The problem with watch payola

Watches are great. They are works of art. They are pure products of human ingenuity and each and every one is a labor of love, a bulwark against the onslaught of cheap things cheaply made.

We cover watches that we would buy or recommend. We get watches sent to us and we give them away or send them back. I started this site in 2004 and I always said we wouldn’t be paid for watch reviews. People can buy ads on the site but I’m not going to take a check in order to write about something. If it’s any good I’ll write about it, if it’s not good I’ll pass. All the guys who work here know this.

But there’s a problem. Watch sites are doing you a disservice. They are charging small companies for hands-ons and reviews. How do I know? I recently received an email from a guy who was making a watch. He was doing it on Kickstarter, like so many others, and he asked if we sold reviews. We didn’t and I asked him why he’d assume that we did. He sent me this from Worn & Wound:

Worn&Wound Crowdfunding Sponsorship Rate Card

Basically they wanted to charge him $2,500 for a review. There are two ways to think about this. Most Kickstarter watches aren’t very exciting and this is a high wall that a company needs to climb in order to get the editor’s attention. It’s also a way to weed out the small players. Or it could be that they are so hungry for cash that they’ve resorted to selling reviews.

I have been railing against pay-to-play watch coverage and, to a degree, access journalism in the industry for over a decade. What does that mean? At it’s core this is how access journalism works: all of the big watch sites take paid junkets to Switzerland and Monaco and Germany in order to cover the big launches and there have been cosy advertising relationships between the big guys and various brands and auction houses for years. That, I suppose, is the price of doing business. But what happens when someone reviews the latest Rolex and says it sucks? Yoink. Access is taken away and the journalist no longer gets the time of day from brand PR. Or maybe you review something that looks a little too much like a Rolex. Yoink. Once again you get hassled. So the solution is to only review $200,000 monstrosities for the Swiss and ignore the rest of the world.

Then add in pay-to-play and you get a perfect storm of garbage coverage. The big guys earn their coverage through advertising dollars and junkets and the little guys can’t get past the gate because they can’t pay the toll. In short you get watch journalism that is bought and sold.

I don’t want to drop a turd in the watch blog punchbowl. I’m sure there’s a great reason Kickstarter folks should pay $2,500 to get covered that I’m missing. But it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to small watchmakers, it isn’t fair to the big guys in whose interest it is to encourage the love of watchmaking, and it isn’t fair to you, the readers.

Watchmaking is in dire straits. Many major houses are on the brink of collapse. Every single one is for sale simply because the owners realize they are losing money. It makes no sense to make watches anymore.

Watch blogs are hurting, too. But are they hurting so badly that they can’t play fair? Maybe if they supported small watches from small manufacturers they could nurture the next greats. Maybe we could have more than one US-made watch. Maybe we could find the next Gerald Genta.

If we keep charging thousands of dollars for reviews this won’t happen. It poisons the nest. It destroys the fledglings.

And I don’t want to live in a world that does not contain beautiful timepieces. I want to exist in a world where there are too many damn watches, not too few. And if the only way forward is to support Kickstarter watches then so be it. I don’t want watch blogs to shut down for lack of advertising. I want them to offer reviews to makers they like and withhold them from makers who are in it for a fast buck. I want them to review pieces fairly and sanely. And I don’t want the little guy to have to pay for coverage and I want you, the reader, to be treated with the respect you deserve from the manufacturer, from the blog, and from the industry as a whole.

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  • Justin Mastine-Frost

    As a fellow watch journalist I find this pretty disgusting. I’ve long stood by the theory that I’ll evaluate watches from unknowns, but if i don’t like them I don’t talk about them. Plain and simple. While there have been some kickstarter gems to come out of the woodwork over the years (Visitor, Ventus, etc), it’s also filled waist-deep with crap that doesn’t deserve any press. Especially seeing this coming from a publication like Worn & Wound — a brand that I’ve long viewed as the voice of the mirco-brands and affordables of the watch industry of an appropriate caliber, I have to say I’m really disappointed.

    The sad (and not to mention vastly more prevalent) part of this conversation is the “pay for play” instagram watchnerd feeds out there, which are an entirely different topic altogether which I think needs to be addressed. I can also say that I was shocked to hear how many “enthusiasts” are in it for a payout….

  • Justin Mastine-Frost

    That said, I see two separate arguments here that need to be split. The point about having a sponsored content rate card for crowdfunded watches is a little gross. The argument about press junkets on the other hand is silly. No offence. No matter the industry, these types events happen and the bigger the media the more likely the invite. The same goes for automotive, fashion, fitness gear, you name it. This theory that if you critique a brand then you’ll never get invited back is a foolish one.

    Using Rolex as an example. If I walked in and made observations about not understanding the hype over the long overdue addition of a ceramic bezel to the Daytona and how I feel like a lot of people are overreacting — a statement I whole-heartedly believe — I wouldn’t be banished from the Rolex camp for all eternity. The only way that would happen would be by going in, slamming all the things that a brand stands for and being rude and insulting. Really. The fact of the matter is press events are the gateway to timely and in-depth reporting, and as a mass (I hope) most of us know how to stick to the facts and what matters to our audience rather than simply preaching the brand gospel.

    • Garrett Hu

      I must say that I agree with your observations on the Rolex Daytona I don’t understand why there is such a big excitement over a ceramic bezel. One that will probably crack the first time I run it into my door by accident. But The Silverlining is hopefully people will only want the ceramic version so I can buy a stainless steel version for cheap

    • WolverBilly

      I’ve been reviewing cars and motorcycles for over two decades now and you make an excellent point. Solid companies don’t mind if you have an opinion or a criticism as long as you present it factually and respectfully. They have no problems w/ journalists who are trying to be fair and objective. It’s the snarky know-it-all attitude of so many bloggers that they get sick of, especially these days when so few have a clue what they’re talking about. They respect those that bother to get their facts right, as a good review from them is worth far more than some drivel they paid for.

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  • Garrett Hu

    Everything starts off with a sincere passion from food to watch reviews. When they become popular through organic growth, their monetary worth increases as a vehicle for advertising and at the end of that day it’s all about the revenue to keep the site going but perhaps these manufacturers underestimate their customers. You can pay for placement and you can buy an awesome review but one post from a private collector on a forum trumps it all, that and I trust my own eyes at the end of the day. If your product is dogshit then the reviews will only accelerate the end of your business because you would have used the media to piss people off instead of building your brand awareness. The media is great like that, it can kill you a fast as it builds you so the root of the issue here is not how people are paid to write reviews but for manufacturers to stop treating us collectors like we are stupid and actually create a good product.

  • Robert

    Recently it was revealed that Brand-based auctions are supported by the brands they represent. By that I mean I read in the last few days that the “record prices” were actually paid by the brand the auction was supporting…..

    • Patrick Kansa

      Have a link you can share on that?

  • markbyrn

    I’m curious about this statement, “Watchmaking is in dire straits. Many major houses are on the brink of collapse. Every single one is for sale” That’s some serious hyperbole – are Rolex, Patek, AP, etc. for sale?

    • johnbiggs

      Yes

      • markbyrn

        So the private trust that owns Rolex and doesn’t pay any corporate taxes is on the brink of collapse and looking for a buyer? Care to cite a source besides Archieluxury? In fact, can you cite any source that suggests any major independent is looking to sell? Is LVMH, Richemont, or Swatch ready to bow out?

        • johnbiggs

          Yes.

          • JC

            When the grey market finally capitulates and cannot accept anymore channel stuffing it is going to be a thing of beauty. Will make the Quartz Era look like a hiccup.

            Great article btw…

          • WolverBilly

            The voices in you head don’t count, John.

  • the #watchnerd

    The watch “reviews” discussed above are categorised as “Sponsored” content on that ‘site (http://wornandwound.com/category/sponsored/ ). Admittedly, you need to look quite hard to identify which articles are actually sponsored, as the categories are right at the bottom of each article, but at least they tag them as such. It’s the least they can do. Probably. One assumes that IG and Facebook and Twitter should also be tagged, but perhaps the new ICPEN Guidelines will sort that out (http://www.icpen.org/files/icpenDownloads/ICPEN___ORE___Guide_3___Guidelines_for_Digital_Influencers___JUN_2016_FNL.pdf ). Also, probably.

  • Bill

    I’m a Vine Reviewer for Amazon, and we are sent any number of items to review, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m very careful about what to select. Generally, I try and select items that I think I’ll like, and so my reviews tend to be fairly positive. However, sometimes what I think I’ll like turns out otherwise, and I have to write something less than sterling. Also, I’ve published a lot of books and know the value of a fair review; so I try to avoid getting snarky and specify exactly what I don’t like or like about a book. The review is about the book (or other product), and not about me.

    Watch Payola reviews look a lot like ad copy from the manufacturer; so not only are the reviewers corrupted, they’re lazy. I find them easy to spot, and since I read lots of ads, I’ve learned to spot advertising ‘sound bites’ that paid reviews use.

    I’m one of the world’s worst business persons and a new watch collector–so my enthusiasm overrides both business sense and anything smacking of practicality. Fortunately, I have a strong research background and when my tail isn’t wagging over a watch, I can do a some seriously good background research to learn about a watch and watch company. Most recently, I’ve been looking into L. Leroy (now Leroy) watches. In that research, I’ve run into Marie Antoinette and a gift watch to her lover Count Axel von Fersen–a large snuffbox-shaped travel alarm watch in 1788. So your book, Marie Antoinette’s Watch, is of great interest. (Breguet and not Le Roy?)

    Anyhow, I have my own YouTube Vlog (WatchArtSci)–yes, cheeky for a beginner — but it’s for new collectors, and I’m closer to them than anyone I know. So in reviewing L. Leroy, your book will come up. (I got the version for my iPad.) I’d be interested if you have any additional knowledge about the relationship between Le Roy watches and Marie Antoinette.

    • johnbiggs

      There’s a lot to unpack here but yes, Le Roy was mentioned a few times. It’s not a major part of the story, however.

  • Excellent article. As a watch blogger, I’ve been shocked at how prevalent pay-to-play is, even at the affordable find of the market. I don’t begrudge anyone the ability to make a buck, but readers deserve to know whether they are getting the reviewer’s honest opinion or a paid “advertorial.”

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  • The notion that just doing a a watch project on Kickstarter, with no outside promotion, is a fallacy. Having done both an unsuccessful and a successful Kickstarter project, I know that a minority number of your backers will come from Kickstarter alone. In order to make your funding goal, you largely have to find your own customers. When Richard Paige and I did the successful “Crash of ’29” watch a year ago we sent prototypes to two places for review (one of which was WristWatchReview) and worked with blogs and watch news sites ahead of time so that we would get coverage from the regular watch press from Day One of our Kickstarter funding period. So, the reality is that you must utilize the watch press and that Kickstarter “organic” backers simply are not going to get it done.

    Once you have a project, people come out of the woodwork trying to sell you promotional services – which are basically a huge waste of money. There is whole scummy industry built around Kickstarter.

    Also, low end watch projects (not what Richard and I did – we were unusual for having a $3500 watch which at best was $2400 for the earliest backers) are their own little house of mirrors on most cases. The crap quartz bauhaus minimalist watches are often whole produced by companies in China or via services which will not only engineer your watch but make it and distribute it to your customer. Guess how much parts inventory these brand new “Brands” have or how much ability they have to do repairs, warranty service, any after sales customer service, etc.? Plus how long will they be around after their one-hit-wonder watch’s production run is sold? What I’m saying is that while Kickstarter is great (I’ve bought watches via them as well as doing a project), in the end you need to consider if you care about “buying the brand” or are happy to plunk down your money for a disposable item dreamed up by a couple of guys in their dorm room.

    We did not pay for any news media to cover our “Crash of ’29” watch. Perhaps because our watch was not just another Kickstarter quartz watch. I did write a “Sponsored Post” on aBlogtoWatch.com but that was a barter as I write other stuff for Ariel anyway. I wrote the Sponsored Post as the watch brand, not an aBlogtoWatch contributing writer.

    Having said all of that, while we did not pay for news coverage, it is essential that you get it. So is it the fault of Worn & Wound or the guys looking for needed exposure and who were willing to pay for it? I can’t say that paying for exposure is wrong, but as everyone (John an Ariel chiefly among many voices) say, it needs to be clearly marked as to what it is – an advertisement when its paid for content written by the watch brand – OR – editorial coverage which should always remain an independent voice on behalf of the consumer.

  • Babu

    yes I completely agree with the statement that classic watches will never ever die because of many reasons
    A smart watch is a gadget for tech-savvy consumers who tend to follow trends and wish to make their lives more productive or interesting by strapping on a device that is less like a watch and more like a computer
    Luxury or classic watches are geared for older consumers while smart watches seem to be geared towards younger ones. A smart watch may even open up the world of luxury watches to a younger consumer down the line.
    https://www.quora.com/profile/Ameen-Khwaja