impact on my life and I’ll never forget it.
”The old rule that the Internet and luxury are
mutually exclusive has ceased to apply. Especially
when it comes to young people, online usage
habits are influencing brand consciousness more
than ever before.”
Probably partly because BULGARI opened the door to a whole new world as well.
R.W.: That’s right. Changing direction and getting into the luxury and premium segment was great fun. Everything worked out really well, we grew into our new role and it wasn’t long before word got round the industry that there were some luxury experts based in Munich’s Lodenfrey-Park. That’s when the others started coming to us: PRADA, LUXOTTICA, RIMOWA, FURLA. We were in!
How should an outsider picture business practices in the luxury segment? Is it just as luxurious when it comes to spending money?
R.W.: (laughs) The budgets are a whole lot smaller than you’d think, they’re nowhere near as high as in the car industry, they spend hundreds of times as much.
For you personally, what’s the attraction of working with and for luxury brands?
R.W.: Right from the start, I’ve always found it fascinating to see how the firms and stores deal with their customers. They offer a very special service: the presentation setting is totally different than normal, for instance. They might book a suite in a hotel for showing jewellery. The customer can make a bid, but it’s not necessarily the one who offers the most money who actually ends up with the item. It might be the person who shows the greatest appreciation for the product. The special style, the special treatment, the courteous, even kind demeanour, the choice of words and the good manners – all of that is incredibly impressive. It’s a beautiful world, beautifully staged right the way down to the smart bag customers are handed their purchases in. A world where nothing jars, where everything is at the highest aesthetic level imaginable. And yet each and every brand has its own very special, unique character.
Isn’t there a danger that this individual character will be lost if more and more family businesses are bought up by the big multinational luxury groups?
R.W.: There’s no denying the risk. Centralisation, overarching management and uniform marketing strategies might make economic sense, but whether they do the brand’s special, unique spirit any good is a totally different story. It’s a terrible pity when there’s no longer a member of the founding family there to hold a protective hand over the brand’s traditions, just stressed managers under pressure to succeed who don’t really understand the brand properly and only want to skim the cream. You sense that in their communications, nice events are dropped and the desire to stage and celebrate the brand and its products fades.
You mean they worry too much about little things rather than trying to stage a dazzling drama …
R.W.: Talking of drama: there was a story they told us in Rome back then. Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor was a big fan of BULGARI. Whenever she signed a new contract, she didn’t just want her fee written into it but the guarantee that she’d get a piece of BULGARI jewellery as well. It’s precisely that kind of story that’s responsible for a brand’s fascination, not just the perfect craftsmanship.
A brand’s soul …
R.W.: Yes, exactly, its soul. At the Condé Nast luxury conference in April 2018 Alexandre Arnault, the son of the legendary luxury group boss and the current CEO of Rimowa, said something that really impressed me: “It’s quality and intensity that give a luxury product its soul.” I couldn’t agree more.
The way you’ve just described it, the luxury business sounds like a match with four players: the manufacturer, the communicator – i.e. you –, the medium and the consumer. If we take a speculative look into the future: do you think the lineup is going to stay just the way it is? And more specifically: what challenges can the communicator expect to be confronted with?
R.W.: The lineup, as you call it, will essentially stay the same. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore that we’re facing one of the biggest challenges of the last 10 or 15 years. The internet has turned everything upside down. And in view of consumers’ growing acceptance of it, I think it’s fair to call it a paradigm shift. We just have to adapt.
How do you go about it?
R.W.: For instance by stepping up the comprehensive consulting service we offer our partners in terms of their options for the best-possible presentation strategy. The consulting element has always played a major role in our service portfolio, but now we’ve given it even more weight by founding a new task force that focuses on analysis and strategy: WHITE Consult. The name stands for a team of experts – some of them in-house, some external – that includes media creatives, pollsters and experienced market experts. Its job is to investigate in even more depth what makes a brand special, where it wants to go and what constitutes the optimal strategy for its advertising – insights that are crucially important for the advice we give our clients. Just now you asked me about the future, and that’s basically what WHITE Consult’s motto is all about: “Creating future / engaging today’s luxury consumer.” That’s the challenge we have to rise to.
“It’s a terrible pity when there’s no longer a
member of the founding family there to hold a
protective hand over the brand’s traditions, just
stressed managers under pressure to succeed who
don’t really understand the brand properly and
only want to skim the cream.”