Lanky Brit Ogilvy and Mather trend-spotter; threw best party in London; commands international network of cool-hunters; what’s next?
Pipe down, Faith Popcorn! Richard Welch is the lanky 30-year-old Brit ad genius of the moment, recently hired by the advertising mega-firm Ogilvy and Mather to head the New York office of Crystal, a new division that tracks and analyzes “leading-edge” trends. Mr. Welch’s quarry: those voguish developments in society’s underground that could help mainstream companies better market their own brands.
Just don’t call him a “cool-hunter.” He hates that.
He’s a cool-hunter.
While a student at the University of Liverpool, Mr. Welch had his own radio show and threw acid-house parties in the back of pubs. After graduation, he worked at a small music-marketing company, helping foist French electronica (then the “least hip,” he said) on the U.K. At 23, he formed his own event-marketing company, Reverb, building a monthly dance party around the electronic act Basement Jaxx. Time Out ranked it the best bash in London. He also had a hit in Fabric, a nightclub in the Smithfield section of the city, which he successfully positioned as an anti-glam alternative to the V.I.P. superclubs popular at the time.
All that nightlife was fun, but eventually “the Man” beckoned. Mr. Welch got a position at Headlight Vision, a traditional branding consultancy, where he began to interpret leading-edge trends to help large, established companies like Motorola, Nokia and Guinness. A contact from that job led him to Ogilvy and this tale, bringing ever-slicker accounts: I.B.M., American Express, Kodak.
“Big companies can get it wrong quite easily,” Mr. Welch said the other day in his tchotchke-filled office, wearing this generation’s answer to the gray flannel suit: white Converse All-Stars, designer jeans and a collarless black-and-white-striped shirt with striking lime-colored cuffs. “They think they know what’s going on because they read about it in The New York Times , and often it’s not the case.”
Mr. Welch and a colleague in London, Zoe Lazarus, enlist a global network of 140 “cultural correspondents” from over 35 countries to file periodic reports about emerging trends in their locales. Now that’s reporting! These handsomely compensated freelance trend-watchers include journalists, fashion designers, extreme athletes and D.J.’s. The postcards from the edge come in the form of written reports, magazine features, video footage, musical recordings and T-shirts-like a Wesleyan college application run amok.
Mr. Welch is responsible for sifting through the dispatches and intuiting the larger cultural meaning therein. Recently, for example, he declared the tremendous rise in popularity of VonDutch trucker hats the manifestation of something called “the rise of anti-cool.” If it were one year ago, Mr. Welch said, he would have advised companies to go through their back catalogs for products that are traditionally deemed “uncool,” then push those products with a knowingly ironic slant.
He has zero regrets about leaving his indie roots to work for a behemoth like Ogilvy and Mather. “I’d rather work with big businesses to help them to do it right, so they’re understanding these trends and not just bandwagon-jumping,” he said. “This whole concept of ‘selling out’ is ludicrous.”