Brand ambassadors. They come into our bars. They spend lots of money. They bring in product in hopes that whatever brand they are pushing gets a prime spot on the cocktail list. Sometimes, they even provide recipes for less accomplished bars. At their best they are inspired and expert, dedicated to the craft first, and to a quality brand second. At worst they are, well, not. When liquor companies figured out that street cred was worth more then a marketing degree, they snatched up some great personages.
The likes of Angus Winchester, Jacob Briars and Charlotte Voisey were among the first (at least in my recollection) great bartenders to move to brand ambassadorships. For all three, this was after long stints behind various bars, and that is a career path I can respect. Unfortunately, now I see more people moving quickly on from bartending, or even transferring to an ambassadorship without much time behind the bar at all. I’d like to see more bartenders with a decade or more of experience in hospitality moving into those roles, and I believe it would be healthier for the entire industry.
To get a little more insight into their lives and jobs, I sat down with the venerable (that means old and grumpy, correct?) Tim Cooper, now of the 86 Co, and asked him a few questions about what he does. Cooper started his career in 1998, working at the Soho Grand in New York City, before the huge boom in craft cocktails.
He says a brand ambassador must be “a bartender, salesperson, marketer, event co-ordinator, educator, drinker and, in many cases these days, habitual selfie taker.” I can’t say I disagree, and I think spending years behind the bar is a great introduction to many of these tasks. I barely trust a one-year bartender to make a Negroni, let alone tell me why one brand is better than another. Cooper is lucky enough to “love the brands and, most importantly, love the people I work with. I live the brand, but I don’t need to be a walking billboard to do so”.
One of the pitfalls that might trap an unseasoned brand ambassador is immoderate drinking, about which Cooper says: “I won’t lie and say that putting in the hours at a bar drinking won’t help endear you to a bar team. It does. But as an industry we’ve got better at managing drinking. Most of us still have our nights, but as we get older our livers and brains apparently don’t work as well the next day.” Someone with enough experience working late nights around alcohol might cope with this situation a little better, which will ultimately lead to better on-the-job performance and career longevity.
Cooper agrees: “Since there will be a tonne of time spent interacting with bartenders, there should definitely be some experience behind the bar. But there have been several quality people who didn’t have bartending experience that worked really hard to integrate themselves into the industry.” But he thinks a good candidate “would be someone who has existed in a head bartending/bar manager role”.
Another problem we see is the reliance on social media. Cooper says: “Certain people are gaining some traction with it in the place of legit experience. This is where I’ll probably end up coming across as a cranky old bartender, but I miss the days of showing and proving. Nowadays I see a lot of Facebook bartenders in the place of real ones.”
Ultimately, I’d like this next generation to have to spend as much time on their feet, waking up with sore backs and terrible hangovers as I did before getting the benefits of a brand ambassador job. Because I am a terrible and grumpy old man.